I remember listening to a conversation, which I didn't feel like taking part in, where a woman, who was not black, expressed her confusion about the popularity of Christianity among black Americans. Why adopt the religion of your colonizers, she reasoned, the religion of those who oppressed and enslaved you? Considered from a distance, it's a fair point. But I couldn't help wondering how absurd that reasoning might have seemed in an actual conversation with a black Christian. As if people tried on religions like hats, rather than believing in them as truth. And worse: as if black American Christianity, the cradle of abolition and gospel music, was nothing but a hand-me-down from European whites. In the end, though, I didn't say anything, because it didn't seem like my case to make.
I thought of that conversation a lot while reading James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, which is all about the relationship between black Americans and Christianity. Its protagonist, John, despises his abusive father, who is a preacher in Harlem, and secretly chafes under the assumption that, as the oldest, he must inherit his father's work. In the novel, it's John's birthday, which is marred when his wilder brother, Roy, is badly wounded in a fight. After unleashing hell upon each other, John, his mother, his father, and his father's sister go to church for a prayer meeting. Baldwin dedicates a chapter to each of the adults' prayers, which serve as flashbacks, telling us that, among other things, John's father isn't really his father at all.
Baldwin treats black Christianity in all of its complexity. Sometimes it's an excuse, as when John's father seduces and impregnates a neighbor; sometimes it's a torture, as with John's miserable relationship with his father. Elsewhere it's a comfort, or a necessity. Baldwin puts religion in context of the black American experience, not as a forced ritual (although maybe there's a hint of that in the way John is forced to it by his father), but as a vital response to historical inequity:
Yes, their parts were all cut off, they were dishonored, their very names were nothing more than dust blown disdainfully across the field of time--to fall where, to blossom where, bringing forth what fruit hereafter, where?--their very names were not their own. Behind them was the darkness, nothing but the darkness, and all around them destruction, and before them nothing but the fire--a bastard people, far from God, singing and crying in the wilderness!
Look how carefully Baldwin stitches together the familiar stories: the parable of the seeds, Proverbs' insistence that "[a] good name is more desirable than great riches," turned here into another instance of colonial plunder, the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Together, they become a narrative which finds the resonance between traditional Christianity and black struggle. Baldwin's prose, consistently terrific, finds a source in the most beautiful parts of scripture, which are always about the marginalized, the frightened, and the lost. And yet Baldwin recognizes, as in the great passage I posted up top, which cleverly associates the "broad way" of Matthew with Manhattan's Broadway, the way in which Christianity can also recycle the same injustices.
At the end of the novel, John has a kind of vision at the prayer meeting, and a conversion experience. Are we meant to feel happy, that John has finally reconciled to the religion of his father? Or sad, that John's chances of true freedom seem to have diminished? Baldwin is too nuanced, and perhaps too conflicted himself, to give us the easy answer.