In The Amen Corner, Sister Margaret told her mutinous congregation that she had finally learned what it means to love the Lord. Loving the Lord means loving those around you.
From the tone and style of the text alone in Go Tell It On The Mountain, the reader instantly knows how potently church culture effects Baldwin. Many Americans, from a secular or religious point of view, might consider John’s experience as superficial. Yet Baldwin hones such a sharpness and heavy style throughout the work that one cannot underestimate the extent of church influence on him, regardless of the outsiders opinion of church culture. It means something immense to John and to Baldwin and nothing else matters.
After finishing this book and watching a production of The Amen Corner at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, I noticed a few major themes which indicate Baldwin’s general approach to church within American black culture. Not one of these themes remotely insinuates a lack of faith from Baldwin. We can infer that Baldwin feels an unhealthy manipulation or misrepresentation of God within the culture.
In Go Tell It On The Mountain, John, a semi-autobiographical representation of Baldwin himself, struggles with his father’s expectations of him. The church congregation anticipates John’s sublime influence as a preacher when he comes of age yet his father, a preacher himself, unintentionally but understandably, turns John off from God and the preacher’s life. Why? Gabriel, John’s father, performs all the duties of a preacher, “saves” souls, preaches under the influence of the holy ghost, and yet John despises him. At fourteen, John exhibits an uncanny insight into the lives of those around him. With the exception of Ralph Ellison, Baldwin stylistically matches, if not surpasses, Richard Wright’s vision into the mind and souls of men, with the grace of Maya Angelou, and he injects such an awareness into John. So John’s hatred of Gabriel does not derive from any kind of childish immaturity. He simply sees Gabriel for who he is and not for the preacher image he hides behind.
Gabriel and Sister Margaret, from The Amen Corner, preach a doctrine of holiness which keeps people from falling into the depths of Hell. Once saved through the Lord, people’s lives must revolve around maintaining holiness which pleases the Lord. Yet they falter when their holier-than-thou resolve fails to convince others of their genuine holiness and leadership skills. If the fruit indicates the nature of the tree, Gabriel and Sister Margaret have rotted. Preaching simply covers their shame and disgrace and does not flow from a transformational experience into sainthood. Yet they play the role of saintly leader. This behavior does not stem from any malicious intent but rather from a deep sorrow and grief within their lives. By committing to the Lord and abandoning love for others they feel worthy, elevated and separated from their “sinful” lives and from an American culture which describes them as lowly and fallen. They see themselves as higher than those they help, people who fall into the American description as black and unwanted.
As a young adult depending on his father’s role-modeling, John undergoes a spiritual transformation, exquisitely articulated by Baldwin, which differs from Gabriel’s and will likely result in a true and genuine church leader who serves and loves his congregation rather than count them as tally marks of saved souls for their own credit before the gates of heaven. By dedicating their lives to saving souls, rather than building relationships and loving people, they build a wall, a sort of disconnect, between themselves and their congregation. They don’t hear them, they don’t know them, they simply work to save another nameless soul.
James Baldwin published The Amen Corner after Go Tell It On The Mountain and the play depicts Sister Margaret undergoing a change which leads her into the understanding we hope John embraces in Go Tell It On The Mountain. I wonder what Baldwin indicates with the gender differential between the leading preachers in these two works. Gabriel does not change. But John may stand as the generational change for Gabriel – the male heroic divide between father and son. Whereas Sister Margaret exhibits a natural feminine strength which leads her to her own personal realization because of her family woes.
With a brilliant mind and keen awareness, Baldwin explores the nature of the American black preacher and leaves us to conjecture what we will about the reasons for their decisions and behavior. But Baldwin decides only to focus on his characters, the beautiful and sad twists and manipulations of their hearts, the sorrow and grief and yearning which compel them. With peerless articulation and beauty, he presents a mirror which reflects the tenderness of the human heart through the darkness of its fears and actions.