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Go Tell it on the Mountain

From Academic Kids

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Cover of a Knopf edition of Go Tell it on the Mountain

Go Tell it on the Mountain is a 1953 autobiographical novel by James Baldwin. The novel examines the role of the Christian Church in the lives of African-Americans, both as a source of repression and moral hypocrisy and as a source of inspiration and community. It also, more subtly, examines racism in the United States. The novel is likely Baldwinís most famous.

Contents

Structure and Plot Synopsis

Go Tell it on the Mountain is organized into three sections. The first, The Seventh Day, takes place on the fourteenth birthday of protagonist John Grimes, the son of a strict, church-going family in 1935 Harlem. It establishes the novelís two main conflicts: Johnís crisis of faith and his struggle with his stern father Rev. Gabriel Grimes.

The second section Prayers of the Saints is divided into three subsections that tell the life stories of Gabriel Grimes, his sister Florence and his wife Elizabeth, respectively. It reveals how the Grimes immigrated from the south and of each individualís love affairs. Most telling, it reveals that Gabriel was unfaithful to his first wife Deborah; an affair that produced a son Gabriel refused to recognize. Also, John is not the son of Gabriel but of Elizabeth and her first love, which explains why Gabriel is so harsh towards John

The third section The Threshing Floor tells of Johnís religious experience the day after his birthday. During a church service, he experiences a series of visions and perceives that he has heard the voice of God. This fills him with confidence and makes him ready to confront Gabriel.

Themes

Religion

Go Tell it on the Mountain is most prominently concerned with the Christian Church and the form of moral absolutism that the Grimesí church preached. The characters believe that a person either lives a strict, religiously observant life and goes to Heaven after death or lives a life of sin and suffers in Hell for all eternity after death. The church condemns alcohol, premarital sex and the kind of vibrant nightlife that was prominent in Harlem. This fills John with fear and dread, both of God and of the outside world, at the novelís beginning.

Only after John has a pure religious experience does he feel confident. Baldwin indicates an extreme distrust of church hierarchies but places confidence in an individualís relationship with God as a source of strength and inspiration.

The novel is also critical of the strict moral codes of the church. Gabriel, an ordained minister and the most religiously fervent character in the novel, is also perhaps the most destructive. His extramarital affair and his refusal to recognize his first son leads to misery and eventually death for his mistress and their son. Gabriel hypocritically accosts others for sin but he says simply that God has forgiven him although he has done little to repent for his actions or change his character. Ironically, the most noble and spiritually enlightened character in the book is John, the son of an unmarried couple.

Racism

Racism in the United States also plays a role in Go Tell it on the Mountain, although not as to a the extent that it does in the works of other prominent African-American writers of the time, such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

Two secondary characters, Gabrielís first wife Deborah and Elizabethís lover Richard, are the victims of race-motivated violence. More subtly though, Baldwin indicates that the status of African-Americans as lesser people in society has lead to the need for righteousness and austerity in characters like Gabriel, traits that have caused great harm to his family.

Allusion to the Story of Ham

Baldwin makes several references to the Holy Bible in Go Tell it on the Mountain, most importantly to the story of Ham, Noahís son who saw his father naked one day. Noah consequently cursed Hamís son Caanan to be the servant of the sons of the Noahís other sons.

This story is important for two reasons. Firstly, it was used as a Biblical justification of slavery and the inferiority of the Negroid race because Hamís sons migrated to Africa. John wonders about this interpretation briefly in the novel. Secondly, this story established the taboo of the nakedness of the patriarchy. John apparently one day also saw Gabriel naked in the bath. But he also sees Gabriel naked metaphorically. John sees him as a hypocrite. Because of this, the story of Ham is referenced often when Baldwin describes Johnís crisis of faith

Autobiographical Nature

Like John Grimes, James Baldwin grew up in Harlem and never knew his biological father. His stepfather was a Baptist minister and Baldwin said he was abusive and strict. Also like John, Baldwin underwent a religious awakening at the age of fourteen and became a preacher himself.

Television Adaptation

In an attempt to copy the success of the 1977 mini-series Roots, which was also an African-American family saga, the ABC network produced a made for television movie based in Go Tell it on the Mountain in 1984. Stan Lathan directed while Paul Winfield played Gabriel and James Bond III played John.

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