In Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin encapsulates the struggles of black masculinity through a father-son relationship. Through the novel, readers see how the tribulations Gabriel faced in his life parallel the struggles John goes through in transitioning from his adolescence to adulthood. Gabriel’s skeletons and sins are projected onto John, and are reflected in concepts developed in Bell Hooks’ We Real Cool. Hooks argues that wounded black males, like Gabriel, must “do the work of reclaiming their past in order to live fully in the present”(111). But Gabriel indulges in his malevolent actions from his past and projects his anger from those actions onto John. Because Gabriel does this, he develops an impaired relationship with John due to his own issues with his self-image.
Gabriel’s life pre-second marriage was plagued with events that go against what he stands for now. The now righteous, God-fearing, rules with an iron-fist preacher once indulged in adultery, fathered a child he’s never supported, and was a heavy drinker. Gabriel hangs himself heavy on many issues from his past, one being that he did not uphold his mother’s standards for him, “Gabriel will be the future of this house…he would do a mans work”(Baldwin 78). Gabriel cracked under this stress to be the “golden child” of his family, as made clear by his constant sinning. He reflects his anger later in the novel when he exploits his inner conscious onto John. This parallels what Hooks says in her book, “…all parents who have not worked through their own childhood trauma will reenact it onto their children”(109). The irony produced here is that, the more Gabriel cannot let go of his past, the more John struggles with progressing towards the future. It is a tug of war bet0ween the lives of both characters, and the struggles stem from Hooks view of the black patriarchy, which she states, “Ultimately, it is more important that black children have loving homes where men are present”(102). Sure Gabriel was a presence in John’s life, but he wasn’t a loving presence.
Gabriel’s parenting style is hard-nosed and violent. He, along with his wife, make sure their boy know he reasoning behind their violence, “You can talk about your Daddy all you want to, but one thing you can’t say—you can’t say he ain’t always done his best to be a father to you and to see to it that you ain’t never gone hungry”(Baldwin 52). Hooks addresses violence in black parenting as a way they deem acceptable in controlling their children, “Almost all black men have been abused as children. Yet, they still believe that violence is an acceptable way to exert power, to influence a situation, to maintain control”(Hooks 63). Even Elizabeth defends Gabriel’s actions when she says, “Your daddy beats you because he loves you”(Baldwin 56). Except John does not respond positively to his stepfather’s anger. This abuse is Gabriel’s way of dealing with his own issues. This is a problem we see a lot within black patriarchal culture. This theme of projection that Gabriel displays sets intense expectations onto John, along with added stress and images of him becoming most holy in his father’s eyes. Unfortunately, Gabriel’s anger won’t even subside when John succeeds, like during his religious rebirth, because John isn’t even Gabriel’s biological son. Once Roy comes into the picture, John is only an emotional punching bag for Gabriel. Gabriel conforms to the stereotypes Hooks confronts, and refuses to change his mannerisms.
Gabriel also tries to hide the fact that he is not John’s biological father. Gabriel does not like to admit to his lustful past, but his sexual escapades mimic closely ideals Hooks has in her novel: “Equating manhood with [sex], many black men saw status success synonymous with endless sexual conquest”(Hooks 71). When Gabriel was an adolescent, it is likely he thought of conquering woman as a safe-haven. Abused black men like Gabriel are obsessed with sex, according to Hooks, because it is one of the few things where they can experience the humanness that has been systematically squeezed out of them. Gabriel struggled with high-expectations growing-up, and he resorted to sinning and lust because that was something he felt comfortable in. Gabriel’s controlling of woman made-up for his lack of control in his own life. Even the fact that he has to lie to John all these years about him being his birth dad is testament to how self-conscious Gabriel is about his own life. Again, him being John’s step-dad is out of his control, but he feels like if he admits to that, it will tarnish his reputation as an all-mighty preacher, “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself ” (Baldwin 11). Gabriel’s reflecting of angst and anger continues to reflect turmoil onto John. Gabriel constantly makes John pay for his past, and he tries to project his issues onto John so much that John nearly will become Gabriel’s biological father.
Hooks says that, “When black males begin in the name of “black power” to completely embrace patriarchal masculinity, the historical movement for racial uplift rooted in nonviolence and gender equality was ruthlessly undermined”(Hooks 14). The struggles of black patriarchy and masculinity Baldwin portrays through Gabriel are strongly paralleled by Hooks teachings about the generality and problems with black culture. Tainted childhoods and the foundation for corrupt father-son relationships. Baldwin says that, “There are people in this world for whom “coming along” is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive.”(118). Gabriel is a character that will never venture to the other side of self-actualization. Gabriel, unfortunately, succumbed to the conformities of the stereotypical black father. He was neither graceful nor did he strive to produce benevolent behaviors. Change will never come if it doesn’t come from people who have a role-model platform. The kids churning adolescences use mimicking as their number one source of maturity. What they see is what they do, and when their parents or stepparents or role models aren’t doing anything to change how the cycle of black patriarchy, black men will perpetually be stuck in with the script society has given to them.