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Go Tell It on the Mountain - James Baldwin (1953)

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It’s Harlem, it’s 1930-something, and it’s Johnny’s birthday. But there will be no celebration today. No candles and cake, soda and dancing. Rather, there will be blood, fire, darkness and righteousness. Why not? Because God is in the house.

The action of this incredible book takes place over the course of a single day, Johnny wakes up, walks through central park, goes to a movie, back home, and then he prays. In fact, he prays his absolute brains out. The bulk of the action takes place in a sort of hallucinatory trance that gives the reader a tour through all of the characters fractured and interwoven pasts. Culminating in a violent rebirth on a foggy dawn.

It’s great stuff. Gutsy, direct writing that asks you to get caught up in its violent sweep. Like the book of revelations in the way it kicks you back and forth. The genius of the structure alone is worth the effort of reading this book. The craft with which Mr. Baldwin exercises this narrative is unparalleled.

But the star of the book is the pure horror of revelation. The violence of prayer is the central theme. In prayer we get sexuality, violence, and death. Every single disgusting dimension of our fleshy lives is here.

If I take Mr. Baldwin rightly (and I think I do), then this 250-page tome might be the biggest indictment against religion I have ever read (sorry Mr. Dawkins). A generation out of slavery and our protagonists’ options in 1930s Harlem aren’t great. But this book seems to ask the question, is the obsession – and I mean obsession in its purest and most frightening sense – with religion any better from the past from which they are running? Has the spook that once enslaved just their bodies now enslaved their minds?

Unlike the god (note the small g thank you!) in that the characters worship, Baldwin doesn’t judge. The facts of the history are craved like the ten commandments. The rest is left up to our own empathy or lack thereof to decide what to make of this tragic slice of history, tragic slice of life. And like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, it’s too horrible not to be true. This rattled me to my bones.

Declan Melina (Brunswick Chapter)

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