James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain chronicles the experiences of its young narrator, John Grimes, in Harlem in 1935. The novel opens on the morning of John’s fourteenth birthday and centers on the events that lead up 10 his spiritual conversion later that evening. The narrative also provides a history of his family, of his stepfather Gabriel , a preacher in Temple of the Fire Baptized; of his aunt Florence, Gabriel’s sister; and of his mother Elizabeth. All of these stories add poignancy and context to John’s efforts to come to terms with his present and his future.
On that morning as he is lying in bed, John thinks about his family’s expectations that he will follow in his father’s footsteps into “the holy life” but wonders if that is the path he wants for himself. His Jack of devotion to the church angers his father. John remembers one Sunday morning when Father James, another preacher in the church, warns Elisha and Ella Mae, two young church members, that “disorderly walking” together could lead to them “straying from the truth.” This public warning shames them and so they stop meeting. John acknowledges the same sexual stirrings in himself and masturbates while in bed. Afterwards, feeling as if he has just sinned, he decides he will not devote his life to the church. He notes that he has been singled out in school for his intelligence as early as the age of five. At that point he knew he had “power other people lacked,” which helped him withstand his father’s beatings and his lonely childhood. John admits his hatred for his father. Since his father was “God’s minister” and he knew that he would have to first bow down to his father before he could bow down to God, his heart is also “hardened against the Lord.”
Later that morning his mother gives him money for his birthday and predicts that he will turn into a fine man. She tells him she knows “there’s a whole lot of things you don’t understand” but that God will help him find his way. John feels overwhelming love for her. After finishing his chores, he walks to Central Park, thinking about his options: church, the “narrow way,” full of poverty and hard work; and the city, with its white world of riches and sin. His father has told him that all whites are “wicked,” that God will punish them, and that they will never accept him into their world because he is black. On 42nd street he watches a movie about a white “evil” woman making a “glorious” fall from grace. John decides that like her, he wants to make others suffer as he has. Yet as she faces damnation on her death bed, he thinks of Hell and struggles to find a compromise for himself.
When John returns home, he discovers that his brother Roy has been stabbed while “looking for trouble” in a white neighborhood. John notes his father’s love for his brother but not for him. After wiping the blood off Roy’s face, Gabriel turns on his mother, insisting that she should have kept Roy out of harm’s way. When she tries to defend herself, he slaps her. Roy then curses his father, who beats him severely with a belt. Elizabeth and Roy cling to each other after Aunt Florence pulls his father off of him. That night, as John cleans the church before the evening service, he wonders if Elisha still thinks about sinning and meditates again about his own confusion. Later that evening, his mother, father, and aunt arrive for the service.
In this section, Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth take over the narrative one at a time as they pray. Florence starts to sing a song her mother used to sing. Fighting her pride, and trying to humble herself before God, she admits she has forgotten how to pray. She is filled with hatred and bitterness but also the fear of death. While struggling to pray, she sees a vision of her dead mother and Gabriel cursing her. Florence then thinks back to her family and growing up in Maryland. Desperate to escape from home where her mother focused only on her brother, Florence moved to New York City at the age of twenty-six, leaving Gabriel to care for their dying mother.
Florence remembers her husband Frank, who left her after ten years of marriage and later died in France during the war. She also remembers getting a letter from Deborah, her neighbor in Maryland who eventually moved to New York and married Gabriel. The letter reveals Deborah’s suspicions that Gabriel fathered a child with another woman. Florence determines to use the letter some day to humiliate Gabriel. Returning to the present, she feels that she will not be saved and that everyone is laughing at her attempts.
Gabriel also recalls the past, beginning with his “redemption,” which occurred when he was a young man. After a night of drinking and sex, the burden of his sin became too great and he asked God to save him. He felt that this “was the beginning of his life as a man.” His first major test as a preacher came at the Twenty-four Elders Revival Meeting, where he delivered a rousing and well-received sermon on sin and redemption. Recognizing Deborah’s confidence in him and deciding that the two of them were among God’s chosen, he married her. Yet dreams warned him of temptation. His thoughts turn back to the present as he thinks about his family. Since he is not John’s birth parent, he wants Roy, his son by Elizabeth, to be the son God promised him would carry on his name in the church.
Gabriel recalls the child he fathered with Esther while he was married to Deborah. He remembers his struggle over his desire for Esther and his growing hatred for Deborah and their passionless, barren marriage. When Gabriel discovered the pregnancy, he stole money from Deborah so Esther could have their baby elsewhere in order to spare both of them the shame of an illegitimate child. After Esther died, his son Royal returned and was raised without knowing his father. The narrative then abruptly shifts to the present and to John who, while attempting to pray, hears a voice telling him “salvation is real.” He believes that if he were saved, he would be his father’s equal and thus could love him, but he decides that he wants to continue to hate him and hopes his father will die.
Gabriel takes back the narrative and returns to the morning Royal died. When Deborah told Gabriel the news, he cried. Deborah then confirmed her suspicions about Royal and asked Gabriel why he didn’t offer Esther more support. She insisted that she would have helped him raise Royal. Gabriel’s thoughts then jump into the future when, after Deborah died, he married Elizabeth and promised to help her raise her son John. Gabriel saw this act as his last chance to redeem himself in the eyes of God. Returning to the present, he gazes into John’s eyes and sees Satan and the eyes of all who have rebuked him. Gabriel feels the urge to hit John, but restrains himself and orders him to kneel down before God.
Elizabeth prays for John’s deliverance. When her thoughts return to the past, she remembers her three “disasters”-when her mother died, she was taken away from the father she loved and was forced to live with her aunt. At eighteen, she met “wild unhappy” Richard, John’s father, a man she loved deeply. After he was falsely accused and arrested for robbery, Richard was savagely beaten by white officers. The night he was released, he slit his wrists. Elizabeth blamed herself for his suicide, speculating that the knowledge of her pregnancy might have saved him. A few years later, Florence introduced her to Gabriel who had moved to Harlem after Deborah died. Gabriel soon asked Elizabeth to marry him, promising to take care of her and her son. Trusting his word, she agreed. When the narrative returns to the present, John is writhing on the threshing floor.
John, filled with “anguish,” faces his sin and lies helpless and afraid on the floor of the church. During this torment, he has a vision of Hell. As he struggles to raise himself out of the darkness, he asks God to have mercy on him and to help him. He then becomes filled with joy. As the family walks home, Florence shows Gabriel Deborah’s letter and tells him he needs to look at his own sin, and then he can accept John as his son. She warns him that she will show others the letter unless Gabriel changes. John, walking next to Elisha, acknowledges him as his brother and protector. As they reach their home, John looks at his father who stares back coldly at him. The novel closes with John declaring, “I’m ready. I’m coming. I’m on my way.”
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, James Baldwin, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998