The Baal Shem Tov is quoted as having said that forgetting is a form of exile and that memory is a path toward return. (1) This paradigm of exile and return, so central to Jewish history and thought, is relevant to other nations, especially those who, like the Jews, have experienced an extended diaspora. In a lengthy conversation with Margaret Mead, lames Baldwin spoke of ours as a "century of displaced people and wanderers [in which] everyone is an exile" (Rap 62). Global transmigration, crossing borders both literal and figurative, is so commonplace today that the search for better fortune or sheer survival has left an indelible imprint on modern consciousness. Accompanying this movement from one landscape to another is the tension between retaining what was (and remains) one's national identity and assimilating into new territories and cultures.
It can be argued that it is in fictional characters' spiritual lives, one of the anchors of self and collective identity, and in their attempts to place themselves within the religious traditions of their community that this sought-after reconciliation of impending alienation and threatening assimilation is most pronounced. Hence, it is in literature and in social movements, particularly those of "minority" communities, that distinctiveness is most stressed. Religious faith and practice in this context provide a viable return through the often unconscious, as well as culturally constructed, phenomenon of memory.
At the end of Baldwin's 1952 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, John Grimes, the young protagonist, has an epiphany or what is more commonly referred to as a visionary conversion experience, a staple of American religious life. He embraces Jesus and endures a state of ecstatic mysticism in which he experiences "his drifting soul ... anchored in the love of God" (204). John's rebirth in Christ, his being "saved," is an affirmation of one of the strongest bulwarks in the African American community during slavery, and especially since its abolition: the black church. (2)
Baldwin has said that "everything in Black history comes out of the church." It is "not a redemptive force but a `bridge across troubled water,'" Kalamu ya Salaam interviewing Baldwin responded. "It is how we forged our identity" (Pratt and Stanley 182). The church is the African American's inheritance. Black writers and the characters they create are not so easily divested of it, nor should they be. Though John Grimes's commitment to Christ is representative of black assimilation into American (white) culture, this adoption of Christian beliefs not only helped the community forge a stronger connection to their country and society, but it also enabled slaves and then emancipated Africans to shore up their sense of self-worth and value.
Albert J. Raboteau, writing in his classic work Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, observes that "as one institution which freed blacks were allowed to control, the church was the center of social, economic, educational, and political activity. It was also a source of continuity and identity for the black community" (320). Here, Raboteau postulates, blacks were able to bridge the chasm between the two continents of Africa and America, between the past and the present (4). It is in this space (both the literal church enclosure and the spiritual vault the church created around its congregants) that remembering took place; it is here that expression was given to memory. "`Do you believe'" Nana Peazant asks her female progeny in Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust, "`that hundreds of Africans brought here on this other side would forget everything they once knew?'" (96). (3)
W. E. B. Du Bois claimed that the double consciousness haunting African Americans, the conflict between African and American points of view, could be both an empowering and a dislocating phenomenon (5). Amid the twin pressures of retention and memory, the cultural drama of the African American slave, and then free person, was played out. Here, in the landscape of exile, the chaotic assemblage of personal and collective history was threatened. Du Bois also claimed in 1903 that the black church was not only "the first Afro-American institution" (150) but that its music "spr [a] ng from the African forest, where its counterpart can still be heard[;] it was adapted, changed, and intensified by the tragic soul-life of the slave, until, under stress of law and whip, it became the one true expression of a people's sorrow, despair, and hope" (146-47).
African American literature, according to Abena P. A. Busia, "has therefore become a drive for self-definition and redefinition, and any discussion of this drive must recognize this, its proper context: We are speaking from a state of siege" (2). John Grimes's journey over the course of Go Tell It on the Mountain mirrors this movement from imprisonment to freedom, from a vague sense of self to a greater consciousness not only of who he is and might be but also of a readiness to start out on the journey to know more. (4) An essential component of this knowing comes from his visionary experience, which, while it helps to place John on the bridge facing east to Africa, also makes Baldwin's novel a traditional American narrative of conversion and redemption.
John breaks free of the pressures of the streets to seek his own path via the church. Unbeknownst to him, the storefront Pentecostal church in which his father is head deacon has embedded through its songs …