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Bearing the Silence: On James Baldwin and Prayer

It is not unusual to encounter silence in prayer or in writings about prayer; it is, in fact, quite normal, whether it be a romanticized vision of the silent heart basking in the brilliant glory of God or the infuriatingly mundane experience of hearing no answer and finding few or no words to lift up to our Creator. Silence is extolled as a virtue in this bustling, chatty world. It is described as an act of sacrifice, a way of letting go of our attempts to control our lives, the world, and God. It is even identified as a path to encountering God in the depth beyond words, in God’s own silence.

Yet few people speak of silence as James Baldwin does in his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. The silence in this novel is prominent and disquieting; the word silence itself is used nearly fifty times and silent occurs another thirty. The diffuse silence in Baldwin’s novel is intimate and prayerful, but it is in no sense private. It is the silence of the void, buried deep in the heart, permeating our relationships, marking our creations—our streets, our homes, our prayers—filling the world around us.

Baldwin’s novel is well known for its depiction of African-American Christianity in the early twentieth century. The three divisions of the book all bear religiously significant titles: “The Seventh Day,” “The Prayers of the Saints,” and “The Threshing-Floor,” respectively.1 For Baldwin, Christian faith is not a journey out of silence but is instead filled, interrupted, and haunted by silence. Prayer and silence are bound together even at that central moment—in Christian faith and in the novel—of conversion. When the protagonist, John, is approaching his conversion experience, Baldwin notes that “the silence at the bottom of John’s mind, a dreadful weight . . . began to move . . . in a silence like the silence of the void before creation” (88). Then, without knowing how it happened, John becomes aware that he is lying on the floor of the church (the “threshing-floor”), possessed by a foreign power. While lying on the floor, stiff as a corpse (227), the silence within engulfs him: “here there was no speech or language, and there was no love; no one to say: You are beautiful, John; no one to forgive him, no matter what his sin; no one to heal him, and lift him up. No one: father and mother looked backward, Roy [his brother] was bloody, Elisha [an older friend] was not here” (236). The absence of speech and language depicted in this passage are connected to sin and love’s “neighboring kingdom, Death” (236). Here, on the floor of conversion, all relationships are subsumed into this deathly silence: no family, no friends, no forgiveness, and no love move within these waters of silent despair.

For James Baldwin, this silence—this void of sin, death, and nothingness, this absence beyond forgiveness and without any human relationship—is a racially inflected wound. To be Black in America is to have one’s existence configured around and identified with this absence.[2] As Baldwin says, while discussing his own conversion experience in the essay “Down at the Cross,”

The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love is alone left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white.”3

The world has “no terms” for Black life; to be Black in America is to live (and speak and sing and . . .) in a silence that is at once central to and also lacking a place in this world of a White God. Yet, despite this brief and devastating critique of both White and Black Christianity (and religion more broadly), Baldwin’s novel closely follows these “prayers of the saints,” to use the title from the second and longest section of the novel. The question for Baldwin is not whether to pray or how to pray but, rather, what does prayer do in a world in which overcoming this absence of speech and love is, in a sense, turning against oneself (as Black) and toward a God who is White?

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a long meditation on this question. Set on John’s fourteenth birthday, a Saturday in March 1935, the novel shows the family’s domestic life in Harlem during the day and then uses the church service that evening to examine the struggles, hopes, and prayers that mark the lives of John and three of his family members. Each character’s story opens up for us the ways prayer can struggle with, in, and ultimately through the silences imposed by racist and sexist oppression.

Florence, John’s aunt, comes to the front of the church that Saturday night, beating “her fists heavily against the altar,” crying “aloud, as she had never in all her life cried before” (101). Florence has learned that she has a terminal illness and is torn,

divided between a terrible longing to surrender and a desire to call God into account. Why had [God] preferred her mother and her brother, the old, black woman, and the low, black man, while she, who had sought only to walk upright, was come to die, alone and in poverty, in a dirty, furnished room? (100–101).

Knowing that she will die, Florence longs to find comfort and safety in God and yet also resents God for “preferring” her mother and brother. On the one hand, her brother, Gabriel, lived a wild, licentious life before becoming a preacher and, even after his conversion, continues to make everyone in his life “drink a cup of sorrow” (252). Unfaithful to his barren first wife, Deborah, Gabriel had an affair and fathered a son (sending both the mistress and the child away instead of providing for them). His second wife, Elizabeth, had a son from a previous relationship, John—the fourteen-year-old protagonist—and Gabriel despises him. Florence reproaches her mother, on the other hand, for staying in the South after the abolition of slavery instead of moving north for a better life (as Florence herself has done). Yet, both her mother and her brother lived with the respect of the community, while Florence is alone, forsaken, having been left by—or having driven off—her husband, and is now facing an early death.

Florence’s prayer resolves in action. After the prayer service, she confronts Gabriel, quietly, letting him know that she is aware of his affair and his illegitimate son, having proof in a letter Deborah wrote to her. She says to Gabriel, “when I go, brother, you better tremble, ’cause I ain’t going to go in silence” (255). Here, we have one aspect of life at the intersection of silence and prayer: Florence’s speech is social in context and its very existence demands justice. The silence that absorbs and covers sin will be broken. The elevation of this man of God, which necessitated the silences of various women (Deborah, Esther, Florence), will be torn down as Florence will “rise up and tell it, tell everybody, about the blood the Lord’s anointed is got on his hands” (254). Florence’s desire to “call God into account” in prayer is the desire to speak to injustice—and overcome the silence imposed on those who suffer it—or, in another sense, to declare, publicly, that her life counts and that this world cannot be understood without her words.4

Gabriel’s prayer that night, and for much of his life, is a prayer for the social recognition of Black manhood in a White, racist world and for a son to step into this place of Black manhood that he, the strong and righteous father, takes himself to embody. Yet Gabriel’s illegitimate first son died a violent death and his second son, with Elizabeth, is courting the same fate (early in the novel Royal, this second son and John’s half-brother, comes home beaten and bloodied from an altercation with a group of White boys). John, Elizabeth’s son born out of wedlock and before she had met Gabriel, is not Gabriel’s biological heir, and thus John’s presence continually reminds Gabriel of his lack of preeminence in Elizabeth’s life and the social world more broadly.

Gabriel’s world is a world in which to be Black and a man is to be in conflict against oneself and the world, for,

No man . . . had not been made to bend his head and drink white men’s muddy waters; no man whose manhood had not been, at the root, sickened, whose loins had not been dishonored, whose seed had not been scattered into oblivion and worse than oblivion, into living shame and rage, and into endless battle. Yes, their parts were all cut off, they were dishonored . . . their 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. (159)

Gabriel, as God’s anointed, believes he is called to hold out hope for this “bastard people,” trusting that God would “give him a sign . . . [that] one day God would raise him” (159–60). Gabriel’s elevation in the community and before God is connected to Gabriel’s sense of hope and redemption for his people.

In the church, Gabriel can find respect, honor, dignity, and authority beyond the forces of castration that are wielded by White men. Prayer and religious devotion allow him to sublimate his sexual desires, bringing them under his control and directing them toward more noble aims.5 However, Gabriel’s sinful adolescence and subsequent affair undermines his own sense of manhood. It was his own action, and not that of a White man, that had caused his “seed” to be scattered and to have a first son, a bastard, a son he disowns and hence cannot name. And it was his own choice to marry Elizabeth and her “nameless child” (175).

Gabriel is faced with a dilemma whereby his own sense of his agency is tainted and sickened “at the root.” To claim responsibility for his actions and his life—his sins—is to seemingly admit that he is nothing but what the White world declares him to be. Yet to refuse responsibility is to admit the same thing. For Gabriel, there can be no public forgiveness because any public recognition of his sins would be the public undoing of his manhood, or more broadly, his agency (where agency is itself a masculine quality). The silence in his prayers and throughout his life is the dreadful silence that arises when he faces the need for and impossibility of receiving communal forgiveness.6 Gabriel cannot recognize the sin in his heart (253) because acknowledging the sin would be, for him, acquiescing to the judgment of the White community that Black life, Black manhood, is at bottom incapable of proper, civilized life. He finds no social space for forgiveness and thus he offers no forgiveness to others—to Florence, Elizabeth, Royal, or John. His prayers and his life are fundamentally ambivalent, as his anger against the White world first turns inward against himself and then, to protect himself, turns outward against his family. The words of justice that Florence needs are unthinkable for Gabriel: to be rebuked for his faults is to affirm the White world’s condemnation of Black life in general and his life in particular.

Elizabeth’s prayers begin with her familial isolation: “her mother was dead, her father banished, and she lived in the shadow of her aunt,” who raised her but never really loved her (181). She falls in love with a man, Richard, who ends up being arrested because he is Black and happens to be on the subway platform when three thieves are arrested. In prison, he is ruthlessly beaten because he refuses to sign a confession. After he is acquitted, he weeps on his bed, “his body like iron . . . no softness in it” (205).7 Elizabeth, pregnant at this time but having withheld the knowledge from Richard until a better time, tries to comfort him. That night Richard commits suicide.

While Richard is still in jail, Elizabeth “looked out into the quiet, sunny streets . . . and she hated it all—the white city, the white world” (204). She “hoped that one day, God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and girls . . . had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs” (204). She shares Gabriel’s outrage against the White world as well as Florence’s outrage against the world of men (214–15).

During the Saturday service, she too knew what it meant to encounter God, for “God was everywhere, terrible, the living God” (206). And she knew what it meant to enter the fires of conversion:

Men spoke of how the heart broke up, but never spoke of how the soul hung speechless in the pause, the void, the terror between the living and the dead; how, all garments rent and cast aside, the naked soul passed over the very mouth of Hell. Once there, there was no turning back . . . For the world called to the heart, which stammered to reply; life, and love, and revelry, and most falsely, hope, called the forgetful, the human heart. Only the soul . . . pursued its mysterious and dreadful end; and carried, heavy with weeping and bitterness, the heart along. (206)

The soul hangs speechless in the void between life and death, forced to continue moving onward despite the terrors and false hopes that call to the heart. “Only the love of God could establish order in this chaos; to Him the soul must turn to be delivered. But what a turning!” (206). And, for Elizabeth, how fruitless a labor, for “what was coming would surely come; nothing could stop it” (206). Yet the soul continues, moving along, desiring to live and to love. She had found hope after Richard’s torture in prison and subsequent suicide when she met and fell in love with Gabriel. Elizabeth, “who had descended with such joy and pain, had begun her upward climb—upward, with her baby, on the steep, steep side of the mountain” (219). The soul continues its journey, struggling to bear the silence but sustained by the openings of love along the way.

While Elizabeth is praying, she hears John cry, not the “cry of a newborn” but the “cry of a man-child, bestial, before the light that comes down from Heaven . . . John lay astonished beneath the power of the Lord” (224). John, on that night, is born again after entering that “darkness [which] hummed with murder” and struggling to “flee . . . into the land of the living” (237). There, in that darkness, John is not alone but is accompanied by an “ironic voice . . . of no depth, no darkness” (232). This voice reminds John that his sin is inherited, that, in fact, “all niggers had been cursed” (232). As John struggles to escape the darkness—represented as an internalized yet alien voice of condemnation—he finally sees the Lord “for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, was filled with a light he could not bear . . . he was set free” (240). The momentary flash of light does not represent the rejection of darkness—a rejection that would mean for John what it meant for Gabriel: his rejection and an affirmation, ultimately, that God is White. In the “sweetness” of his conversion, the “light and darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in the life and the vision of John’s soul” (241).8

For Baldwin, the validity and use of “the concept of God” lies in its ability “to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”9 The same, unquestionably, would go for our prayers and experiences of conversion. Baldwin’s novel forces us to live in the tensions of these questions by linking so clearly silence, death, race, and religion, setting them in the context of Black life in America. Baldwin does not offer us four typological responses. The characters are not representative figures but realistically represented persons. They are not four models that would supposedly, more or less, capture the possibilities of Black life in a racist country. Instead, each individual’s encounter with silence is depicted as distinctly personal. Subordinating the complexity of character development to the author’s analytical vision would, for Baldwin, reenact a kind of silencing whereby the characters become vehicles for a message or, even more flattened, mirrors that simply reflect back to the dominant society its own disfiguration.

The realistic complexity and ambiguity of these characters is also essential for a key theme Baldwin develops throughout his writings: the centrality and ambiguity of human love. For Baldwin, love itself is found in the marriage of light and darkness and not in the light overcoming the darkness. That is to say, if prayer is indeed a way of bearing the silence and pointing us to love, it does so not by giving us the ability to separate and overcome the darkness but by creatively witnessing to concrete life—words, human contact, love—within this very silence. I want to take these insights, and turn, briefly, by way of conclusion, to a reading of Karl Barth’s Christology of prayer.

For Barth, Christ prays for us, in our place, at the site of the sinner. Christ does not just bear our sin; Christ becomes the one great human sinner.10 Translating this to the social world—as interpreted through Baldwin—this means that Christ comes to and prays from the site of the abject. Christ comes to those hanging in the void between life and death, forced to live as nonsubjects. Christ comes to those society not only refuses to hear but declares to be incapable of creating meaning. Christ comes to them as one of them. When Barth says that we pray knowing our prayers are summed up in and answered by Christ, that means Christ answers, and is the answer to, the prayers of those who are made to bear the silence—the evil, guilt, shame, and death—of the dominant society.

As James Baldwin teaches us in Go Tell It on the Mountain, to pray to God in this situation of oppressive silence means that the words of the oppressed count, that there is no social meaning without their words, that a society which oppresses by refusing forgiveness is a society that refuses Christ,11 that humanity can never be defined through their negation, and finally, that there is no silence buried within them or lurking around them that God will not enter and wed, light to dark, in a kiss and a lovely marriage, a divinely human union.12 For those whose lives—materially, psychologically, spiritually—depend on such structures and forces of domination, these prayers cut through (White) pride and (White) guilt, which grow from the same root. For in and through these prayers, we expect to encounter the Living God who does not affirm our judgments (of ourselves or others) but demands that we submit to the life of the One who came in the form of a slave (Phil. 2). As Baldwin says, “the price of the liberation of white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.”13 Prayer speaks to and opens up this possibility, a possibility given to us, again and again, by, in, and as Jesus Christ.

 


1. Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 1980). All subsequent references to this book will appear in the text.

2. Throughout this paper, I capitalize Black and White, unlike Baldwin, to distinguish the terms as “ontological” and not only descriptive. See Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structures of US Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), especially 23.

3. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1993), 30-31.

4. See Kelly Oliver, The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Social Theory of Oppression (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), especially 88: “Sexism, racism, and homophobia are covered over and denied within dominant culture through the double movement of the colonization of psychic space, which operates first as a form of social abjection and exclusion and second as a form of silencing. Both operations undermine the ability of those othered to create their own meaning, especially that of their own bodies and experiences.”

5. Baldwin interweaves prayer and sexual desire in a scene in which Gabriel prayerfully deliberates on his idea to marry Deborah (125–27). Gabriel falls asleep and has two dreams. The first dream ends with him waking up with “his loins covered with his own white seed”; the second dream has Gabriel ascending up the “steep side of the mountain” to be told, eventually, that God’s seal of protection would cover his offspring (seed).

6. “Instead of forgiveness, those othered face harsh judgment for their very existence, their very being. Becoming a being who means, becoming a singular individual requires—presupposes—social forgiveness” (Oliver, Colonization of Psychic Space, 180). The denial of the social space of forgiveness—the ontological criminalization of Black being—is, for Oliver, one of the fundamental oppressions of any racist regime. See also note 12.

7. “Without the transfer of drives and affects into meaningful forms of signification, the individual stays at the level of the body, of reality, where the drives and affects can be expressed only as somatic symptoms and pain” (Oliver, Colonization of Psychic Space, 140). Reduced to a mere body—flesh—and deemed incapable of speaking the truth or of creating meaning, Richard is cut off from language and all the tensions internalized in his body. On grief rendered unspeakable, Judith Butler says, “Insofar as the grief remains unspeakable, the rage over the loss can redouble by virtue of remaining unavowed. And if that rage is publicly proscribed, the melancholic effects of such a proscription can achieve suicidal proportions. The emergence of collective institutions for grieving is thus crucial to survival, to reassembling community, to rearticulating kinship, to reweaving sustaining relations” (Butler, The Psychic Life of Power [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997], 148. quoted in Oliver, Colonization of Psychic Space, 123).

8. Commenting on Frantz Fanon’s work, Oliver says, “The white man’s sense of himself as good and civilized is defined against the black body, which he abjects as evil and animal. This abjection follows the logic of shoring up borders as a defense against ambiguity. . . . Colonization attempts to force the colonized to take on the white man’s anxiety over his uncertain and ambiguous borders (both physical and psychological” (Colonization of Psychic Space, 54). This ambiguity, central to John’s vision, is impossible for the White man and hence for the White God. In the novel at least, Baldwin holds open the possibility of a conversion to a God who is not White, a God who does not sustain White civilization’s abjection of ambiguity onto darker bodies.

9. Baldwin, Fire Next Time, 47.

10. Regarding Christ praying for us, Barth says, “All our prayers are summed up in Jesus Christ; God cannot fail to answer, since it is Jesus Christ who prays” (Prayer: 50th Anniversary Edition, ed. Don E. Saliers [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002], 14). Regarding Christ as the one great sinner, Barth says, “As the one great sinner in the name and place of all others, without any prospect of this glory, quite unsuccessfully, indeed with the certainty of failure, He willed to continue worshipping and serving God alone” (Church Dogmatics, IV/1, trans. G. W. Bromiley et al. [London, UK: T&T Clark, 2009], 262).

11. “Those who do not have this very small freedom [to forgive] are not within reach of divine forgiveness. It might be said of such persons that they do not know how to pray, that they cannot then receive anything” (Barth, Prayer, 55).

12. “Shame becomes a vicious spiral that perpetuates itself through guilt and shame over being ashamed that haunts marginalized self-consciousness as it turns shame received from others inward against itself. . . . Being ashamed of one’s own shame is associated not only with being shamed by dominant values but also with being the depository for the shame and guilt of dominant culture. Once again, those excluded and oppressed are given the burden of a double alienation, a double shame, that shores up the privileged subject’s confidence, autonomy, and agency by projected unwanted affects, particularly shame, onto those othered” (Oliver, Colonization of Psychic Space, 116).

13. Baldwin, Fire Next Time, 96-97.

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Timothy McGee :
Timothy McGee is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Southern Methodist University. He, his wife, and his two daughters are members of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas.