Identity struggle - The narrow and broad path in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain

Topics: Black people, White people, African American Pages: 14 (5197 words) Published: October 15, 2013


Identity struggle - The narrow and broad path in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain

Table of contents

I.Introduction 3

II.Imposed roles – Afro Americans in a dominantly white society 3

2.1 Black church as a helpful companion or a mere distraction 4 from reality?

III.In search of identity: Between secularization and clericalization 8

3.1. John’s getaway to Manhattan – Denial of his black heritage? 8

3.2. John’s conversion – True belief or a mere survival gimmick? 12

IV.Conclusion 15

V.Bibliography 16

I. Introduction

James Baldwin’s life was deeply marked by an identity struggle. A struggle to find out what it meant to be an American and foremost what it meant to be an Afro American. Like in other works he also deals with this topic in his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, where John Grimes confronts this problem on his fourteenth birthday. The following paper will therefore take a look at the possibilities offered to the Afro American characters in the story, especially to John, and what role the church plays in this context. Moreover it will outline John Grimes situation between a religious up-bringing in poverty and the longing for a better financial life by adopting white ways. Finally it will try to elaborate on the basis of two key scenes whether John’s decision is based on faith or hopelessness.

II. Imposed roles – Afro Americans in a dominantly white society

From the very beginning of the novel the possibilities of Afro Americans in American society are depicted as very remote, especially in John Grimes’ case: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.” . His entire life and all the people in it are set in a religious environment, blocking out any kind of secular influence. As a matter of fact no other future option for him is ever mentioned in the novel. At some point though his teachers notice that he is very intelligent: “You’re a very bright boy, John Grimes […] Keep up the good work.” .His parents don’t seem to be aware of this or don’t consider this to be of importance for his future perspectives. This hopelessness can be traced throughout each character’s life in the novel. Those who do not accept their role imposed to them by society tend to fail in life. For example Aunt Florence who sets out North in order to achieve a higher living standard, but ends up alone after driving her husband away from her due to her ambition to gain a higher social standard. Further, John’s real father Richard is crushed by the injustice against black men in a dominantly white society and consequently commits suicide. Hence, John and the following generations are taught to accept the circumstances and their status in American society. In order to cope with this they are advised to lead a highly religious life and to shut out all secular elements. It is this aspect that Baldwin criticizes mostly. He blames the black people for accepting the myth of being inferior to white people without a struggle . Moreover he accuses them of copying white ways and replacing their own African traditions . Aunt Florence even takes a step further in the novel by trying to bleach her skin with beauty products, hereby rejecting her black skin and thus her heritage. At the same time he blames the Anglo-American society for depriving black people of all freedom and power to direct their own lives . This identity struggle is clearly visible in John’s case and will be discussed in...

Bibliography: • Jones, Beau Fly: „The Struggle for Identity” in: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 17, No.2 (June 1966), p.107-121.
• Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin: James Baldwin. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1980, p.27-44.
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