Critical Essays Homosexuality as a Subtext in Go Tell It on the Mountain


John, at the age of 14, is in puberty. Bewildered by his "treacherous body" and all of the changes that he is going through, many things become sexual images. A stain on the ceiling above his bed suddenly takes on the shape of a naked woman. He had masturbated in the school lavatory while thinking of older boys and has "watched in himself a transformation of which he could never speak." Even his friend and Sunday school teacher, Elisha, has been eroticized. John has a difficult time concentrating during his Sunday morning lessons because he is distracted by the physical appearance of the older boy whom John believes to be "tall and handsome" and by the timbre of his voice which is "manlier than his own." John respects Elisha as his elder in the church, but he also admires his physical person as much as he admires his character.

Although John's feeling could very well belong to a young heterosexual male in puberty, it is also possible that they are John's emerging feelings of homosexuality, a subtle subtext that is never directly confronted but that is woven into the story. Baldwin does not state directly that John is gay, but there are many instances which suggest that he may be. Take, for example, the incident on the morning of his birthday, when John's thoughts turn to his "sin" of masturbating while thinking of the older boys. In addition to the anonymous boys whom John recalls in the lavatory, there seems to be one person for whom John has a special affinity. That is Elisha. We learn that John had a difficult time concentrating in Sunday school because he was distracted by the physical appearance, voice, and strength of Elisha. Baldwin eroticizes Elisha in the description of Elisha's ecstasy in church when he feels himself overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. Elisha's head is "thrown back, eyes closed, sweat standing on his brow . . . he stiffened and cried out . . . It seemed that he could not breathe, that his body could not contain this passion . . . until he dropped . . . moaning, on his face." This description of holy rapture parallels sexual union in non-too subtle manner. We are seeing Elisha through John's eyes, and while John does respect Elisha as a teacher and minister, the reader sees (although John may not) that his admiration does not necessarily stop there.

That John's view of Elisha during this incident is more sexual than spiritual does not prove definitively that John is homosexual. Remember that he watched a couple in an abandoned building while they had sex and looked at Ella Mae in a less than saintly manner when she and Elisha were called before the congregation for "walking disorderly." Nevertheless, the possibility of John's emerging homosexuality adds nuances to his struggle to find a place for himself in his body, in his home, and in his life.