Go tell it in Harlem
John Grimes’ 14th birthday starts out with a disappointment — it seems the family has forgotten it — but ends ecstatically, when all the tensions in his and his family’s lives explode in his possession by the Spirit, in the storefront church where his foster father rules supreme.
This is a vivid, intense portrait not just of one boy’s immediate turmoil, but also of the larger tensions in the Harlem of the 1930s, and of the more degrading tensions in the rural South from which his parents fled. There is much to enjoy in this book, including: the author’s clear, precise, vivid language, the descriptions of the homes, the poverty, the little joys on the filthy streets of Harlem; the peculiar black grammar — so different from the cultivated, precise language in the author’s voice —with its echoes of the Bible and scraps of sayings taken for wisdom. Besides John, we enter the lives of those around him, in a portrait across the sexes, generations, rural south and urban north, in a telling so sensitive that we almost feel the pain of countless humiliations of poverty and race. The portraits of characters must have been drawn directly from life, or as composites of real people, and they come alive on the page.
The whites are peripheral, unseen (by the reader) employers and all too visible police, a presence to be feared and avoided, for this is a story from inside the black experience. A marvelous visit to a time and place now distant, but still recognizable, that may make us more alert to pains and frustrated aspirations here and now.