In Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin depicts the insidious effects of systemic racism, producing for us a glimpse of the inhumanity that is the second and third generation result of the era of American slavery that took place virtually from the period of colonization through the American Civil War. The novel takes place in 1935, only 73 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (1862) and 70 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant (April 1865), ending the American Civil War, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (December 1865). Thus, the novel's characters are only slightly removed (a generation or two) from their slave ancestors. We learn, for example, in Part Two, that Gabriel's and Florence's mother was a slave, freed only by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War.
As a result of this proximity to slavery, the characters of the novel suffer a special set of physical, psychological, and social circumstances: Gabriel and Florence, for example, have siblings they will never know because, as property, their siblings were taken from their mother for various reasons (but all having to do with their slave — therefore, race — status and circumstances). The great migration north originally held promise of better times and circumstances for each character, but ultimately resulted in only a different, often more oppressive, level and manifestation of the racism they were attempting to escape.
These consequences of the American slave era and other vestiges of this period that survived the Proclamation and the War constitute the racism that Baldwin depicts in Go Tell It on the Mountain: It is second and third generation, slave-psyche racism, a racism based on the notion that one group of people is socially, genetically, and intentionally superior to another. This form of racism works its evil and malice on both the perpetrator and the victim. The processes and philosophies that enable and defend the subordination of one group of individuals to another, based on propagating and advocating artificial values and ethics for economic or status reasons, tend to infect both the victims and the victimizers.
Our very nature and culture cause us to defend what we do as morally right or definitely not wrong or, at least, morally neutral. Here and there, evil individuals may do evil things with the full knowledge that what they are doing is evil; however, most of us feel a need to convince ourselves — and, most often, others — that what we do is, at least, not wrong.
When issues of great magnitude for or against one population to the advantage or detriment of another population — especially when the outcome is to subordinate one group to another — are given a rationale in defense of their existence, that rationale, usually steeped in arrogance and insensitivity on the part of its proponents, establishes and propagates irrational delusions of righteousness and natural superiority coupled with false standards of value and ethics in both the superordinate and subordinate populations. These "delusions" of superiority are, in subsequent generations, generally accepted as moral or ethical truths.
It is the circumstance in which one has been taught and conditioned to believe and think a certain "something" without really examining or questioning it, without submitting that something to the scrutiny of logic or any other examination to determine its validity or truth. It is a kind of major premise, almost a cultural reflex, something we believe or say or do without really knowing why. Hence, at some point — in the American ethos that supported slavery — one or both populations may generally believe and endorse religious fabrications, such as the African-American blackness being the mark of Ham, or uphold distorted cultural values, such as lighter skin tones are "better" than darker skin tones. The victims of such thinking may adhere to illusions of freedom and power, such as those found in physical and sexual conquests; they may harbor diminished expectations or standards of success and satisfaction; or they may resort to any escape possible, either through opiates (such as alcohol) or exaggerated adherence to religion and religious activity.
Baldwin demonstrates this effect of racism in each of his major characters. Consider, for example, Florence's aversion to blackness; she uses skin whiteners (symbolic of self hatred), and she dislikes "common niggers," a symptom of a racist cataloguing within the race. Or consider the sadly casual explanation of how Rachel (Florence and Gabriel's mother) had lost her other children: " . . . all of whom had been taken from her, one by sickness, two by auction; and one, whom she had not been allowed to call her own, had been raised in the master's house."
In the two main characters, John and Gabriel, however, Baldwin shows the effects of racism most vividly. John is the central character in the main plot (the boy maturing physically and religiously); Gabriel figures most prominently in its major theme (the tragic effects of racism on a people and a society). Each is the product of his environment, and each reflects the debilitating nature and consequences of the racism in his environment.
The views of John and Gabriel regarding racism are polar opposites. John is still a child, naïve and inexperienced; Gabriel has suffered the realities of his subordinate position in a racist society; he is embittered, hardened, and defeated. While John recalls the kindness of a concerned teacher when he was sick, Gabriel can think only of injustices that African Americans endured where he grew up and where he lives.
Gabriel proclaims whites to be wicked and untrustworthy, warning John that, when he is older, he will find out for himself how evil they really are. John has read about racism and the injustices and tortures that blacks had endured in the South, but he has experienced none of these things himself. Because John has had no overt, negative experiences with whites, "it was hard for him to think of them burning in hell forever," as Gabriel promises they will.
John, of course, is not without racist attitudes, however. In fact, John illustrates the most tragic and insidious variety of racism: racism directed against ones own people and hence oneself. While disparaging the compliments of those of his own race, John revels in the fact that he has also been singled out for praise by whites. Baldwin writes "John was not much interested in his people . . . " and "It was not only colored people who praised John, since they could not, John felt, in any case really know." When his white school principal tells John that he is a "very bright boy," John sees a new life opening up, but when his neighbors tell him that he will be a great leader of his people, he is unmoved.
Oppression is always about power of some sort, and the power in Mountain appears to be heavily skewed in Gabriel's favor, particularly within his family and his church. In the larger context, however, in issues relating to having dominion, sovereignty, or control over one's life, Gabriel has been emasculated, an idea brought graphically to life by the powerful image of the castrated African-American soldier in "Gabriel's Prayer." Gabriel's dominance of family is an illustration of a diminished and distorted standard of power. Gabriel is the product of the racist environments in which he has existed from birth. He has suffered the anxiety and confusion of the Southern, newly freed, slave environment; anticipation and separation anxieties associated with the Great Migration; and the angst and ego-devastating environment of the Northern oppression and bigotry. Although not an excuse for his cruel behavior, it is an explanation for it. Gabriel cannot confront the society that marginalized him and give expression to his frustration and anger; thus he uses his family and the church as outlets for his emotions.