Title: Go Tell It on the Mountain
Author: James Baldwin
Date of Publication: 1953
Biographical Information on the Author:
James Baldwin was an African-American novelist born an August 2, 1924. He grew up in
Harlem, New York and was raised in a poor family and his preacher father was extra harsh with
him compared to the rest of this siblings. When he was 14, he became junior minister at the
Fireside Pentecostal Assembly and was an incredible speaker. But at 17, he realized that
Christianity was falsely premised, and stepped away from the church. But, his experience with
the church heavily influenced his writing.
Historical information about the period of publications:
During the 1950’s the African-American Civil Rights Movement started which aimed at
outlawing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring voting rights to them
which had been denied to them after the Reconstruction period. There were many acts of
violence against African-Americans, such as the frequent lynching committed by the Ku Klux
Klan. To counter the injustices African-Americans faced, they took part in nonviolent protests
and civil disobedience that produced crisis situations between activists and government
authorities. Many important figures of the time include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks,
W.E.B Dubois, and Malcolm X.
Characteristics of the genre:
There must be a protagonist modeled after the author and a central plotline that mirrors events in
his or her life.
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, author James Baldwin describes the course of the
fourteenth birthday of John Grimes in Harlem, 1935. Baldwin also uses extended flashback
episodes to recount the lives of John's parents and aunt and to link this urban boy in the North to
his slave grandmother in an earlier South. The first section follows John's thoughts, the second
mostly his aunt's, the third his father's, the fourth his mother's, and the fifth again mostly John's.
At the heart of the story three main conflicts intertwine: a clash between father and son, a
coming-of-age struggle, and a religious crisis. John doesn't understand why his father hates him,
reserving his love for John's younger brother Roy instead. He is torn between his desire to win
his father's love and his hatred for his father and the strict religious world this man represents.
The boy believes himself to have committed the first major sin of his life. Before the night is
over John will undergo a religious transformation, experiencing salvation on the "threshing-
floor" of his family's storefront Harlem church. Yet this will not earn him his father's love. What
John does not know, but the reader does, is that the man he thinks is his father, Gabriel, is his
stepfather; unbeknownst to John, Gabriel's resentment of him has nothing to do with himself and
everything to do with Gabriel's own concealed past.
"Everyone had always said that John would be These first two sentences of the novel
a preacher when he grew up, just like his introduce John's disquiet and lack of
father. It had been said so often that John, autonomy.
without ever thinking about it, had come to At this point, at the end of Part Two
believe it himself " “Elizabeth’s Prayer, John is saved.” The
"On the threshing-floor, in the centre of the threshing-floor image serves to describe how
crying, singing saints, John lay astonished painful John’s saving is.
beneath the power of the Lord." This quotation explains the depth of John's
"He lived for the day when his father would be hatred for Gabriel and contextualizes his
dying and he, John, would curse him on his theological struggles.
death-bed. And this was why, though he had John is now one of the saints of his church. He
been born in the faith and had been surrounded is saved, but Gabriel is incapable of expressing
all his life by the saints and by their prayers pleasure. This demonstrates Gabriel's
and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle entrenched distance from John and the final
in which they worshipped was more part of the quotation shows John's desire for
completely real to him than the several Gabriel's approval is at last diminishing.
precarious homes in which he and his family
had lived, John's heart was hardened against
the Lord. His father was God's minister, the
ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John
could not bow before the throne of grace
without first kneeling to his father."
" 'Praise the Lord,' said his father. He did not
move to touch him, did not kiss him, did not
smile. They stood before each other in silence,
while the saints rejoiced; and John struggled to
speak the authoritative, the living word that
would conquer the great division between his
father and himself. But it did not come, the
living word; in the silence something died in
John, and something came alive."
The novel centers around John's birthday, but the story is told through a series of flashbacks
explaining the situation of every character. Example:
Through these flashbacks, the reader learns about Gabriel's sinful past, his "transformation" and
his deceased son, Royal.
Character Role Significance Adjectives
John Grimes Protagonist The story is Intelligent
centered around Brave
him; he struggles Sensitive
with the Confused
come with his
Gabriel Antagonist Although he is Hypocritical
John's stepfather the dean of a Cowardly
church, he was Hostile
sinful and wild in
his past, and is
Elizabeth John's mother Shows how Hopeful
women a still Naive
"ruled" by men.
depend on men
to survive and be
of her, is with her
so that he could
do a "good deed"
in the eyes of
Florence John's aunt Knows of Vengeful
Gabriel's sister Gabriel's unjust
doesn't think it's
fair that he has
hopes to expose
his fraud before
Harlem, New York, 1935
Extended flashbacks to the South
Significance of Opening Scene:
John wakes up in his home on the day of his 14th birthday, and we are introduced to the
intricacies of his life. His father is a preacher who doesn’t fool around when it comes to matters
of heaven and hell. His family doesn’t acknowledge his birthday, and we learn of his family
dynamics as breakfast continues. His brother Roy is outspoken and disrespectful, but is
seemingly treated better than John is. We learn of John’s constant internal struggles and fears
between redemption and sin and his issues with his father, whom he only wants to please.
Significance of the Closing Scene:
John goes through a religious experience one might categorize as being “saved.” However, the
end of the book is unclear of the long-term changes this has made in John. Ostensibly, he has
overcome sin and will now walk a righteous path and overcome his father’s tyranny. However,
the end is ambiguous, and every day will be a struggle for John to remain in God’s good graces.
Therefore, the ending allows the reader to speculate on whether the ending is hopeful or not.
* Biblical allusions (the title, the titles of different book sections)
The entire book refers to the Bible in obvious ways
The idea of cleanliness as a purification of the soul
Possible Themes for Discussion:
Loyalty to One’s Family vs. Doing What Is Right
Sin vs. Redemption
Black experience in America
Defining your identity