Often times the protagonist of a bildungsroman will undergo a cathartic revelation, shifting their perspective from one of innocence and childhood to one of understanding and adulthood; John Grimes, the protagonist of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, experiences said journey of realization and self discovery, which builds up to the climax of the holy spirit entering his body, allowing him to see the flaws in his father’s character.
John, like most children, grew up thinking that his father was infallible and incapable of doing wrong; as he begins to mature he understands that his father is sinful and unjust at times, even while being a preacher. Upon the holy spirit entering his body, John enters a dream-like state in which he confronts his father and reveals his true feelings for him: “And I hate you. I hate you. I don’t care about your golden crown.” (Baldwin 234).
John is beginning to see his father as a flawed human being in contrast to how he viewed him while being a child, a powerful and dependable man taking care of his family like a king taking care of his subjects. These character defects make him reject Gabriel and force him to grudgingly accept that his father is not the man he believed him to be. John goes on to say, “I don’t care about your long white robes, I seen you under the robe, I seen you.” (Baldwin 234). It is widely known that the color white in the Bible symbolizes purity and holiness, which John connected to his father. John seeing his father without his white robes and “naked” represents that he has unearthed what lies beneath the facade Gabriel puts up for the public.
John’s realization of his father’s sinful and two-sided persona is difficult to accept, as it so violently contrasts the holy and fatherly priest figure he had known growing up, thus making him examine the other adults in his life and even his own religious ideology.John is raised by Gabriel in an almost puritanical manner, all the time being unaware that Gabriel’s hospitality is a self-loathing projection stemming from his past. However, John fears for his life when he believes he has committed the “deadly sin, having looked on his father’s nakedness” (Baldwin 232). Without a proper fatherly figure in his life to educate him, John is completely ignorant of the sexual changes he is undergoing and the implications they carry.
Perverted by the images of seeing Gabriel naked, he further draws parallels between the story of Noah and Ham and himself and begins to wonder if he himself is cursed just as Ham was. John rationalizes that all humans are bearers of this curse, but not before almost limiting the curse to African Americans. John not only looked upon Gabriel’s nakedness but also “mocked and cursed him in his heart.” (Baldwin 232). John’s remarks about seeing his father naked show the most basic repulsion he has for his father. By him wanting to disgrace his father, who he believed has cursed him just as Noah did to his son, he chooses the most painful of abuses and insults his manhood.
John no longer submits to his father’s pious speeches and begins to understand when he is being treated poorly.John’s revelation forces him to lose the respect and obedience he once had for his father, making him aware of the reality of who people really are, and not what they display to the public, which will help him as he progresses on to adulthood.