James Baldwin once remarked that the story of Black America was America’s story and believe that it was impossible to separate the two. Nearly all of this nation’s major events are in some way related to the plight of America’s minorities. The country that is the land of immigrants becomes more of a melting pot with each passing week. The recent documentary “13th” highlighted the system of mass incarceration that has resulted in America having the largest prison population of anywhere in the world and millions of young Black and Hispanic men and women being placed behind bars for extended sentences based on convictions for trivial crimes. At the heart of the African-American experience is the precarious state of the immediate family structure and the constant discord that exist.
Those familiar with Baldwin’s story will recognize that his life serves as some of the basis for the book. In fact, for most authors, personal experiences sometimes provide the best material. In this story, we dive deep inside a blended family with a large closet of secrets and a son trying to figure out his place within this family. As the novel begins, we are introduced to the Grimes family who are making their way to the local storefront church for the day’s service. The parents are Elizabeth and Gabriel who have a family of four consisting of John the protagonist, Roy who takes after Gabriel and Sarah and Ruth, the two sisters who have strictly supporting roles in the story. In fact, Ruth is baby and has no dialogue. It is John’s fourteenth birthday and he finds himself at a crossroads in his life as he tries to understand the path which he will take as he continues to mature. As the story continues, we come to learn that Gabriel harbors an unusual resentment towards John and is frustrated over Roy’s increasingly rebel behavior and inability to accept the faith. Faced with four mouths to feed, Gabriel is absent most of the time working to provide for his family. He drinks heavy and is physically abusive. Elizabeth does not work and takes care of the children all day. Gabriel’s sister Florence stops by and after her arrival the once contained feelings of animosity between brother and sister come rising to the surface. One day, Roy is knifed in a fight on the west side of Manhattan. During the argument that ensues between the adults, Gabriel strikes Elizabeth and his actions set off a chain of events. And at that point, we are told the background stories on each of the major characters. What we learn is that many dark secrets surround the family, centering around Gabriel, the Reverend who is a man of the faith. The revelation about his true connection to John is the crux of the book and critical to understanding Gabriel’s tragic character.
The lives of Gabriel, Florence and Elizabeth are further impacted by several deceased characters. Esther, Frank, Royal, Richard and Deborah fill in the blanks to the story and explain the present day situations that exist. Deborah and Esther in particular linger over the entire story and threaten Gabriel’s very existence. Their appearances in the book and the events that follow underscore the importance of a stable home and the presence of a father in the home. I firmly believe that Baldwin was making a very pointed statement about the issue. Gabriel’s position as a reverend also has a clear intention regarding the topic of religion which is a main theme in the book. As we read we are required to examine our own religions beliefs and how they influence our actions or non-actions. The African-American community remains strongly devout in Christianity and the Bible is viewed as the most important book to have in a household. In fact, in my own home, the Bible was openly displayed and any interference with it was subject to a tongue lashing or sometimes worse. Today in 2016, much is still the same in many homes and shows no signs of slowing down. But a critical question we have to ask is does religion help or sometimes hinder? And just how did it affect the characters in the book either positively or negatively?
The darker moments in the book give rise to a part of the story that could easily be overlooked. The era of Jim Crow and often violent racial discrimination forced millions of Black Americans to relocate throughout the country as they scattered to leave the south. However, even in the north and other parts of the union, poverty and hatred continued to haunt recent emigrants . The fears and uncertainty are displayed in Richard’s character and his fate. Baldwin pulls no punches in showcasing the disparity which plagued countless numbers of homes during that era and resulted in a system of dysfunction that permanently broke the Black family structure. And in the book we witness the characters struggle to keep the family together and in unison. But when it seems that all is lost, the protagonist John becomes the hope of the family and the light at the end of the tunnel. Elizabeth, Elisa and Florence serve as his guardian angels intent on preventing him from becoming another Gabriel and continuing the cycle that doomed prior generations. John realizes his potential, the truth about Gabriel and his demons and comes to terms with the fact that he will have to go tell it on the mountain.