Sitting in the church, Florence begins to sing the only religious song she knows, one she can remember her mother, Rachel, singing long ago. “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, oh, Lord, / Standing in the need of prayer,” Florence sings. Gabriel looks to his sister and “rejoices” that she has finally come to the Lord. He is happy not because Florence has found God but because she is obviously “suffering,” which makes him delighted. Florence’s “pride” stands up and the “resolution” that had brought her to the church begins to “falter.” If Gabriel is really “the Lord’s anointed,” Florence thinks, “she would rather die and endure Hell for all eternity than bow before his alter.”
Florence’s song implies that she, too, is in need of prayer. This also reflects the power of music and its ability to bring worshippers closer to God. Gabriel’s joy in Florence’s suffering is more evidence of his wicked nature. As a preacher, he should be happy that his sister has come to God, regardless of the reason, because she will, according to him, find peace and joy there. Instead, he is happy because she is obviously miserable, and this also suggests he is immoral and a sinner.
Florence continues to sing and thinks about Rachel. Florence’s entire life, “sixty groaning years,” has led her to her “mother’s starting-place, the alter of the Lord.” But Florence has forgotten how to pray. Her heart is full of “hatred and bitterness,” and her “pride refuses to abdicate from the throne it had held so long.” It is not Florence’s “humility” that has brought her to church tonight—it is “only fear.”
This passage paints religion in a rather unflattering light. Florence is brought to God not because he is a comfort in her time of need, but because she is afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t. Florence is sick and will soon die, and she is afraid that perhaps God will punish her for eternity in Hell because she has turned her back on him.
Florence believes that crying and throwing one’s self on the alter is “indecent” behavior and is something only “common [n_____s]” do. She herself has never done this, and now she feels it is “too late.” Florence remembers a biblical phrase and whispers it now: “Lord, help my unbelief.” She has recently been thinking of Hezekiah’s message, “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live,” and it has been keeping her up at night. There has been plenty of time to “turn to God,” but Florence has “thought to evade him.” Florence’s “pain” and “sickness” has been increasing. Her bowels “burn,” and she “vomits up her food.” Lately, “death” has been “standing in the room,” and while it has gone for now, “it will be back.”
This is another reflection of Florence’s internal racism. She considers throwing one’s self on the altar a bad thing, so she equates it with the behavior of “common [n_____s].” Florence is sick and is dying, and she is looking to get her spiritual house in order, so to speak. Florence’s faith in God has been weak, and she only comes to God when she is running out of time. Florence is a bitter and hateful woman, but Baldwin doesn’t portray her as unworthy of God’s salvation, and as she finds some level of closure after her final interaction with Gabriel, it is implied that she is successful in “setting her house in order.”
Florence can still hear Rachel praying late at night in their cabin in the South. “We come before You on our knees the evening to ask You to watch over us and hold back the hand of the destroying angel,” Rachel would say. One night, Rachel began to pray especially hard. Deborah, a local sixteen-year-old girl, had been attacked by “many white men” who made her “cry and bleed.” Deborah’s father had threatened to kill the men, and they had beat him and “left him for dead.” The white men threatened to “set fire to all the houses, as they had done before.”
Florence’s flashback serves as evidence of the violent racism present in the South during the Reconstruction Era. Deborah’s white rapists are the guilty ones, yet Rachel worries that the rapists will burn down their houses. Deborah’s attack also reflects her rapists’ misogyny. They assume power over her physically and sexually because she is a black woman, and they deprive her of her right to say no. Rachel attempts to calm her own fears related to the attack through prayer, and it is this type of fear that has resulted in Gabriel’s hatred of white people. In his own experience, they frequently mean to cause him harm, and he instills this fear into his own children as well.
“I ain’t afraid,” a young Gabriel proudly asserted. “You hush, now!” Rachel yelled, listening to the fading horse hoofs outside. “They’s gone,” she said, relieved. Rachel had been born during slavery, and she always referred to Florence and Gabriel “as the children of her old age.” She had given birth to four children before Florence and Gabriel, but they had all been taken from her. Still, she believed that the Lord would “send deliverance,” and he did. “Rise up, rise up, Sister Rachel, and see the Lord’s deliverance!” a fellow slave yelled into her door one day. “He done brought us out of Egypt, just like He promised, and we’s free at last!” Rachel gathered a small bag of belongings and left the plantation, “never to see that country any more.”
As Rachel was born as slave, this affects Gabriel and Florence’s lives as well, even though slavery was abolished by the time they were born. They have four siblings that they will never know, all because Rachel’s “white master” deprive her of her inherent right to her own children. Rachel is set free, but this is not an end to racism and her problems. She still worries that a mob of white people will burn down her home, and Deborah’s rape is an example of how white men treat young black women. There is much to fear and much to mourn, and this trauma lives on from generation to generation.
It had become Florence’s “deep ambition” to walk out of the cabin the same way Rachel had walked off the plantation. Florence’s own father had left too, not long after Gabriel was born, and for as long as she can remember, Florence had always wanted to move North. Rachel was “content” to stay in the South and work for “white folks,” and she wanted Florence “to be content” as well, but she had refused. Rachel expected Florence to cook and clean and keep Gabriel “quiet.”
Florence is expected to fulfill a traditional gender role and marry and have a family, but she resists this ideal, which she finds oppressive and limiting. She equates this traditional role with the slavery her mother has been liberated from, and she won’t be “content” to spend her life serving anyone, least of all white people. She believes that she will find more opportunity in the North, where she thinks there will be less racism, but the book will soon prove that this isn’t true.
Gabriel “was a manchild” and therefore more important than Florence. Rachel thought of this as “logic,” since Gabriel would grow up to be a man and “do man’s work.” He was given meat and new clothes (it there was any to be had), and Florence was given nothing but work. Rachel claimed that Gabriel needed the “indulgence of his womenfolk,” and he was given the education that may have been Florence’s had he not been born. Florence desired an education “far more” than Gabriel, and he managed to lean “almost nothing at all.”
As another reflection of their sexist society, Gabriel is given preferential treatment because he is a boy, and Florence is made to sacrifice because she is a girl. She must give up things she dearly wants to benefit her brother, and he squanders the opportunities, which only fuels Florence’s resentment for him. Florence’s hatred of men stems from her relationship with her brother and their mother’s treatment.
Gabriel was an awful child who often got into “mischief.” Rachel would beat him with a “switch from a tree,” and afterward, when he was left crying, his face wet with “mucous” and his pants around his ankles, Rachel would force him to kneel as she prayed.
This paints Rachel’s religion in a particularly unflattering light. The image of Rachel beating her son until he can’t stand and then praying over him is incredibly strong, and it makes her religion appear violent and corrupt.
Florence had become good friends with Deborah after Deborah’s “accident,” and together they “hated all men.” Both men and women considered Deborah “a harlot” and looked no further than “her unlovely and violated body.” The white men had “robbed her of the right to be considered a woman,” and she had become a “living reproach.” Deborah was convinced that “all men” were awful, and that “they lived only to gratify on the bodies of women their brutal and humiliating needs.”
The community’s opinion of Deborah after her tragic attack is completely misogynistic. It isn’t Deborah fault she was violently assaulted; she certainly didn’t ask for it, yet she is the one made to pay, not her rapists. While Deborah’s attack was likely rooted in racism as well, it is also rooted in the fact that the men believed they could take whatever they wanted from her without thought or consequence, and society’s reaction to Deborah proves that this is the sad reality.
Florence can still remember when Gabriel was baptized. He had “not wished to be baptized,” and as he was, he began to “kick and sputter.” He would come late at night, “vomit-covered,” and Florence despised him. “I hate him!” she would yell. “Big, black, prancing tomcat of a [n_____]!” Deborah would try to talk sense to her. “You know, honey,” Deborah would say, “the Word tells us to hate the sin but not the sinner.”
Florence says earlier that Gabriel is essentially bad, and his resistance to being baptized reflects this as well. Gabriel “kicks and sputters” because he is a sinner and morally corrupt, and his body reacts in kind. This passage further reflects Florence’s internalized racism as well. She hates Gabriel, so uses a racial slur, which is obviously meant to hurt him and strip him of power and dignity.
When Florence was twenty-six in 1900, she decided to go North. “Ma,” Florence said. “I’m going. I’m a-going this morning.” Both Rachel and Gabriel were shocked. Rachel’s health had been failing for some time, and she wasn’t expected to live. “You mean to tell me the Devil’s done made your heart so hard you can just leave your mother on her dying bed, and you don’t care if you don’t never see her in this world no more?” Rachel asked. “I’m going, Ma,” Florence said. “I got to go.”
Gabriel and Rachel consider Florence selfish and evil for leaving, but they never stop to consider why she is leaving. Florence has little opportunity or respect in the South, and while the North is bad as well, it will be a somewhat better life for her. Here, Gabriel and Florence are selfish and sinful as well, as they believe Florence should stay for their benefit.
Gabriel begged Florence to stay. Rachel “needs a woman” to care for her, he said. “Girl, ain’t you got no feelings at all?” Gabriel asked Florence. As Florence walked out of the cabin, Rachel cried and prayed. “Lord, Lord, Lord! Lord, have mercy on my sinful daughter!” Florence turned and faced Gabriel one last time before she left. “If you ever see me again, I won’t be wearing rags like yours,” she said.
Gabriel’s comment that Rachel “needs a woman” to care for her reflects his sexist assumptions. Since women are viewed as caretakers, he believes it is automatically Florence’s responsibility to stay with Rachel. Florence wants the opportunity promised in the North, not the poverty she has been raised in.
In the church in Harlem, all is silent except for the sound of prayer, but John’s mind is full of “doubt and searching.” Mother Washington and her granddaughter, Ella Mae, have just arrived, and Mother Washington is behind Florence, “helping her to pray.” Florence is completely still and silent, and John thinks she is sleeping. He looks around the church and wonders why the saints all come here, “night after night after night, calling out to a God who cares nothing for them.” John’s eyes circle back around to Florence and Mother Washington, who is staring directly at him.
John believes that God “cares nothing for them” because God has allowed black people to be enslaved, oppressed, and abused by white people for generations. Christianity justifies slavery through vague biblical stories (which Baldwin later points out) and only serves to oppress them further through perpetuating this justification, yet the saints continue to pray and worship God. John implies that if God truly cared for them, he would give them salvation in this life, and not make them die first to get it.
Florence’s late husband, Frank, “drank too much” and “sang the blues.” Once he grew a “tiny mustache,” but Florence said it made him look “like a half-breed gigolo” and made him shave it. He was always good that way, cutting his hair or changing his clothes when she said, and he even went to “Uplift meetings” with her and listened to “prominent Negroes” talk. Florence had thought “she controlled him” but this was “entirely and disastrously false.”
“Uplift meetings” refers to an African American social movement in the early 1900s that sought to “lift up” black Americans in society. The movement was sparked by W. E. B. Du Bois and his book, The Souls of Black Folk, in which he asks black Americans: “How does it feel to be a problem?” The movement addressed the civil rights of black Americans, and Florence obviously supports it. Du Bois as well as Booker T. Washington would have been among the “prominent Negroes” Florence listened to.
Frank had left Florence after ten years of marriage, over twenty years ago now. Back then, he was rarely home, and they frequently fought. One day he came home after being gone for two days. “All right, baby,” Frank said. “I guess you don’t never want to see me no more, not a miserable black sinner like me.” And then he left. “He’ll come back,” Florence had thought, “and he’ll come back drunk.” But Frank never came back. He lived with another woman for a while and then died in France during World War I.
Notably, when Florence meets Elizabeth, she tells her that Frank is dead, but she neglects to tell her that he had left her years before his death. Florence is obviously ashamed of her separation and regardless of Frank’s behavior, she seems to love him deep down. Frank certainly stays away, wastes money, and drinks too much, but he is usually kind to Florence. Compared to Gabriel, Frank is a saint.
It had been Florence’s “great mistake” to love Frank “so bitterly.” She believes that “all women” have been “cursed from the cradle” to “suffer the weight of men,” but Frank had believed otherwise. He said it “was men who suffered because they had to put up with the ways of women.” But Florence knows now as she did then that she is right, and that Frank had been “determined to live and die a common n____.”
This again speaks to Florence’s internalized racism. Society assumes that black men are no good, and Florence likewise believes this. Still, Florence loves him “bitterly” and can’t deny her feelings, which she constantly struggles with. She wants to hate Frank, but she can’t.
Frank had never been able to buy Florence a house, or anything else for that matter. It wasn’t that Frank “could not make money, but that he could not save it,” and he frequently spent their money on “useless objects.” Once, “half drunk,” he had spent all their money on a vase for Florence, “she who never noticed flowers” and “certainly” would not buy any. Another time, he spent all their grocery money for the week on a whole turkey (still with a head and feathers) and five pounds of coffee. He thought it would be a surprise. “The only surprise I want from you is to learn sense! That’d be a surprise!” Florence had yelled at him. “You think I want to stay around here the rest of my life with these dirty [n_____s] you all the time bring home?”
Frank buys Florence flowers because, as a woman, she is supposed to like them, but Florence isn’t a stereotypical woman. She doesn’t gush over the beauty of flowers, and she thinks they are a waste of money. Frank’s “surprise” also means increased work for Florence. Since the turkey still has its head and feathers, Florence will have to behead it and pluck before she can cook it. Florence’s comment to Frank about the “dirty [n_____s]” he brings around is of course racist, and it is obviously meant to hurt him. Florence implies that Frank and his friends are dirty simply because they are black, and this again reflects their racist society and Florence’s internalized racism.
Florence’s harsh words had trailed into the next room where Frank’s friends sat. “And what you want me to do, Florence?” Frank had asked her. “You want me to turn white?” He continued. “Who’s acting like a common [n_____] now?” he asked his wife. His friends are in the next room, Frank reminded her, probably thinking: “Poor Frank, he sure found him a common wife.”
Here, Frank implies that if Florence believes that black people are no good, she need look no further than herself. Florence’s resentment of men and the assumptions of her racist society have blinded Florence to how hurtful and offensive her behavior here really is.
While Frank and Florence frequently fought, she often felt his “love” and “tenderness” was “real.” He would often come to her at night in bed, and she would try to refuse him. “Let me alone Frank,” she would say. “Stop.” Frank would kiss her face and breasts, smelling of whiskey. “I ain’t going to stop,” he would say. “This is sweet talk, baby.”
Here, Frank speaks softly and appears to be loving and kind, but what he is actually doing is denying Florence the right to say no to his sexual advances. This, too, suggests that Frank sees sex as something that is owed to him as a man; and as a woman, Florence can’t deny him. Baldwin seems to imply that while Frank is gentle and uses “sweet talk,” what his behavior amounts to is rape.
For ten years Frank and Florence fought, and now she wonders if she had “been wrong to fight so hard.” Florence is an “old woman, and all alone,” and she is dying. She thinks of Deborah, who married Gabriel and kept in touch after Florence moved North. Florence has a letter in her purse now that she always wanted to show Gabriel but never did. Florence had even told Frank about the letter one night when she was rubbing “bleaching cream” on her skin.
Florence bleaches her skin because her internalized racism has told her that she can’t be both black and beautiful. This is similar to Elizabeth’s straightened hair; society equates beauty with whiteness, so Florence and Elizabeth attempt to modify their own bodies to fit this impossible, and false, ideal of beauty.
“[Deborah] say she think my brother’s got a bastard living right there in the same town what he’s scared to call his own,” Florence told Frank. Frank was immediately confused. Gabriel is supposed to be a preacher. “Being a preacher ain’t never stopped a [n_____] from doing his dirt,” Florence said. Anyway, Gabriel has “no right to be preacher,” Florence told Frank, and if the letter is true, he is “no better than a murderer.” Gabriel sent the girl, Esther, away, Florence told Frank, and she died after giving birth.
Florence implies that Gabriel isn’t morally upright simply because he is a preacher, and this seems to be one of Baldwin’s overarching arguments. Morality is more than merely claiming to follow God; it is actually living a righteous life and treating people well. Gabriel treats everyone in his life like trash, and then he hides behind his religion.
Frank was silent. “I don’t know why you keep wasting all your time and my money on all them old skin whiteners,” he said to Florence. “You as black now as you was the day you was born.” Florence said he wasn’t there when she was born. “And I know you don’t want a coal-clack woman.” Frank disagreed. “I’ll make you to know that black’s a mighty pretty color,” he said.
Florence’s attempts to bleach her skin are futile, and Frank points this out. He disagrees with Florence and believes that black is beautiful, but his reference to his money is sexist. Florence works too, thus their money is not only his, but Frank assumes that it is.
Holding the letter now, Florence considers it “an instrument” to “complete [Gabriel’s] destruction.” Florence grows angry, filling with “terror and rage.” Why had God “preferred [Rachel] and [Florence’s] brother, the old, black woman, and the low, black man,” while Florence is made to “die, alone and in poverty?” Florence gathers her anger and slams her fists onto the church’s altar. “Call on Him, daughter!” Mother Washington yells from behind her. “Call on the Lord!”
Mother Washington assumes that Florence is moved by the Lord when she strikes the altar, but she is moved by hatred and anger. Deborah’s letter gives Florence a feeling of power over Gabriel. She can make trouble for him in his marriage and his church if she tells them about his storied past, and Florence is hoping the threat will be enough to make Gabriel see the error of his ways.