Without knowing how, John finds himself on the threshing-floor. He feels “like a rock,” or like “something that has no power of itself, any more, to turn.” Deep inside John, “something moves” as if he is “possessed.” It begins to fill him “with an anguish” that he has “never imagined” and can’t “endure. He feels broken— “cracked” in half—but he does not feel the “wound,” only “the agony” and “fear.”
Gabriel has already ordered John to kneel before the threshing-floor, but a mysterious power seems to pull him closer. John is falling to the “valley” Rachel told Gabriel about, where no one and nothing can save him but the Lord.
A mysterious voice tells John “to rise” and “leave this temple and go out into the world,” and while he wants to go, he can’t move. “Something” is happening to John. He can’t move his arms or legs to rise from the threshing-floor, and he begins to scream. The voice again tells him to get up off the “filthy floor” if he doesn’t “want to become like all the other [n_____s].” John tries again, but the “darkness” has “no beginning, and no end.” John is falling and is “going down.”
Again, the voice seems to tempt John here, or at least test his faith. If he goes outside where sin is abundant, there is a chance he will falter. But John is too deep in the valley to rise now. The voice also insults him and assumes he is “filthy” because he is black. This voice surely does not sound like God, but perhaps is the Devil, tempting John to stray from the light.
“Set thin house in order,” John hears Gabriel say, “for thou shalt die and not live.” John again hears the mysterious voice. “Get up, John,” it says. “Get up, boy. Don’t let him keep you here. You got everything your daddy got.” Gabriel looks to John, and John “screams.” Gabriel’s eyes “strip him naked,” and “hating” what he sees, John again begins to fall.
John seems to be hallucinating Gabriel’s favorite saying, which Gabriel seems to say to everyone. This suggests that it is Gabriel, not others, who needs to get his house in order. The threshing-floor is symbolic of judgement in the novel, and as John lays there, he feels naked and exposed.
John doesn’t know where he is. There is only “silence” and a “faint trembling far beneath him.” He thinks perhaps it is “the fires of Hell” he is hearing, and then he hears Gabriel’s voice. “I’m going to beat sin out of him. I’m going to beat it out.” John knows he has sinned. Once, in their “dirty bathroom,” when Gabriel was in the tub and asked John to wash his back, John had “looked, as the accursed son of Noah had looked, on his father’s hideous nakedness.” John wonders if he lay here now, unable to rise, because looking unto his father had caused him to be “cursed.”
The Old Testament claims Noah’s son Ham was cursed for looking at his father’s naked body, which resulted in Ham’s sons to be cursed for all eternity and serve as slaves. Indeed, black slaves were often referred to as the sons of Ham, which was meant to justify their existence as slaves. However, the book makes it clear that generations of abuse and exploitation cannot be justified with biblical interpretation and believing it does only perpetuates the racism that made black people slaves in the first place.
“All [n_____s] have been cursed,” the mysterious voice says, “all [n_____s] have come from this most undutiful of Noah’s sons.” John wonders if a curse can “come down so many ages.” Does a curse “live in time,” he questions, “or in the moment?” With Gabriel standing over him on the threshing-floor, John knows that a curse is “renewed from moment to moment, from father to son. Time is indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carries the curse forever.”
It is not God who is judging John, Baldwin implies, but Gabriel, and since Baldwin has already established that Gabriel is a terrible human being, his opinion should matter little. John’s understanding of “curses” reveals them for what they are—the bigoted and biased assumptions of a limited few kept alive by hatred and cruelty, not punishment passed along by God.
“John,” says Gabriel, “come with me.” He leads John down a “narrow, narrow” street. The street is abandoned, and John is “frightened.” He looks to the buildings and knows they are “not for him—not today—no, nor tomorrow, neither!” A strange woman comes out of nowhere and passes them. “You mighty proud, ain’t you,” Gabriel says, “to be the Devil’s son?” Gabriel motions toward the woman. “You see that? That’s sin. That’s what the Devil’s son runs after,” he says. “Whose son are you?” John asks, and Gabriel slaps him.
John is again hallucinating, and Gabriel takes him to their segregated streets. In this way, Baldwin directly points at religion as a source—or at least a justification—of racism, bigotry, and sexism. When John asks Gabriel “whose son are you” he is, he implies that since Gabriel was not born of an immaculate conception, his own birth involves sex and therefore, to some extent, sin.
“I seen it. I seen it,” John says as he runs from Gabriel. “And I heard you—all the nighttime long. I know what you do in the dark, black man, when you think the Devil’s son’s asleep. […] I ain’t the Devil’s son for nothing.” Gabriel stares as his son, not speaking. “And I hate you,” John says. “I seen under the robe, I seen you!” Gabriel raises his hand to strike him, and just like that, there is “silence” again, and Gabriel is “gone.”
Here, John implies that (nearly) everyone has sex, which begs the question why, exactly, it is considered so sinful. Literally everyone exists because someone had sex, and this is implied when John says, “I seen you!” This also implies that John sees Gabriel for who he truly is—a complete and total sinner.
John tries to run, but he can’t, and he begins to call out for help. “Oh, Lord, have mercy on me,” he cries. “Yes,” the mysterious voice says, “go through. Go through.” John tries again to move but is thwarted by the darkness. “Call on Him,” the voice says. “Call on Him. Ask Him to take you through.” It occurs to John that there must be “light somewhere, and life, and joy,” and he begins to cry again. “Oh, Lord, have mercy. Have mercy, Lord.”
The light, of course, is symbolic of God, who is the only one who can lift John from the darkness. This suggests that even though Baldwin has established religion as oppressive and corrupt, it still has the power to bring comfort and joy.
Suddenly, John sees the Lord, “for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, is filled with a light he cannot bear.” Then, John is “free.” His tears flow “as from a fountain; his heart, like a fountain of waters, bursts.” John continues to cry and is faintly aware of Elisha’s voice in the background. “Oh, yes!” Elisha cries. “Bless our God forever!”
The book suggests that in the moment John sees the Lord, he is saved. He has been brought to judgement on the threshing-floor and found to be righteous, which implies that John is not inherently sinful because he is a “bastard.”
John approaches Gabriel. “I’m saved,” John says to his father. “It come from your mouth,” Gabriel says. “I want to see you live it. It’s more than a notion.” Florence approaches John as well. “You fight the good fight,” she says, “you hear? Don’t you get weary, and don’t you get scared. Because I know the Lord’s done laid His hands on you.”
This passage suggests that the holy way is difficult and will take hard work on John’s behalf, but it also further portrays Gabriel as cruel. He is not encouraging like Florence, but instead seems to assume that John will fail.
Florence walks ahead with Gabriel. “You always been saying,” she says to her brother, “how the Lord would answer prayer.” She smiles, but Gabriel does not reciprocate. “[John] going to learn,” Gabriel says, “that it ain’t all in the sinning and the shouting—the way of holiness is a hard way. He got the steep side of the mountain to climb.” Gabriel isn’t convinced John will remain saved, but his own “name is written in the Book of Life.” He knows he will see his “Savior’s face in glory.”
Gabriel is again convinced that John will fail and offers zero words of encouragement. The mountain again illustrates the difficult way of the holy path, which Gabriel pretends to navigate so easily. Baldwin implies that Gabriel’s name isn’t written in “the Book of Life.”
“Yes,” Florence says to Gabriel, “we’s all going to be together there. [Rachel], and you, and me, and Deborah—and what was the name of that little girl who died not long after I left home?” she asks. “Is her name written in the Book of Life?” Gabriel stares at his sister. “He knows my life—He done forgive me a long time ago,” Gabriel says.
Florence is being coy here. She knows that Gabriel believes Esther was a sinner, which means he doesn’t believe her name to be in the Book of Life. Esther, however, was an innocent woman who died in part because Gabriel mistreated her, which makes him the sinner, Baldwin argues, not Esther.
“Looks like,” Florence says to Gabriel, “you think the Lord’s a man like you; you think you can fool Him like you fool men, and you think He forgets, like men.” She pulls Deborah’s letter from her purse and tells him she has carried it for more than thirty years. “Who is you met, Gabriel,” she asks, “all your holy life long, you ain’t made to drink a cup of sorrow?”
This moment speaks to the depth of Gabriel’s sin. He has literally treated everyone badly—his mother, his sister, Esther, his children, and his wives—and surely, he must be made to pay for this in the afterlife.
“I got a son,” Gabriel says, “and the Lord’s going to raise him up.” Florence laughs. “That son,” she says, “that Roy. You going to weep for many a eternity before you see him crying in front of the altar like Johnny was crying tonight.” Gabriel grows angrier. “I going to tell you something, Gabriel,” Florence says. “I know you thinking at the bottom of your heart that if you just make her, her and her bastard boy, pay enough for her sin, your son won’t have to pay for yours. Bu I ain’t going to let you do that. You done made enough folks pay for sin, it’s time you started paying.”
Again, Gabriel expects Elizabeth (and John) to pay for his sins, which further reflects his misogyny. Gabriel is free to do what he wants, but Elizabeth pays dearly for the same (perceived) crime. By punishing them harshly for what he considers to be their sins, Gabriel thinks he will be afforded a free pass, but both Florence and Baldwin argue that this isn’t the case. The book emphasizes that Elizabeth and John have not sinned—their perceived offenses hurt no one—but Gabriel has hurt everyone.
“What you think,” Gabriel asks Florence, “you going to be able to do to me.” She tells him that she will give Elizabeth the letter and tell everyone that “the Lord’s anointed” has “blood on his hands.” It will be good for Elizabeth to know, Florence says, that she isn’t “the only sinner,” and it will be good for John to know that he isn’t “the only bastard.” Gabriel sneers at her. “The Lord ain’t going to let it come to pass,” he says. “You going to be cut down.”
Gabriel considers himself superior to Florence because he is a man, and he implies that God believes this too. In this way, Baldwin suggests that Christianity—or at least the way many people interpret it—is sexist as well, as it seeks to raise men above women. As such, Gabriel doesn’t believe that Florence will ever be able to do him any harm because God won’t allow it.
“Deborah was cut down,” Florence says to Gabriel, “but she left word. She weren’t no enemy of nobody—and she didn’t see nothing but evil. When I go, brother, you better tremble, ‘cause I ain’t going to go in silence.” Florence turns and walks in the direction of her subway, leaving Gabriel in the street.
Here, Baldwin more directly suggests that Deborah’s treatment was misguided and downright false. She was a righteous woman, but knew only pain, and Florence again points this out. Here, Florence clearly has the upper hand and Gabriel is silenced. If only for a moment, she manages to hold some power over him.
John walks ahead with Elisha, feeling an “unspeakable joy” flood his heart. “Elisha?” John asks. “It was you, wasn’t it, who prayed for me?” Elisha laughs. They were all praying, he says, but he was praying too. “Was you glad,” John asks, “to see me at the altar?” Elisha says he was. “I was mighty glad to see little Johnny lay his sins on the altar.” With the word “sin,” John “shivers.” He asks Elisha “how many faces the Devil” has, and Elisha confirms there are many. “But ain’t nobody seen them all,” he says.
This again implies that sin is everywhere and the holy way is a hard way, but John’s “shiver” at the mention of “sin,” especially by Elisha, again harkens to the shame John feels over his sexual thoughts and feelings for boys. John has already been judged by God, which implies God accepts John’s homosexuality since he has been saved, but John is obviously still worried about his soul and eternal life.
“Elisha,” John says again, “no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there.” Elisha nods and smiles. He kisses John’s forehead, “a holy kiss,” and walks away toward his uncle’s house to rest before Sunday morning service. John can feel Gabriel standing behind him and Elizabeth is standing on the front steps of their home, waiting for them to come inside. John turns and stares at Gabriel. “I’m ready,” John says. “I’m coming. I’m on my way.”
John seems to be attempting to remind Elisha not only that he was saved, but that God has saved and accepted him and his sexuality, regardless of what society says. John’s final line, “I’m ready. I’m coming. I’m on my way,” is ambiguous. He could be talking to his mother or to Gabriel, or to God. Either way, John has obviously found some comfort and joy in his spiritual transformation, and he is now ready to face the world.