Early in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), young John Grimes sits by a window, ‘‘dusty and weary’’ from cleaning his family’s living room in preparation for Sunday morning. Watching the boys in the street, he sees their rough, loose play as a kind of freedom denied him in the stringent morality of his Christian home:
[H]e wanted to be one of them, playing in the streets, unfrightened, moving with such grace and power, but he knew this could not be. Yet, if he could not play their games, he could do something they could not do; he was able, as one of his teachers said, to think. But this brought him little consolation, for today he was terrified of his thoughts. He wanted to be with these boys in the street, heedless and thoughtless, wearing out his treacherous and bewildering body.
As John imagines being worn out in the street instead of his home, ‘‘these boys’’ represent an escape from his Christian duties; however, their graceful bodies also bring forth his fearful, only halfacknowledged awakening to homoerotic desire. John’s longing signifies his need to escape not only the church but also the isolating implications of an illicit desire he cannot control. This passage crystallizes a number of tensions in the novel and throughout Baldwin’s work, especially the tension between the social demand that desire be controlled and the individual’s need to express desire that comes unbidden, and is uncontrollable.
Powers, Peter Kerry, "The treacherous body: Isolation, confession, and community in James Baldwin" (2005). English Faculty Scholarship. 11.