Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
James Baldwin has been on my radar for a very long time. I read Giovanni's Room when I was in high school. In the bookstore that I worked at years ago, Go Tell It on the Mountain was the only work by a Black author among a handful of classic book covers that were printed on enormous canvases and hung in the most visible areas of the store. My latest book review included a novel about a writer who idolized Baldwin and moved to Paris to emulate his artistic journey. Plus, it's currently very trendy for young Black people my age to be well-versed in James Baldwin's work (or at least to claim to be so). But for some reason I kept putting off Go Tell It on the Mountain. I only bought it because it was one of his most popular titles, but even without looking through it or researching about it, I had a feeling that this book would be heavy for me. And it was, but in a way that ended up being right on time.
This novel draws much from Baldwin's own childhood, chronicling one Saturday in the life of a Black boy in Harlem named John Grimes . It's 1935, he's the oldest of four children, and his preacher father hates him for reasons he hasn't been able to figure out. The hate is mutual, and he resists God because his dad supposedly represents God. This particular Saturday also happens to be his 14th birthday, but instead of celebration, the day starts with chores and ends with chaos. In addition to an ongoing sexual awakening and a peculiar yet unignorable awareness that he's different from other Black boys his age (he's a book smart kid who's already realizing how his intellect might appeal to whiteness, and it's hinted that John is gay), his brother gets injured and the family implodes. All this, before going to church that night and unexpectedly catching the Holy Spirit at the weekly tarrying service. (This is a Pentecostal church ritual where people who haven't gotten saved yet try to pray and worship really hard until they "catch" the Holy Spirit.) I'm not Pentecostal and I've never been caught up in exactly the same way John is, but Baldwin undoubtedly writes the most vivid description of it that I've read so far.
While John is the main character, most of the book focuses on the backstories of the most prominent elders in his life: his aunt Florence (least pious), his dad Gabriel (most pious), and his mom Elizabeth (somewhere in between). It's through them that the story extends beyond this one day or the 14 years of memories that John has, to decades of life and migration between the South and North. We witness how each of them wandered, rebelled, fell in love, lost people, contended with racism, took life-changing chances, made horrible mistakes, and eventually found God in their own way. John's life, like those of most children, is profoundly influenced by the adults around him. And while his frustrations are just beginning and he doesn't receive many answers by the end of the novel, we as readers get an in-depth look at exactly why the people who shape his life behave the way they do.
If you grew up in a Black church, struggled with faith, have daddy issues, like coming of age stories, are interested in the Great Migration and Black life in late 19th/early 20th century America, or just love James Baldwin and somehow missed this one, then read this book!
"To 'come along' meant that he would change his ways and consent to be the husband she had traveled so far to find. It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom 'coming along' is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive" (78).
"there was only one difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other" (164).
"what's in you is in you, and it's got to come out" (182).
"And yet, it came to him that he must move; for there was a light somewhere, and life, and joy, and singingꟷsomewhere, somewhere above him" (206).
Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
(advanced reading copy from 2009)
My personal favorite client of Angel's is the soldier who tries to order a cake so he can use it propose on the spot to one of the local white women (any random one, mind you, he doesn't actually have a white girlfriend or anything), who will hopefully marry him and take him to America so he can live a better life and not be a soldier anymore. His small arc is heartbreaking because of his stolen childhood and the atrocities he was forced to witness and participate in. It's infuriating because worshiping white women just screams self-hatred to me, and he doesn't accept Angel's refusal or challenges to his logic. But it's also hilarious because he genuinely believes his plan will work and any white woman will do; all he needs to woo one is a diamond, an engagement party planned in advance, and a certificate attesting to his negative HIV status. My goodness.
However, what I most enjoy about this novel is how much it taught me about Rwanda. When I was in school, we learned about the Rwandan genocide but the discussion didn't go beyond the facts that Belgium arbitrarily created ethnic/social classes that eventually led to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, up to a million people died, and the US didn't intervene and supposedly we feel really sorry for that. We don't learn anything beyond 1994, the year that the genocide happened. So it was eye-opening to read about Rwanda's reconciliation initiatives (especially in light of South Africa's which are much more well-known). And to learn about the skills gap that existed at the time (hence the flood of expats into Kigali), or how the AIDS epidemic in East Africa splintered families in a similar way to the genocide. I greatly appreciate Gaile Parkin for using a story about a cake baker to educate readers about these issues in a way that's not patronizing or didactic.
I don't intend to read the other books in this series (reading this gave me No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency vibes, another book series featuring an African female character who solves people's problems and was written by a white author born in Africa; been there, done that). But I am glad that I read this one. If you're into baking, want to learn more about Rwanda in the years that followed the genocide, care about survivors' trauma and remorse, enjoy neighborhood gossip, or just want an easy read that's lighthearted but still has some depth, then read this book!
"bilingual means you can speak two languages. People here can already speak two languages at least: Kinyarwanda and French, or Kinyarwanda and Swahili, or some other two. But when your president talks about bilingual, he means only English and FrenchꟷWazungu languages. Does he mean to say that our own African languages are not languages?" (180).
"There are many of us who wish every day that we had not survived. Do you think I feel blessed to live in this house with the ghosts of everyone who was killed here?... If I had known then what survival was going to be like, I would not have chosen it" (217-218).