by James Baldwin, 1954
James Baldwin’s stepfather was a Baptist preacher, and when Baldwin was a teenager, he, too, felt called to preach. However, his work with the church was short-lived, as he quickly came to see it was steeped in racism and hypocrisy. This disillusionment is one of the main points of focus of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and it resurfaces here in his first play, published shortly thereafter. The Amen Corner centers on Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a church in Harlem. Her sister Odessa, 18-year-old son David, and estranged husband Luke also factor into the story. When Luke returns to Margaret’s life, she soon learns that the church she has so lovingly devoted her time to is not the fount of unwavering support she believed it to be.
Margaret is shocked when Luke walks into the church as the congregants are singing. She says he never brought her anything but trouble and she has to get going, but he says that he’s had ten years to get used to her leaving. Besides, he’s there to see his son. Margaret is similarly surprised at this, accusing Luke of never wanting to get to know David before, but Luke responds that it’s not entirely his fault they aren’t acquainted. When she says that, half the time, she didn’t know whether she had a husband or not and their son didn’t know if he had a father, Luke tells her that’s a lie and asks who left their house. She attempts to justify her actions, saying that he was always on the road playing jazz, but Luke insists on making her admit that she was the one who walked out on their marriage.
For Margaret, the decision was a righteous one. She left to get away from alcohol, to save her son, and “to find the Lord.” She’s been preaching ever since, and she never really explained to David what happened between his father and her. Luke then collapses from an illness, but Margaret is insistent that she has to get to the church to preach. David stays behind with the father he barely knows, and he starts to learn his family’s truth. What’s heartbreaking about this is that the forces that tore the family apart aren’t especially out of the ordinary. Their second child was stillborn, Luke turned to drink, and Margaret was in the hospital, and, after some time, she believed she had been “saved” and had to devote her life to the church. In the face of uncontrollable events, it’s not illogical that Margaret would feel the need to put her faith in powers beyond her own.
What’s most striking about this play is the way the church elders and members of the congregation respond when they learn the truth of Margaret’s past. They say that she has no right to call herself a spiritual leader, and there’s no need for her to come to the services anymore. Brother Boxer, one of the elders, says, “the Lord’s done revealed…that Sister Margaret ain’t been leading the life of a holy woman, especially a holy woman in her position, is supposed to lead….we weren’t sitting in judgment on Sister Margaret. We was leaving it up to her conscience, amen, and the Lord.” Yet, judging Margaret for her imperfections is exactly what they’re doing, stripping from her what she believes is her calling because she hasn’t lived the pious life they believe is necessary. “I never thought I’d live long enough to find out that Sister Margaret weren’t nothing but a woman who run off from her husband and then started ruling other people’s lives because she didn’t have no man to control her,” Brother Boxer continues.
The criticisms of the elders cut deep because they expose the duplicity inherent in many religious communities, particularly ones that seek to subjugate entire portions of the population, as, no doubt, Baldwin found to be the case with Christianity. As the play ends, Margaret comes to a new understanding of God, one that is divorced from the notion of the church: “To love the Lord is to love all His children…and suffer with them and rejoice with them and never count the cost!” That sort of love is absent from many church communities, and it’s clear that in this text, and in his others, Baldwin is working to exorcise his own personal demons wrought by a Christianity that promised love but that utterly failed to deliver.