“Esther Weren’t No Harlot”: Rape and Marriage in Go Tell It on the Mountain

in James Baldwin Review

To consider how James Baldwin resisted racialized notions of sexuality in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, I employ a number of black feminist critics—including Saidiya Hartman, Patricia Williams, Hortense Spillers, and Patricia Hill Collins—to analyze three under-studied minor characters: Deborah, Esther, and Richard. Those three characters are best understood as figures of heterosexual nonconformity who articulate sophisticated and important critiques of rape and marriage in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Baldwin thus wrote subversive theories of race and sexuality into the margins of the novel, making its style inextricable from its politics. Baldwin’s use of marginal voices was a deft and intentional artistic choice that was emancipatory for his characters and that remains enduringly relevant to American sexual politics. In this particularly polarizing transition from the Obama era to the Donald J. Trump presidency, I revisit Baldwin’s ability to subtly translate political ideas across fault lines like race, nationality, and sex.

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