A good writer transports readers into a different world. Well, thanks to your moving novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, during the summer of 1965 without leaving my couch I spent a memorable few days in Harlem. I’d never dared to venture to Harlem even though I was raised just a few miles away in Passaic, New Jersey. In fact, I’d never read a novel by a black author before. I didn’t know there were any black novelists. Go Tell It hadn’t been on the syllabus of any of the lit courses I took as an English major at Vassar. Your soul searing coming of age novel had been in print for thirteen years, and I’d never even heard of it or you!
But then, after I’d been teaching English in a New Haven public high schoolfor three years, my department chair asked me to apply to a summer program for teachers called Minority Group Literature and Psychology. Your book was on its syllabus. So I finally met John Grimes and his tormented “Negro” family, all struggling to transcend their troubled history in the legally segregated South and to keep their faith on the cold gray streets of the unofficially segregated north.
Amazingly, I identified with John. I too had a patriarchal father prone to outbursts of rage and a meek mother, and I too felt misunderstood by them both. And although I’d never been as poor as John, I recognized the poverty he and his family face as not unlike the poverty my parents remembered from their own ghettoized tenement childhoods. But even then, I understood that John’s family is trapped in his ghetto while my parents had been able to get educations and escape.
Go Tell It on the Mountain not only took me to a part of New York I’d never visited. It picked me right up off my sofa and plopped me smack dab into a pew in the first row of a fundamentalist church there! All around me people sang, swayed, fell down, got up, and even spoke in tongues. They are believers who look to God and Jesus for strength and for sanity and who turn to each other to bear witness to their searches and struggles. The Jews and Christians I knew were not demonstrative. In fact, I’d never known people whose faith in the deity and fear of the devil preoccupied them and whose membership in a church or synagogue was so important to them. If I had met people like this, they’d kept their beliefs and rituals to themselves, sensing correctly that I wouldn’t understand.
Your novel required me to face my racism and not a moment too soon. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Go Tell It so lyrical, the work of a poet of despair and desperation with a gift for creating characters who speak as real people do. But if you think of my mind as a bookshelf, back then there was no room on it for black authors. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I was truly surprised that a black person could write such a moving and important book.
If Go Tell It on the Mountain was my passport to Harlem and to the worlds contained there, Giovanni’s Room was a visa to yet another place I’d never been. Oh, I’d been to Paris where this novel is set and which you describe so well, but already in my mid-twenties, I’d never been in the head of a man (or woman) struggling with what today we call sexual identity. I had to revise my blinkered view of same sex relationships.
Reading your memorable books expanded my narrow perspective on the world I live in and write about.