Go Tell It on the Mountain is a multifaceted novel that tells many different stories and confronts many different themes. On the simplest level, it is the story of a young boy coming of age. The boy's story gains complexity as it is interwoven with the stories of his mother, father, and aunt. Go Tell It on the Mountain is also the story of religion and racism and familial expectations and perceptions and how these forces impact people struggling to survive.
Style of Narration
Go Tell It on the Mountain doesn't follow what many would consider to be the standard style of narration in which the events in the novel are presented sequentially and move, as the characters do, through a semblance of real time. Instead, Go Tell It on the Mountain is set on the birthday of John Grimes, but the story spans several decades. The flashbacks of John's aunt, his mother, and his father give the reader insight into the lives and minds of the characters.
Such insight was important to Baldwin who was most interested in the person behind the persona. He believed that to truly know a person and to understand why a person reacts or behaves in a certain way, you have to know the important events that shaped that person's life. By the end of the novel, the manner in which the characters react to any given situation can be extrapolated not only from their past actions but also by the understanding that the reader has gained of the character's motivating force.
By using the frame story, Baldwin is able to tell many stories in such a way that the readers essentially go on a voyage of discovery, learning about the characters as they are revealed by themselves and by the others. Had Baldwin told the story in traditional linear style, much of the impact would have been lost. By withholding key information and surprising the reader with it throughout the novel, Baldwin builds suspense and is better able to hold the interest of his audience.
This style of narration also imitates the way people learn about each other in real life. Upon first meeting, a person does not truly understand the motivation behind another person's actions. In the novel, for example, the reader cannot comprehend the actions and reactions of the characters in Part One because so very little is known about them. By reading through, though, the reader gains an understanding of the characters and the events that shaped their lives and, therefore, gains an understanding of why they behave as they do.
Baldwin believed that the only way to happiness was to truly know the people in one's life. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, it is painfully obvious that none of the characters really know each other. It is only the omniscient narrator who has a full and unbiased knowledge of all events of significant importance. The use of the omniscient narrator is, in itself, vital to the novel because no single character knows the full and true story of every other character. In fact, the individual characters cannot be trusted to give an accurate description of their own personal histories, colored as these histories are by their own feelings and perceptions.
By using the omniscient narrator, Baldwin is able to give an accurate and complete description of the lives of his characters. The reader is shown their emotions, actions, and reactions and is therefore able to understand their personalities. Although individual characters may interpret and react to the same situation in different ways according to their own preconceptions and prejudices, the reader is given the opportunity to see events as they actually happened.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is set during the Great Migration, a time in American history characterized by a mass exodus of African Americans from the rural south to northern cities. In the years between 1916 and 1921, half a million southern blacks (representing 5 percent of the black population) moved to northern and, to a lesser extent, western cities. In a broader historical context, which includes the time period between 1890-1960, the statistics are even more startling. In 1890, 90 percent of American blacks lived in southern and rural settings, while the remaining 10 percent lived in northern or urban settings. By 1960, those statistics had reversed, with 90 percent of African Americans living outside the South and in urban settings.
The Chicago Defender, a northern newspaper, encouraged the migration by advertising jobs and promising better opportunities in the North than could be found in the South. Many factory owners offered to pay the train fare for southern blacks, who agreed, in return, to work for these factory owners until the price of the ticket could be deducted from the workers' pay. Many southerners were encouraged by The Chicago Defender in this way to travel north. In fact, the Defender was so effective in drawing people to the North that it was banned in several southern counties by whites who saw their cheap labor pool disappearing.
Many people were ready to leave the South for a variety of reasons: a weak agricultural system that offered low wages and back-breaking work and little chance for advancement; repressive Jim Crow laws and a legal system that offered little outlet for social protest; and, in the years between 1900 to 1910, the highest number of lynchings in America's history. Those years experienced a record 846 reported lynchings. Of those, 754 were of blacks.
In the novel, the reader can see that the Great Migration is underway. There are many characters who travel north during the story. The first, of whom the reader is only shown a brief glimpse, is the father of Florence and Gabriel. In fact, the only information Florence tells about him is that he went North. "And not only her Father; every day she heard that another man or woman had said farewell to this iron earth and sky, and started on the journey north." Florence herself is the next to make the journey, followed by Ester. Later, Ester's grown son follows his mother's footsteps and dies in Chicago. Elizabeth and Richard move to New York to start their lives together. Gabriel, the last character to move north, brings the count to seven.