For as long as John can remember, it has always been assumed that he will become a preacher like his father, Gabriel. John himself accepts this as a given and has never thought much about it—until the day of his fourteenth birthday—but it is “already too late.”
John’s claim that it is “already too late” is ambiguous. It is unclear whether it is “too late” for John to be anything other than a preacher; or, if it is “too late” for John to become a preacher since he is already a “sinner.” Either way, John has little choice in what he becomes, which begins to introduce the idea that religion can be an oppressive force in its adherents’ lives.
John’s first memories, which are his “only memories,” are of going to church on Sunday mornings with his family. His father, Gabriel, would lead them in prayer, and his mother, Elizabeth, “looked almost young” in her best dresses and “straightened hair.” John’s younger brother, Roy, was always on his best behavior, and Sarah, John’s sister, would put a ribbon in her hair and be “fondled by her father.” Ruth, the baby, was dressed in her best as well.
John’s early memories of church are evidence of the importance of God and religion in his life. His memories also outline the sexist nature of their patriarchal home. Gabriel, the head of the family, “leads” them, and he misuses this power when he sexually abuses Sarah. Elizabeth’s “straightened hair”—made to more closely resemble a white woman’s hair—reflects her internalized racism, which will become more apparent as the novel unfolds.
John’s family’s church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized, is just a few blocks from their Harlem home, near the local hospital. Elizabeth has given birth to most of her children at the hospital, and each time she goes there, John thinks, his mother comes “back with a stranger.” She will “soon be going away again,” and even though John cannot yet appreciate any “swelling” in his mother, he knows this to be true.
Here, it is revealed that Elizabeth is pregnant, and while it is never mentioned again throughout the novel, this is important because it speaks to the level of Gabriel’s cruelty and immorality. He later slaps Elizabeth with “all his might,” and while this is bad enough on its own, Gabriel’s abuse of his wife is made even more despicable considering her pregnancy.
Each Sunday when John and his family walk to church, they pass “sinners” along the way. Men, “wrinkled and dusty,” still dressed in Saturday’s clothes, and women with “tight, bright dresses” and cigarettes between their lips. The sinners “laugh” and “fight,” and “the women fight like the men.” John always feels ashamed as they pass, but Roy is always “amused.” Roy will likely grow up to be one of these men “if the Lord does not change his heart.”
John’s holy family and the “sinners” establish the dichotomy of sin and morality. As the “sinners” partake in vices like liquor and sex, they are automatically assumed to be immoral. Gabriel, on the other hand, rejects these vices (although he has a history with them) and is therefore considered moral, even though he is an awful person otherwise. Baldwin repeatedly draws attention to this discrepancy, which underscores the obvious flaws of this rather basic assumption. This passage also reflects their sexist society; the women who “fight like men” have stepped outside of established gender roles and are therefore viewed as even more sinful.
Once, Roy and John watched a couple of “sinners” in a nearby basement, and “they did it standing up.” John refused to watch again, but Roy, who told John “he had done it with some girls down the block,” liked to watch. John’s parents, Gabriel and Elizabeth, who go to church, do “it too,” and sometimes John listens to them, “over the sound of rats’ feet” and “rat screams” and the “music and cursing” coming from the “harlot’s house downstairs.”
The couple in this passage presumably aren’t married, and therefore their union must take place in secret, like a dark and abandoned basement, furthering the idea that sex out of wedlock is sinful. The mention of rats makes sex appear dirty, and the association between the “harlot” and her music, which is presumably blues or jazz, makes this music evil as well.
The Temple of the Fire Baptized is “not the biggest church in Harlem,” but it is “the holiest and best.” Gabriel is “head deacon,” but the pastor, Father James, preaches on Sundays and leads revivals. John’s family is constantly late to church on Sundays, which is “always [Elizabeth’s] fault.” According to John’s father, she can never get “the children ready on time.” Upon arriving at church, they first go to Sunday school. John didn’t use to pay attention, and this “earned him the wrath of his father,” but near his fourteenth birthday, with the “pressures of church and home uniting to drive him to the alter,” he wanted “to appear more serious.”
When Gabriel blames Elizabeth for making them late for church, it is further evidence of his misogyny. They are his children too, yet he expects his wife to care for them alone, and then he criticizes her for not doing it up to his standards. Gabriel takes zero responsibility for his wife and family, beyond providing for them financially and forcing them to worship, and this speaks to his contemptable and sexist nature.
Appearing “more serious,” however, is hard for John because of Elisha, his Sunday school teacher and Father James’s nephew. Elisha is from Georgia, and at seventeen, he is “already saved” and a preacher. John frequently “stares” at Elisha during lessons, and he “admires” the “leanness, and grace, and strength, and darkness” of him. Roy never pays attention either, presumably for different reasons, but it is “different” for him—no one expects from Roy what they expect from John.
John is clearly attracted to Elisha sexually, but the implication here is that John’s religion believes homosexuality to be a mortal sin, and thus John struggles with what his sexual feelings mean for his morality.
Sunday service always begins with Elisha at the piano. To John, it seems as if “this music has been with [him]” ever since his “first drawn breath.” The song doesn’t much matter; it is the congregation’s singing that makes John “believe in the presence of the Lord.” John doesn’t “feel it himself,” but he never “doubts” that for those at church, it is “the very bread of life.” Everyone insists that “one day,” the “Power will possess” John.
This passage underscores the importance of music in religion, and it reflects Baldwin’s use of music as a symbol of redemption, religious devotion, and moral uprightness. The congregation is brought closer to God through music, and it makes John a believer. Here, music is presented as a primary staple in their lives and religion, and is “the very bread of life”; this is a reference to John 6:35 (a fitting book of the Bible, given that the protagonist’s name is also John), when Jesus proclaims, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
One Sunday after service, Father James had “uncovered sin in the congregation of the righteous.” Elisha and Ella Mae, a young church member, were seen “walking disorderly” and “were in danger of straying from the truth.” Father James told the congregation that Elisha and Ella Mae had not yet sinned by “plucking” the “unripe fig” from the tree “too early,” but their behavior would surely lead to no good. Father James was only “exercising” his “duty” as the leader of their “flock,” which isn’t an easy task. The “way of holiness” and “the Word” is a “hard way,” and celibacy until marriage is what is “demanded” by the “the way of the cross.”
Elisha and Ella Mae have not had sex, but the mere possibility is enough to count as a mark against their morality according to Father James. Elisha, however, is a righteous young man, and it is assumed that Ella Mae is righteous too. Baldwin seems to imply here that they are not made immoral simply because they could possibly have sex at some point, and their innocent friendship should not be considered sinful either.
John wakes early in the morning on his fourteenth birthday, which is on a Saturday in March of 1935. The house is still and quiet, and he can feel a “menace in the air around him.” Something “irrevocable” has happened deep inside John, and as he stares at a stain on the ceiling that transforms into “a woman’s nakedness,” he is sure that he has “sinned.” In the quiet darkness, John feels as if all the world has been “saved,” and he is left behind, “with his sinful body, to be bound in hell a thousand years.”
The stain that is transformed into a naked woman is evidence of John’s guilt and internal anguish over the sexual changes that are obviously taking place in his body. John is clearly pubescent and newly discovering sex, and since his religion has told him sex is a sin, he feels the natural changes occurring within his body are sinful as well.
John had “sinned with his hands” that which is “hard to forgive. In the school lavatory, alone, thinking of the boys.” John has frequently been warned against this sin, but he has “made his decision.” He won’t “be like [Gabriel].” He will “have another life.” Besides, John is smart and does well in school, and many have told him that he has “a Great Future” as “a Great Leader of His People.” Leading people doesn’t exactly interest John, but the encouragement has opened in his mind “a great brass gate,” beyond which “people did not live in the darkness of his father’s house.” Beyond the gate, John is not forced to pray in his father’s church, and he can “wear fine clothes,” eat “good food,” and visit the theater whenever he wants.
John has masturbated in the school bathroom, which is also considered a sin in his religion. Plus, John thinks of boys when he does it, which makes John even more sinful in the eyes of his religion. John is obviously a good person and is not an immoral sinner, but the restraints of Gabriel’s religion—at least the way his particular religious community interprets Christian teachings—deems him as such. This passage also shows that John is empowered by his intelligence—as readers will soon learn was also the case with Richard, John’s real father. However, that power is limited in Gabriel’s house, just as Richard’s power was limited in America’s racist society.
It is not only black people who “praise John” (according to John, “colored people” cannot “really know”) but white people too. Since he was a young child, John has been aware, be it with a “wild uneasiness,” of his “individual existence.” Even the school principal, a stern woman with “white hair,” has told John he is “a very bright boy,” and he considers his intellect to be like “a shield,” or even “a weapon.” Inside John is “a power that other people lack,” and he will use it “to save himself, to raise himself,” and perhaps win the “love which he so longed for.”
Like Elizabeth and Florence, John also displays internalized racism. He believes that black people can’t possibly know enough to appreciate how smart he is, and he believes the praise of white people to be more valuable. In other words, John suggests that black people are not as smart as white people. This deeply racist assumption is proved false by way of John’s own intelligence, but his internalized prejudice doesn’t allow him to see this.
John’s intellect is part of his “identity,” which means it is not “subject to death or alteration” or “destruction.” But it is also part of the “wickedness for which [Gabriel] beats him” and what John clings to “in order to withstand his father.” Despite Gabriel’s cruelty, he never really wins. There is a part of John that his father can’t “reach”—John’s “hatred” and “intelligence”—and he can’t wait for the day when he can “curse” his father “on his deathbed.” Even though John has been raised “surrounded” by “saints” and “prayer,” his “heart is hardened against the Lord.” Gabriel is “the ambassador of the King of Heaven,” and John can’t “bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father,” which John refuses to do.
Gabriel beats John in part because he is threatened by the power John’s intellect commands—Gabriel knows that John’s mind will open doors for him, and he wants to keep him down and oppress him. John resents his father, who embodies his religion, and he therefore resents religion and God as well.
At some point in the early morning, John falls asleep and wakes again to the sound of Roy arguing with Elizabeth. John enters the kitchen where his brother and mother are fighting. The room is “narrow and dirty,” and no amount of scrubbing can “ever make it clean.” Dirt covers every surface and stands in contrast to the scrubbed dishes and pots. The windows “gleam” against the perpetual dust that falls, and John thinks: “He who is filthy, let him be filthy still.” Is he not the one “who is filthy” after all?
This passage reveals that African Americans are only permitted to live in certain parts of the city, and those areas are run-down and undesirable. John and his family are kept down no matter how hard they work or, in this case, clean. Their home will always be dirty, and society assumes they are dirty by proxy. Plus, John has his perceived sexual sins eating away at his conscience, which makes him feel doubly “filthy.”
John looks at Elizabeth’s “perpetual scowl.” His mother looks differently in his dreams. There, she is “young and proud,” with a “beautiful” face that “no evil can undo.” The differences between these “two faces” has created a “darkness” and “mystery” that scares John, and sometimes it makes him “hate” his mother. As John sits at the kitchen table, he feels uneasy. He is worried his family has forgotten his birthday again.
Elizabeth has a “perpetual scowl” because she has been beat down by the “evil” of her oppressive marriage to Gabriel, who assumes that both she and John are tainted with sin because John was born out of wedlock. John, of course, doesn’t know this, but the stress of the situation has robbed Elizabeth of her beauty, which is the source of John’s hatred for her.
Elizabeth and Roy continue their argument, which is about Gabriel. “One thing you can’t say,” Elizabeth says to Roy, “you can’t say he ain’t always done his best to be a father to you and to see to it that you ain’t never gone hungry.” Roy is irritated. “He got a belly, too, I know it’s a shame the way that man eats.” Roy claims he just doesn’t want his father to beat him all the time. “I ain’t no dog,” Roy says. “Your Daddy beats you,” Elizabeth answers, “because he loves you.”
This, too, speaks to Gabriel’s cruelty and the sins he commits against his family. He treats his son like a “dog,” and he eats in a way that suggests he is a glutton, which the Bible also identifies as a sin. He doesn’t feed his family because he loves them and it’s his responsibility; he feeds them only because he is eating too. Gabriel is not as pure and holy as he claims, and Roy’s complaints are evidence of this.
“Is Daddy a good man?” John asks Elizabeth without thinking. “Looks to me like he’s a mighty good man,” Sarah says. “He sure is praying all the time.” Elizabeth tells her children they are simply too young to appreciate how “lucky” they are to have a father like Gabriel. Roy laughs. They aren’t allowed to go to the theater or play with friends in the streets. Gabriel only wants them to pray and go to church. “Don’t know what I done to be so lucky,” Roy says.
John’s question is rhetorical, as readers can see that Gabriel is far from good. He is completely disagreeable and dismissive of everyone, and then he hides his sins behind his religion. He uses religion to control and oppress his family, not enrich their lives or ensure their salvation, which Baldwin implies makes him immoral and sinful.
“You listen to your father,” Elizabeth says to Roy, “I guarantee you, you won’t end up in no jail.” Roy becomes angry. “You think that’s all that’s in the world is jails and churches?” Roy asks her. “You ought to know better than that, Ma.” Elizabeth quickly dismisses him and says, “There ain’t no safety except you walk humble before the Lord.” Elizabeth tells Roy to polish the woodworking in the dining room and tasks John with sweeping the front room. John agrees, as always. Indeed, it seems she does not remember his birthday.
Elizabeth’s comment here isn’t exactly true. Richard ended up in jail through no fault of his own, and neither religion nor a protective father could have saved him from the racist assumptions that prompted his arrest. Between Elizabeth’s racist society and her oppressive religion, it may appear that “jails and churches” are all that exists, but Roy doesn’t view the world in such a confined way.
Cleaning the rug in the front room is an impossible task. John can “sweep forever,” but the rug is never clean. For every discarded pan of dirt, little “demons” bring in “twenty more.” He thinks of the rug as an “impossible, lifelong task,” like a man he read about who was “cursed” to “push a boulder” up a mountain, only to have it pushed back down again.
Cleaning the rug is a metaphor for John’s oppressive life in a racist society. No matter how hard he works, he will always be marginalized, and he equates this to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who is punished by Zeus. This myth symbolizes the futility of John’s efforts to resist his oppression. This also harkens to Baldwin’s use of mountains to symbolize the difficulty of maintaining a holy life. In this way, Baldwin implies that remaining holy is a futile task as well.
After sweeping the rug, John must “excavate” his family’s “goods and gear” from the dust on the fireplace mantel. He begins with the mirror, and as he polishes it, he looks at his face. He looks the same as always. The “hand of Satan” is not “yet visible.” Gabriel always tells John he is “ugly” and that he has “the face of Satan,” but John doesn’t see Satan when he looks in the mirror. As he studies his face, John can’t answer the question he “most passionately desires to know: whether his face is ugly or not.”
This passage begins to reveal the ways in which Gabriel psychologically abuses John. As the book will later reveal, Gabriel believes John is tainted by his birth and that this makes him inherently evil. Gabriel doesn’t tell John that he isn’t his biological son, but he doesn’t treat him the same as the other children and tells him he is “ugly.” This torments John and, as evidenced by the question he “most passionately desires” to know the answer to, has consumed most of his thoughts.
John begins to dust the objects on the mantel without “seeing” them, including cards and pictures, “flowered mottoes,” and a metal snake “poised to strike.” Engraved in one of the mottoes is a spiritual saying welcoming all worshippers to God, and the other is a biblical quote from the Gospel of John. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Between the mottoes was the snake, "biding the time to strike.”
The fact that John dusts without seeing the objects invites the reader to pay extra attention to them. The snake, “poised to strike” between the religious mottoes, perhaps suggests that religion is innately dangerous and even deadly. Snakes are also symbolic of evil in the Bible, and when that symbol is applied here it is reminiscent of the latent evil that lurks waiting to tempt the innocent to sin. The Bible verse, which comes from John 3:16, also serves as a personal message to John—he is not a sinner and needs only to believe in God to be saved.
On the mantel are pictures of John and his siblings, but John is the only one who is naked. He is just an infant in the picture, but John feels “shame and anger” at his nakedness. There is a photo of Gabriel’s sister, John’s Aunt Florence, and one of Elizabeth taken after her marriage to John’s father. There is even a photo of Gabriel, taken long ago in the South when he was married to a woman named Deborah, who is “now in Heaven.” John finds it strange thinking about Deborah. Had she lived, John would never have been born. She knew Gabriel before John ever did, and John wonders if she would know “how to make his father love him.”
John resents his naked picture because it makes him feel judged and therefore more vulnerable. His siblings all wear clothes, which suggests they aren’t judged nearly as harshly as John is. The humiliation of the naked picture is reserved just for John, and it serves as a constant reminder of his vulnerability. Ironically, had Deborah lived, John would still have been born, since Gabriel is not his biological father. Here, Baldwin seems to imply that John would have been much better off had Deborah lived and Gabriel not come into his life.
With his work finished, John stares out the window at the neighborhood boys playing stickball. He wants to play with them but knows he can’t. He longs to be with the “boys in the street, heedless and thoughtless, wearing out his treacherous and bewildering body.” Suddenly, Elizabeth calls to him from the kitchen. He goes to her, and she holds out her hand to him. “I didn’t never ask you,” she says giving him a small pile of coins, “what you wanted for your birthday. But you take this, son, and go out and get yourself something you think you want.”
Gabriel believes that playing in the streets with the other children is sinful behavior, and he therefore doesn’t allow John to do it. John is a child, yet he is denied play, which seems a particularly cruel thing to do. Additionally, Baldwin’s language here is subtly sexual. When John looks at the boys, he longs to “wear out his treacherous and bewildering body.” The word “bewildering” further suggests that John is confused or puzzled by his sexual feelings towards other boys and men.
John smiles and takes the money. “I know,” Elizabeth says, “there’s a whole lot of things you don’t understand.” Her words are kind as she smiles. “You put your faith in the Lord, Johnny, and He’ll surely bring you out.” She tells him that “everything works together good” for those who “love the Lord.” She seems to “know he is in trouble.” John’s “trouble” is “also her own,” but John knows that they aren’t talking about the same thing. If she truly knew of John’s “trouble,” she would most certainly be “angry and no longer proud of him.”
John’s sexual thoughts are “troubling” him, and he fears his mother will be “angry” and “no longer proud” if she knows the truth. Elizabeth is, of course, referring to the secret of John’s identity as Richard’s son. Here, Baldwin seems to suggest that neither John’s sexuality nor his identity are sinful, and John must simply love the Lord (and be a good person) to be saved.
John leaves the house and heads in the direction of Central Park with his coins. At the “center of the park,” outside the path where white women and men walk their dogs, is a small mountain. John knows the path to the hill as if “by instinct,” and at the top is the “brilliant sky” and the New York City skyline. The view gives him “a sense of power,” and he runs to the top, ready to “throw himself headlong into the city that glows before him.” At the “summit,” John stops for a moment. The city below has “no love for him.” The people there don’t “see him,” and if they do, they “smirk.” Gabriel claims that John’s soul will “find perdition” in the city.
This moment reflects Baldwin’s use of mountains as a symbol for the difficult road of the holy life. The top of the mountain—the “summit”—is considered holy, and sin is at the bottom. Sin is everywhere, and remaining saved is a treacherous, uphill battle. The city serves as a metaphor for sin, as it is, presumably, full of liquor and sex. Plus, John also has racism to contend with. The city has “no love for him” because he is black. He is marginalized and ignored by society, and if he is noticed, he is met with scorn.
John has seen the “marks of Satan” on people’s faces as they wait in lines outside of theaters. The movie posters hanging on the buildings “invite people to sin,” and the “roar of the damned” fills Broadway. The road leading to “death” is “broad,” but the road that leads to “life eternal” is “narrow.” This “narrow way, the way of the cross,” leads to “humiliation forever” and life and job like Gabriel’s. Looking to the bottom of the mountain, John begins to run. “If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up,” he thinks to himself.
Again, the city is viewed as a hotbed of sin and corruption. The movies and shows at the movie houses and Broadway theaters are considered sinful, and the people who frequent them are therefore sinful as well. This blanket assumption is ridiculous, and John appears to know this, which is why he runs down the mountain—he can turn around and head back if he is wrong.
On Fifth Avenue, John sees “graceful women in fur coats” shopping for “silk dresses, and watches, and rings.” John wonders what church they all go to. Some of these people have been nice to him, and it is “hard to think of them burning in Hell forever.” But Gabriel says that “all white people are wicked,” and that they are not “to be trusted.” According to John’s father, “not one of them has ever loved a [n_____],” and since “John is a [n_____],” he will soon learn “how evil white people can be.” John has heard stories from the South of slavery and death and “worse.”
The stark difference between Fifth Avenue and John’s part of town reflects their racist society. The people shopping there are well-dressed and used to luxury, but John’s family is forced to live in filth. John assumes the people are going to Hell because they don’t go to church, but Gabriel believes they are going to Hell because they are white. John is further removed from slavery than Gabriel is (Gabriel’s mother was a slave) and his deep resentment of white people is evidence of the historical trauma caused by slavery.
Black people are “forbidden” to live in this part of the city, but no one bothers John as he walks down the street. Still, he doesn’t “dare” enter any of the shops, as “this world is not for him.” Off Fifth Avenue are the movie houses, and this is John’s favorite part of the city—not because of the theaters but because of the library. John has a library card issued from the Harlem branch, which gives him the right to borrow books from any library in the city, but he never goes into the sprawling building full of white people. Once he has read all the books in Harlem, John will go in. Then, he will have “the poise to enter any building in the world.”
John is invisible as he walks down the street. Segregation says that he can’t live near Fifth Avenue, but the white people there don’t notice him unless he tries to enter one of their buildings. John’s love for the library is evidence of his intelligence (and suggests he’s just as good, if not better, than anybody else), but he will never enter this library. John will never read all the books in the Harlem library, which means he will never think himself good enough to enter the big library in the white part of the city.
John stops outside a movie house and decides to go in. He buys a ticket quickly and rushes in the door “for fear that one of the saints might” see him. Sitting in the darkness, John tries to make himself “invisible” to “deny his presence there.” The movie begins and features a “most evil” woman. She is promiscuous and drinks, and she “never thinks of prayer.”
The members of John’s church are referred to as “saints,” and he fears one of them will see him sinning by going to the movies. Additionally, the “evil” woman in the movie supports sexist assumptions that all women are inherently “evil.”
The woman dies, and John thinks about “her dreadful end.” If it weren’t “blasphemous,” John would think that the Lord brought him to the movies to “show him an example of the wages of sin.” He thinks of “his soul’s redemption” and “struggles to find a compromise between” the road that leads to “life everlasting” and the road that leads to “the pit.” It is a “narrow way” for sure, John thinks, and he grows uncomfortable. To him, it seems like “God’s injustice” that he is forced to “make so cruel a choice.”
This again equates women with sin and evil. The woman, presumably, doesn’t die because she is sinful, but John assumes she has. The movie clearly objectifies and demonizes women, but John is not a sinner simply because he has watched it, but he believes this to be true as well. This is a manifestation of John’s false assumptions of what kind of people populate “the pit,” and it also speaks to how restrictive and oppressive his religion is.
Later, as John returns home, he feels “weary.” From down the street, he sees Sarah run out the front door of their house and head in the opposite direction, toward the drug store. By the time John reaches the house, Sarah is coming back with supplies from the store, and he notices that there is blood on the steps leading up to the house. “Roy got stabbed with a knife,” she yells and runs into the house. Aunt Florence is there too, and she meets John at the door. “This bad brother of yours done gone out and got hisself hurt,” she says softly. John can tell by the tone of her voice there is no real danger. Roy is not “going to die.”
John’s “weary” feeling as he returns home is a product of his heavy thoughts and his belief that he is sinner, but it also foreshadows the trouble that he encounters when he gets home and finds that Roy’s been stabbed. John doesn’t seem surprised that Roy has been hurt; Roy leads a life of trouble and, according to John, sin, so it isn’t a stretch to assume that something awful would someday happen. Florence deeply cares for John, unlike his father, and she doesn’t want to cause him undue stress, so she immediately lets him know that Roy will be okay.
“I’m sure going to be having some questions to ask you in a minute, old lady,” Gabriel yells to Elizabeth. “I’m going to be wanting to know just how come you let this boy go out and get half killed.” Florence steps in suddenly. “Oh, no, you ain’t,” she says sternly. No one let Roy do anything, she says, Roy does what he wants. Elizabeth “can’t put no ball and chain on him,” she says. “She got her hands full right here in this house, and it ain’t her fault if Roy got a head just hard as his father’s.”
This passage is also evidence of Gabriel’s misogynistic beliefs: he believes it is Elizabeth’s fault alone that Roy has gotten into trouble and refuses to take any responsibility for their son. He refers to Elizabeth as “old lady,” which itself is meant to be disrespectful, and he clearly believes himself to be superior to both Elizabeth and their children.
“You got an awful lot to say,” Gabriel says to Florence. “It’s just the mercy of God that this boy didn’t lose his eye. Look here,” he says to John, forcing him to look at Roy’s face. His forehead has been gashed by a knife, slicing his eyebrow in half. Over time Roy’s scar will fade, but the “violently divided eyebrow” will stay forever. “You see?” Gabriel asks. It was a group of white boys who had cut Roy. “This is what white folks does to [n_____s]. I been telling you, now you see.”
This, too, is proof of the trauma caused by slavery and racism. In Gabriel’s experience having been born to a former slave and growing up during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, white people overwhelmingly mean to do black people harm, and while this is not necessarily John’s experience (the racism he experiences can’t be denied but pales compared to what Rachel endured under slavery), he is raised to believe this is true.
Elizabeth reminds Gabriel that Roy had tried to cut the white boys too and wasn’t exactly innocent. “I reckon you know,” says Gabriel sarcastically, “all about a mother’s love.” He asks her “how a woman can sit in the house all day” while her son goes and gets “half butchered.” Gabriel remembers his own mother, Rachel. “God rest her soul,” he says, “she’d have found a way.” Florence laughs. “She didn’t find no way to stop you,” she says. Elizabeth turns to her husband. No, she can’t stop him, she says, but neither can Gabriel. “Ain’t nobody to blame, Gabriel,” she says.
Gabriel again is cruel to Elizabeth. He implies that she isn’t a good mother and doesn’t love Roy because she failed to protect him, but what Gabriel doesn’t acknowledge is that if it was a failure that led to Roy’s attack, it is his as much as Elizabeth’s. This also establishes Gabriel as a hypocrite; he behaved just like Roy when he was young, and Rachel couldn’t stop him, but he still compares Elizabeth to his own mother and suggests that Elizabeth is lacking.
Gabriel looks at Elizabeth and, “with all his might,” reaches out and “slaps her across the face.” Roy sits up instantly. “Don’t you slap my mother,” he says. “That’s my mother. You slap her again, you black bastard, and I swear to God I’ll kill you.” Gabriel stares at his son. “Gabriel,” Elizabeth interrupts. “Let us pray…” Gabriel silently removes his belt and begins to beat Roy. Roy cowers and “shivers” but doesn’t make a noise.
Gabriel violently abuses both Elizabeth and Roy, and as Elizabeth is also pregnant and Roy has just been stabbed, this makes Gabriel’s actions even more deplorable. When Roy challenges Gabriel and calls him a “black bastard,” he effectively strips Gabriel of his power, which he then attempts to regain through physical violence.
As Gabriel winds up to strike Roy again, Florence approaches and stops his arm midair. “Yes, Lord,” she says to him, “you was born wild, and you’s going to die wild. You can’t change nothing, Gabriel. You ought to know that by now.”
Florence’s comment implies that Gabriel is innately sinful, and there is no amount of religion that can overcome it. Gabriel is a terrible person, and everything he does is proof of this.
By six o’clock that night, John opens the church for “tarry service.” Service doesn’t begin until eight, and people usually don’t arrive until eight thirty, as the Lord is “sufficiently tolerant to allow the saints time” for “Saturday-night shopping” and house cleaning. As John enters the church, the silence “presses on him, cold as judgement.”
In the Pentecostal denomination of Christianity, “tarry service” is held for the congregation to pray and wait for God’s salvation. Ironically, before the congregation “tarries,” God must first wait for them. This implies that perhaps God isn’t as important to them as they profess, which again makes their religion appear hypocritical.
“Praise the Lord,” Elisha says as he enters the church. John welcomes Elisha and the two begin to banter back and forth. Elisha’s presence causes John’s “mood to change,” and their teasing and joking increases. Suddenly, Elisha “rushes” at John, lifting him off the ground in a friendly wresting match. John “struggles and squirms,” and begins to hit Elisha’s shoulders and arms. He “thrusts his knees against Elisha’s belly” and is “determined” not to be “conquered.” As John is “filled with a wild delight,” they stumbled over the chairs, and Elisha’s hold breaks. They sit awhile, recovering and smiling, and then get up to clean the church for tarry service.
John and Elisha’s interaction here is full of sexual tension. John’s mood changes because he is attracted to Elisha, but whether Elisha is attracted to him is never confirmed. Baldwin’s language is again vaguely sexual—John “thrusts” his knees into Elisha, and he doesn’t want to be “conquered.” John’s “wild delight” reflects this as well, and he is more than happy to be in such proximity to Elisha’s body.
“Boy, ain’t it time you was thinking about your soul?” Elisha asks John as they clean. Elisha says John still has “Adam’s mind” and is thinking too much about friends, and girls, and movies. “When the Lord saves you,” John says, “He burns out all that old Adam,” and you then “get all your joy in walking and talking with Jesus.” He warns John that too many people think they can “sneak into Heaven on their deathbed,” but not “everybody lies down to die,” Elisha says.
The fact that Elisha asks about John’s soul directly after their wrestling match suggests that their interaction—and John’s attraction to Elisha—is sinful, and therefore John’s soul needs salvation. According to Elisha, no one knows when they will die, which makes salvation a pressing issue. Elisha also implies that once John is saved, he will cease to have sinful thoughts.
“Do you want to be saved, Johnny,” Elisha asks. “I don’t know,” John answers. Elisha asks him to try. “Just fall on your knees one day and ask him to help you pray,” Elisha says. Suddenly, the church doors open, and two saints, Sister McCandless and Sister Price enter. “Praise the Lord, son,” they say. Sister McCandless is a big woman, “one of the biggest and blackest God has ever made,” and she has a voice and presence for preaching. She travels all over the North doing the Lord’s work. She is planning to soon go out “into the field” to preach, and she has “buckled on her traveling shoes.”
John’s indecisiveness is evidence of his internal struggle and anguish. To be saved means John would have to deny a large part of who he is, and John doesn’t seem to think this is a fair trade. Sister Tharpe’s gospel song, which Baldwin refers to at the beginning of the book, contains a line that says, “I buckled up my shoes and I started,” and the reference to Sister McCandless buckling up her “traveling shoes” is reminiscent of this as well.
Sister Price and Sister McCandless visit with Elisha and John a bit, mostly talking about how wonderful Father James is. “Indeed, that is the truth,” Sister Price says. Not every pastor will “set down his own nephew” for “no big fault.” Sister McCandless interrupts. “Ain’t no such thing as a little or a big fault,” she says. “You is in the Word or you ain’t—ain’t no halfway with God.” She suggests they sing a song to begin their service as they wait for the other saints, and Elisha begins to play the piano.
Sister McCandless’s comment that there is no difference between a “little fault” and a “big fault” is useful in thinking about Gabriel. Gabriel insists that he is saved, and his name is in the “Book of Life,” but Sister McCandless’s theory (and Gabriel’s sinful behavior) means that he isn’t really “in the Word.” This implies that it is Gabriel, not John, who should repent.
Elisha plays “This May be My Last Time,” and they all begin to sing. “This may be the last time I pray with you, / This may be my last time, I don’t know.” John tries “not to hear the words” as he sings with the others. He doesn’t want to sing, but he knows they will “force” him if he doesn’t. Still, he refuses to clap. John’s “heart” tells him that he has “no right to sing or rejoice.
Elisha’s chosen song reflects his previous statement that no one knows when they will die. As most don’t know, each time one sits down to pray, it could quite literally be the last time. John equates music with religious devotion and purity, and since he believes he is a sinner, he finds it difficult to sing.
The church doors again open, and Gabriel walks in with Elizabeth and Florence. John has never actually seen Florence in church before, but now it seems as if she has been “summoned to witness a bloody act.” God appears to have led her to the church for some reason. “The Lord is riding on the wind tonight,” John thinks, “what might that wind” speak?
This passage foreshadows the upcoming events on the threshing-floor and John’s subsequent salvation. It also harkens to Florence’s spiritual experience. She isn’t saved quite in the same way John is, but she does find some peace in going to church, even if it only gives her an opportunity to confront Gabriel and achieve some lasting closure before she dies.