As Elisha speaks in tongues, Elizabeth feels that “the Lord is speaking to her,” and she “humbles herself to listen.” This does not fill her with joy but with “fear” of “what displeasure” or “trials yet to be endured might issue from His mouth.” Elisha stops speaking and goes to the piano, where he begins to play. Elizabeth can hear others “weeping,” but she isn’t sure who is crying. The song the congregation begins to sing had been Elizabeth’s aunt’s favorite. “The consecrated cross I’ll bear / Till death shall set me free,” the church sings.
Elizabeth’s religion doesn’t fill her with comfort and joy but with “fear” and “displeasure,” which is another critique of Christianity. Here, religion is the source, or rather the excuse, for Elizabeth’s “trials” (i.e., slavery and racism), and she worries what he will hand out next. This takes the blame and responsibility of slavery and racism away from white America where it belongs, and places it with God, where it can never be righted or atoned.
If Elizabeth’s aunt is still alive, Elizabeth thinks, she must be very old by now. She never knew of Elizabeth’s “shame,” and Elizabeth had not told her of John until long after she had already married Gabriel. Her aunt had been “second in a series of disasters that had ended Elizabeth’s childhood.” Elizabeth’s mother had died when Elizabeth was only eight years old; however, Elizabeth did not initially think of her death as a “disaster.”
The fact that Elizabeth considers John’s birth to be her “shame” is very telling of her sexist and misogynistic society. John is an innocent child, certainly not a sin in and of himself, and this “shame” is Elizabeth’s burden alone. Even if Richard had lived, it would not be his “shame,” and as a result, it is Elizabeth’s cross to bear, so to speak.
Elizabeth’s mother “had been very fair, and beautiful.” Her health was always poor, and Elizabeth “scarcely” knew and “never loved her.” The woman “wept very easily,” and “smelled like stale milk.” She always made Elizabeth “think of milk” when she held her in her arms, which didn’t happen very often. Elizabeth was always “much darker than her mother and not nearly, of course, so beautiful.” Thus, she always referred to Elizabeth as an “unnatural child.”
Baldwin doesn’t explicitly say that Elizabeth’s mother was white, but this passage reveals it to be a possibility. At the very least, her complexion is very light (which would make it easier for her to “pass” for white during Jim Crow) which she believes makes her superior. Elizabeth’s mother believes blackness to be “unnatural,” and she shows Elizabeth this outright.
Elizabeth’s father was “different.” He was “young, and handsome, and kind, and generous,” and Elizabeth was “the apple of his eye.” He was “dark, like Elizabeth, and gentle, and proud.” He never learned of Elizabeth’s disgrace either. She thinks of him now as she sings—about how much he would love John and how much John is like him.
Here, music has the power not only to connect Elizabeth to God but to the joys of her past. Her father was a good man—he treated Elizabeth well and was proud of his identity as a black man—and the music is a means for her to experience this again.
Elizabeth’s father had been the one to teach Elizabeth never to let the world see her cry and to “never ask for mercy.” He taught her that it is okay to die, but “never to let oneself be beaten.” He had told Elizabeth this the last time she saw him, before she was sent to Maryland to live with her aunt.
Elizabeth’s father’s lessons are a product of his own connection with racism and slavery. While Elizabeth’s father would not have been a slave, his parents more than likely were, and his lessons reflect their oppressive plight.
After Elizabeth’s mother died, Elizabeth’s aunt insisted Elizabeth move in with her. She said Elizabeth’s father was not a “fit person to raise a child.” He ran a “house,” where “wicked people often came,” and Elizabeth’s aunt thought his lifestyle was inappropriate. So, Elizabeth’s life “changed. Her mother was dead, her father banished, and she lived in the shadow of her aunt.”
Presumably, Elizabeth’s father runs a whorehouse, or brothel, which her aunt believes makes him immoral. There is no mention of how he treats the women under his employ, but since he is described as “kind and generous,” it is possible that he treats them well. Elizabeth’s aunt assumes that Elizabeth’s father is a sinner because of his job’s connection to sex, but Baldwin implies that this isn’t true. Here, the aunt appears as the sinner for falsely judging him and taking Elizabeth away from a father who loves her.
Elizabeth never “judged her father,” and “she did not accuse him.” She loved him, and while it was clear that her aunt had loved her mother, she didn’t love Elizabeth. She was cruel to Elizabeth and treated her badly. “You little miss great-I-am,” her aunt would say, “you better watch your step, you hear me? You go walking around with your nose in the air, the Lord’s going to let you fall right on down to the bottom of the ground. You mark my words. You’ll see.”
Like Gabriel, Elizabeth’s aunt represents righteousness and piety, yet she is completely awful in practice. Elizabeth has done nothing to deserve her verbal abuse. It seems as if the right thing to do would be to be kind to Elizabeth—her mother has just died and her father has been banished—but her aunt is instead cruel, like, Baldwin argues, religion itself.
As the church sings the nostalgic hymn, Elizabeth thinks of Richard. He had been the one to take Elizabeth to the North. He had arrived in Maryland suddenly in 1919 and worked at a local grocery store where Elizabeth and her aunt shopped. He “was very thin, and beautiful, and nervous—high strung,” Elizabeth had thought. He was “sullen and only barely polite” to the customers, and Elizabeth noticed him immediately.
The year 1919 is known historically as the Red Summer due to the increase in violence against black Americans during that time. The Red Summer saw a historic number of lynchings and race riots, and it drove, Richard included, thousands of black people to the North, where it was assumed to be safer. By mentioning the year 1919, Baldwin also draws on the violence and fear associated with that time. Richard is “nervous” because he has, more than likely, witness this violence firsthand, and this is reflected in Baldwin’s use of the term “high strung,” which is in italics no less. Baldwin wants the reader to stop and ruminate on the senseless and hateful lynchings of 1919.
Once, Elizabeth had gone into the store without her aunt, and Richard had flirted with her. He later asked her if she still remembered that day. Of course, she did, she had told him. “Well, you was mighty pretty,” he said. “You was reading a book,” she said. “What book was it, Richard?” He shrugged and smiled. “Oh, I don’t remember,” he said. “Just a book.”
Richard can’t remember what book he was reading because he is always reading a book. Richard seeks to gain some sense of control and power through knowledge. His racist society has stripped him of all power because he is black, and he tries to tip the scale back with the power of his mind.
Richard hated the South and planned on going to New York, and he wanted Elizabeth to come with him so they could get married. Elizabeth agreed, and she told her aunt she would be moving to New York to live with Madame Williams, a “respectable female relative” in the city, to “take advantage of the greater opportunities the North offered colored people.” She could study at better schools or get a better job there.
While the North is certainly segregated, Jim Crow laws existed mostly in the South, and if Elizabeth moves North, she will have a greater choice of schools and jobs.
In the winter of 1920, Elizabeth moved to “an ugly back room in Harlem” in Madame William’s home, where the old woman burned incense and held “spiritualist séances” each Saturday night. Elizabeth worked as a maid in the same hotel where Richard worked the elevator. They had little money, and their marriage “was planned for a future that grew ever more remote.” This was a problem for Elizabeth. Back in Maryland, under the watchful eye of her aunt, Elizabeth had guarded her “pearl with price,” but in the city where no one cared what she did, her “pearl” was more difficult to hold on to.
The couple’s jobs in New York reflect the traditional gender roles of the time: Elizabeth works as a maid (as she is expected, as a woman, to clean and keep house), and Richard works as the elevator operator, which is technical and mechanical and therefore manly. Furthermore, both Elizabeth and Richard work in a position of service to white people, which again reflects their racist society. Society believes that black people should serve white people, and their jobs support this belief.
Elizabeth often wondered back then if she was no better than the women in her father’s “house,” and the North was difficult for other reasons as well. The North was just like the South; the North “promised more,” but “it did not give,” and what it did give “with one hand, it “took back with the other.” But she never thought of leaving Richard. She had loved him. They had “been very happy together,” and “he had been very good to her.” Elizabeth was never—not even now sitting in the Harlem church—“truly sorry” for her relationship with Richard. “Where, then, was her repentance?” she thought.
Elizabeth and Richard often went to museums, and she had been shocked the first time he suggested it. “Sure, they let [n_____s] in,” he had said. “Ain’t we got to be educated, too—to live with the motherfuckers?” Richard was smart, and he was always reading, although he had never gone to school. “I just decided me one day that I was going to get to know everything them white bastards knew, and I was going to get to know it better than them, so could no with son-of-a-bitch nowhere never talk me down, and never make me feel like I was dirt,” he had said.
In the South, Elizabeth and Richard would not have been allowed in museums. Racial stereotypes of the time considered black Americans stupid and unable to appreciate, or produce, art. This is evidence of America’s institutionalized racism; at one point, it was illegal for black people in America to even be able to read. Then, society turned around and condemned black people for being illiterate and claimed they weren’t smart. Richard and Elizabeth’s trip to the museum, while it may seem small, represents major progress, as does Baldwin’s writing of this book. What is taken for granted now was, not so long ago, completely forbidden to black Americans.
One night, after spending the entire evening together, Richard left Elizabeth at Madame Williams’s and went to catch the subway home. He was planning on coming over the next day to meet Madame Williams for the first time, but he never showed. He didn’t show up for work on Monday, and when Elizabeth went to the room he was renting to find him, she found the police instead. “He’s in jail, honey,” the police officer said. “For robbing a white man’s store, black girl.”
The police officers are completely racist and disrespectful. They call Elizabeth “Honey,” which immediately places them as men in a position of authority over her, and then they claim Richard is in jail for robbing a “white man’s store.” This implies the situation would be much different if he had robbed a black man instead. Then, they refer to her as “black girl,” again trying to strip her of power by reminding Elizabeth that she is both black and a woman.
The police officers forced Elizabeth down to the police station where “she some how got past their brutal laughter.” The officers questioned her, making her feel uncomfortable. “What was [Richard] doing with you, girl, until two o’clock in the morning?” one officer asked. “Next time you feel like that, girl, you come by here and talk to me.”
This moment is a complete violation of Elizabeth’s civil rights, but the police don’t seem to care. They sexually harass her and blatantly proposition her for sex, which shows not only their power over her as a person of color, but their complete disrespect for women in general.
Elizabeth was finally allowed to see Richard the next day in the jail where he was being held. He had been appointed a lawyer, and he would go to trial in a week. Elizabeth “wept” when she saw him. He had been “beaten” and “could hardly walk.” He told her that after he left her that night, he had gone to the subway platform, when three other black men ran up to him, pursued by two white men. Richard knew immediately that their trouble “was now his trouble,” as the white men would “make no distinction between” him and the other black men.
Richard’s assault while in police custody is further proof of their racist society, and the fact that Richard is innocent makes this even worse. Richard is accused simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and since he is black, the police will not listen to him.
Richard was arrested along with the other three black men for robbery, and he told the police at the station that he was not involved. The other black men “despairingly” corroborated his story, but when the white store owner came to identify the men who robbed his store, he identified Richard right along with the other three men. “You black bastards,” the store owner said, “you’re all the same.”
Racist stereotypes say all black men are dangerous criminals, so the store owner “makes no distinction” between the black men who are actually criminal, and Richard, a black man who was simply waiting for a train. The store owner is a small-scale representation of the racist assumptions of broader society.
Elizabeth had known for some time that she was pregnant, but she didn’t want to worry Richard while he was in jail and could do nothing about it. She “hated” New York, all of the “white city and the white world.” She couldn’t “think of one decent white person in the whole world,” and she wanted God to make them know that “black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.”
Like her sexist society, Elizabeth thinks her pregnancy is her burden, not Richard’s. Whether he feels this way is never revealed, but she doesn’t tell him because of it, and she is left feeling responsible after he commits suicide. She feels that had she told him, he would not have killed himself, which only increases her emotional burden and oppression as a woman.
Richard was eventually released. The jury found insufficient evidence to convict him, and “the courtroom seemed to feel, with some complacency and some disappointment,” that Richard had been “lucky” to “be let off so easily.” When he returned home, he fell to his bed and wept, and Elizabeth thought it still a bad time to tell him about the baby. That night, Richard slit his wrists with a razor, and his lifeless body was found the next day by his landlady.
The court wants Richard to be guilty so they can throw him in jail, where they seem to believe all black men belong. Richard isn’t “lucky,” and he isn’t “let off easy.” Their racist assumptions have ruined his life and broken his spirt, and he commits suicide because of it.
Elizabeth’s thoughts are interrupted by a new song and singing in the church. She continues her prayer, but she knows it is “in vain.” What is “coming will surely come,” Elizabeth thinks to herself. “Nothing can stop it.” She sometimes thinks that perhaps it would have been better to have given John up for adoption, so that he would have had a better chance at a father who loved him. Gabriel had promised to “love her nameless son as though he were his own flesh,” but he does not. Elizabeth feels that Gabriel only tolerates her because she is the mother of his biological son, Roy.
Here, Gabriel is again the immoral one. He makes a promise that he has no intention of keeping, and he plays favorites with innocent children and negatively affects their childhood. Ironically, it is Elizabeth who thinks her prayers for redemption are in vain, when it is really Gabriel who has sinned so severely that forgiveness seems difficult if not impossible.
Elizabeth first met Gabriel through Florence when John was only six months old. Elizabeth and John were living alone in a furnished room, and she was working the nightshift cleaning offices on Wall Street with Florence. Florence had asked Elizabeth out for coffee one morning after work, and she accepted. Elizabeth was “pretending in those days to be a young widow,” and she even wore a wedding ring. Florence talked that first morning mostly about herself, about “how badly people treated her,” and how her husband, who was now dead, “had adored her.”
Elizabeth goes to a lot of trouble to ensure her sexist society doesn’t shun her. She even wears a fake wedding ring to make herself more believable. Florence, too, goes to some trouble, as she lies by omission about her history with Frank. She says nothing of her divorce and implies that he died while they were still married. No doubt Frank “adored” Florence, but the story goes a lot deeper than that, and she fears society will scorn her if she admits to being a divorced woman, not a widow.
One afternoon, Elizabeth took John to Florence’s house for a visit, and he instantly took to the older woman. “He likes you,” Elizabeth said as John cooed at Florence and grabbed for her jewelry. “Any child of Elizabeth’s” Florence had said, “must be a wonderful child.” Florence told Elizabeth that she had just received a letter from her bother, Gabriel. His wife had recently died, and he planned to move North. Florence hadn’t seen in him in over twenty years. “I’m sorry he’s coming,” Florence said. “I didn’t look to see him no more in this world—or in the next one, neither.”
Florence’s comment that John “must be a wonderful child” underscores the cruelty of the sexist assumptions of their society. John is an innocent baby and couldn’t possibly be tainted or inherently sinful simply because he was born out of wedlock. The fact that Florence doesn’t intend to see Gabriel in the next life suggests that one of them is going to hell and the other to heaven—and while it is assumed that Gabriel is saved because he is a preacher, both Florence and Baldwin seem to believe otherwise.
Florence told Elizabeth that Gabriel was “some kind of preacher,” but when they were younger, he did nothing but “chase after women.” Elizabeth commented that perhaps the Lord had changed him. “I done heard [that] said often enough,” Florence said, “but I got yet to see it.” Elizabeth grew quiet. “I was just thinking about this boy here,” Elizabeth said about baby John, “what’s going to happen to him, how I’m going raise him, in this awful city all by myself.” Florence sighed. “I don’t believe a [n_____’s] been born that knows how to treat a woman right. You got time, honey, so take your time.”
Florence again suggests that Gabriel’s sins are beyond the help of God and religion. His time as a preacher does not forgive or excuse the pain he has caused others, and it does not afford him a free pass into eternal life. This also reflects Florence’s hatred of men. As an independent woman, she believes Elizabeth is better off without a man, regardless of what society says.
Suddenly, Elizabeth broke down and cried. “You see this wedding ring?” she asked Florence. “Well, I bought this ring myself. [John] ain’t got no daddy.” Florence immediately comforted her. “You poor thing,” she said, “you is had a time, ain’t you?” Florence continued. “Look like ain’t no woman born what don’t get walked over by some no-count man.” It wasn’t like that, Elizabeth told her. Richard had “died.” Florence moved to comfort her again. “The menfolk, they die,” Florence said, “and it’s over for them, but we women, we have to keep on living and try to forget what they done to us.”
Here, Florence suggests that women must carry both their own burdens and man’s burden as well. This too reflects their sexist society, as men are not expected to take responsibility as long as it can be passed along to a woman.
Elizabeth met Gabriel a few weeks later. She again took John to Florence’s house, and on the way into her building, John began to wriggle and dance to sound of blues music coming from the home of a nearby “harlot.” “You’s a [n_____], all right,” Elizabeth said to John. Inside, Florence introduced Elizabeth and John to Gabriel. Gabriel took the baby, who continued to dance to the audible music, in his arms. “Got a man in the Bible, son, who liked music, too,” Gabriel said to John. “He used to play on his harp before the king, and he got to dancing one day before the Lord. You reckon you going to dance for the Lord one of these days?”
Again, there is a connection between the blues and sin, and sex specifically, as the music is coming from a harlot’s house. Elizabeth’s comment that John’s obvious preference for the music makes him a “[n_____]” simultaneously assumes that John is no good because he is black, and that he has some inherent pull to sex and sin. Gabriel’s comment to John is one of his only tender moments, but this is fleeting and doesn’t happen again.
Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth sat and visited, while John fell asleep to the sound of the blues. From that moment on, 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.”
Baldwin’s mention of a mountain refers to Elizabeth’s uphill climb to salvation and redemption. Again, when John falls asleep to the blues, this suggests that he is somehow evil, since he finds the sinful music soothing.
Florence “did not approve” of Elizabeth’s relationship with Gabriel, and she was vocal of this from the start, but she never said more than simply that she did not approve. “Sister,” Gabriel asked Elizabeth one day, “don’t you reckon you ought to give your heart to the Lord?” She told him that she should, and he told her that he believed it to be “His will” that they “be man and wife.” He promised to “honor” her if she would have him. “And I’ll love your son, your little boy,” Gabriel said of John, “just like he was my own. […] I swear this before God, because He done give me back something I thought was lost.”
Again, Gabriel does not keep his promise to Elizabeth or John, and Baldwin implies that this is a sin as well. He doesn’t truly want to help Elizabeth and John but considers them a way for him to make up for the sins he committed with Esther and Royal. Furthermore, when Gabriel tells Elizabeth that it is God’s will that they marry, this, in a way, makes it nearly impossible for Elizabeth to say no. It is unlikely that she would have said no, especially in light of Gabriel’s promise, but the implication that God has willed it so suggests that Elizabeth doesn’t have a choice in the matter.