Fontella White, PhD Candidate in Religion, Claremont Graduate University

"‘I, John, saw a city’: The Bible and African American Formation in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain"

On May 8, 2008 Fontella White, Ph.D. candidate in religion at Claremont Graduate University, gave a formal presentation that is part of her dissertation project. White's project focuses on how the Bible has functioned in the formation of African America, using James Baldwin, specifically his work __Go Tell it on the Mountain__ (GTM), as wedge. She argued that Baldwin's negotiation of sacred media functions as a formative element in the birth of a distinctively self-conscious and self-reflexive African American society.  She made the decision on focus on Baldwin's work particularly because as a writer his engagement of the Bible is complex and engages the artists of the Harlem Renaissance and black popular and political culture in succeeding decades of the twentieth century.

White's work draws from biblical studies, literary theory, and anthropology in order to use Baldwin as an example from which to elucidate the phenomenology of scripture.  Citing ISS director Vincent L. Wimbush, White says that anyone who takes seriously the foregrounding of the African American engagement of the Bible must begin with "the fundamental question which is not about the meaning of any text but the whole quest for meaning in relationship to a sacred text."  For White, the challenge of biblical studies shifts from interpretation of texts to the interpretation of worlds.”

White explained that the two main problems before her are African American literature as a heuristic wedge for the study of the Bible, on the one hand, and biblical studies as the context for exploring "human activity" on the other. White stated that African American literature and the Bible coalesce rather than diverge: "The schema presupposes a complicated relationship between African American literature and the Bible even as one does not absolutely determine the other in any direct and simple manner."  She sees in Baldwin's texts constant flow in and out of the biblical text, or what White calls his "language world."  This complicated relationship between the Bible and Baldwin's work is what acts as the driving force for White's dissertation.  Her investigation of his use of scripture, ritual, and religion in GTM suggests that we should back away from narrow conventional literary interpretations of his work, and in doing so we can begin to see how he constructs a world.  This requires a particular way of reading through and on the basis of the historical experiences of the readers/interpreters.

White's presentation consisted of introducing the audience to the celebrated author through a short video clip as well as passages from GTM.  Although Baldwin himself left the church of his childhood by the time that he started his own professional career as a writer, one of his biographers points to the importance of the church and the Bible in Baldwin's writings: "It's important to realize that rhetorically the church is extremely important to Jimmy, the language of the church, the language of the Bible, all the patterns of the Bible and the struggles of the Bible."  White elaborated by pointing to numerous language plays on the biblical passages found in the novel.  In GTM, he creates a very new sketch of what it is to be black and he draws from the Bible to do this, from the very title of the novel, in which he's signifying on the birth of Jesus, to imagery of the threshing floor, which comes from the book of Ruth.  White also points out that the first thing we see from the first page of the novel is Revelation 22:17: "And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." White remarked that it was quitecontents.jpg interesting that Baldwin starts his story where the New Testament ends.

What's really going on in GTM?  White believes that Baldwin had to use the very familiar, very inviting story about the birth of Christ and the language of salvation to initiate conversation with other black people.  In White's understanding, no longer did he feel it necessary to write for white audiences.  For the first time, we see an African American writer who tries to write to--not as an ambassador for--African Americans by using the most accessible and powerful text in their lives as a way of renarrating their origins.
Invitations to further discussion:

The fusion of textual worlds in GTM speaks to and constructs African American textual subjectivities. How might the awareness of these signifying layers shape conventional literary interpretation?

What other contributors to popular culture could be considered heirs (or predecessors) to Baldwin’s style of both critiquing and employing scriptural traditions as a form of cultural production?

In his work, Baldwin draws on the African American community’s engagement with Bible. How does that community’s engagement with his works in turn shape scripturalizing practices?

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