Identity (Search For Self)
Go Tell It on the Mountain is primarily about John Grimes’ quest to find out who he really is, to distinguish the values of those around him from the ones that he holds. It is no coincidence that the novel takes place on his birthday, which is the day representing a step forward into maturity, or that it is his fourteenth, marking the boundary between childhood and young adulthood because it implies the start of puberty. The point of growing up is discovering one’s own identity.
John comes from a family that is involved in his life, but, because of his father’s thoughtlessness and bullying tendencies, he cannot accept that his role in this family is who he really is. Even without knowing that Gabriel Grimes is not his real father, John holds him at a distance. This could be explained as a result of Gabriel’s harshness, while Roy’s wild ways, which reflect the childhood Gabriel had, might be the result of his father’s narcissistic pampering.
The identity that John prefers is that of “Great Leader of his People,” a fantasy clearly derived from his education in the Bible. With hope, he sees glimmers of this identity being possible in the praise he receives at school, but unfortunately his family’s values are deeply ingrained and he views himself as a sinner. Looking at his features in a mirror, John does not know what to think of himself, “for the principle of their unity was indiscernible, and he could not tell what he most persistently desired to know: whether his face was ugly or not.”
To settle the question of his identity, John goes beyond the features of his own personality and attaches his interests to someone outside of the family, Elisha. The loud, showy religious experience he has in the end is satisfying to his identity in several ways: it allows him to be like Elisha by having a seizure similar to his; it makes the strongly religious side of his family pleased by “converting” John into their religious life; and it satisfies his youthful ego by being loud and exotic and drawing everyone’s attention to him.
Duty and Responsibility
In the middle of the novel comes a moment where Gabriel refuses to face his duty squarely, and the results of his action reverberate across time and end up affecting all of the members of the Grimes family. In this pivotal episode, Gabriel convinces himself that his responsibility to Deborah and to the people who value his preaching would be betrayed if he admitted to getting Esther pregnant. So he backs away from her, avoiding the touch of her hand, as if pretending that he is not responsible for the child could change his moral obligation.
As a result of his action, Esther left town to give birth, which probably causes the strain that made her die during labor. ]f his father had raised him, Royal would not have been spoiled the way his grandparents spoiled him, and his life would not have headed “towards the disaster that had been waiting for him from the moment he had been conceived.” Florence might have been able to give up on the sibling rivalry of her childhood and concentrate on preserving her marriage if she had not received the letter that told her Gabriel had been unfaithful to her friend Deborah. If he had shared Royal’s life, Gabriel would not have fooled himself and Elizabeth into thinking that he was willing to accept the duty of raising her child John, and they would therefore never have been married.
The novel certainly does not present responsibility as a pleasant thing, as seen in the way that John, feeling responsible for his family, feels like a sinner, while his brother Roy, who causes the family nothing but grief, sails along merrily with a clear conscience. In this book, where consequences carry on from one generation to the next, responsibility is treated seriously.
God and Religion
Although this book’s main setting is a storefront church, and the strongest character, Gabriel, was once a successful preacher, and the main character, John, has a religious experience that helps him calm his greatest worries, it would be inaccurate to call this a book about religion. The truly devout characters, Elizabeth and Elisha, keep their religious feelings to themselves and only discuss them when asked. To Gabriel and John, religion is a matter of posturing, of behaving in certain accepted ways for the benefit of those watching. Gabriel’s abuse of his family members indicates that he is aware of a difference between public and private life. He seems to have no more faith in God’s omnipotent power than Richard, who told Elizabeth, when she mentioned the love of Jesus: “You can tell that poking bastard to kiss my big black ass.” Richard was at least sincere in his disdain for God, while Gabriel as a result of his difficult childhood, has learned to say things that people want to hear, just like the Twenty-Four Elders he joined, who he thought of as “circus performers, each with his own special dazzling gift.”
The fact that the characters in this book are black is undeniably significant, but, because they seldom interact with white characters, this cannot be considered a book that pretends to deal with race relations. The presence of racism and bigotry is felt throughout the story: in the rape of Deborah and the subsequent beating of her father; in Gabriel’s nervousness about talking to Royal in the street; in John’s belief in his own special gift because a white teacher showed interest in him; in the treatment of Elizabeth and Richard by white policemen. Functionally, race is used here as a tool to highlight characteristics that are already present: the meek seem meeker and the bold seem bolder when they let their personalities show in front of white people. There are very few positive white characters shown here, but author James Baldwin is not trying to portray reality, he is trying to show how things look from within this closed community. Blacks and whites seldom have any reason to interact here unless there is trouble.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, James Baldwin, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998