The novel begins in New York City on the 14th birthday of the central character in the plot, John Grimes. The reader is told immediately that the people in John's life all expect him to become a preacher when he comes of age, just as his father did. John's memories reveal bittersweet Sunday mornings as the Grimes family prepares for church services that are held in a store front church called "The Temple of the Fire Baptized," which is just a few blocks up the street.
Despite expectations for John's future in the ministry, he is not the best Sunday school student. He often becomes distracted, forgets his lessons, and is reprimanded by his Sunday school teacher, Elisha, an older boy of 17 whom John greatly admires. While John's lapses bring him the anger of his father, his brother Roy's utter disinterest is generally expected, and "[e]veryone was always praying that the Lord would change Roy's heart." John is expected to be a good example to his younger brother.
Although church services at first appear to be very free, emotional, and spontaneous, there are strict standards and expectations that must not be violated. One Sunday, Father James calls Elisha and Ella Mae before the congregation and reprimands them for the time that they have been spending together, warning them against "the sin he knew they had not committed yet," "a sin beyond all forgiveness."
The first of his family or his neighbors to wake that Saturday morning, John is greeted by a silent house. He feels an immediate sense of foreboding and recalls that he has sinned. His thoughts jump to wondering if his birthday will again go unremembered and uncelebrated.
John falls back asleep with his thoughts and awakens again after his father, Gabriel, has left for work. He goes to the kitchen to join his family and sees, as though for the first time, what the room really looks like: immured in dirt and poverty. His entrance interrupts an argument his mother and Roy, his brother, are having, and he is intensely disappointed to see that no special breakfast has been prepared to celebrate his birthday. The argument, about Gabriel and what kind of father and man he is, continues, and we see that it is one that Roy and Elizabeth have had before. Elizabeth defends her husband on the grounds that he is a good provider, while Roy derides him for beating his children. Despite the serious subject, the argument ends on a light note, and Elizabeth sends her sons off to do their weekly cleaning chores.
John's duty is to clean the front room, mainly to sweep the decaying rug in the front parlor — a Sisyphean task that John detests, because all his labor brings such a small reward and no personal satisfaction of accomplishment for him. The rug is perpetually dirty. When he has finished with the rug, John starts wiping dust from the mirror. In the midst of cleaning, he sees his own face and is shocked to see that he has not changed. He tries to see himself as his father does. He tries to find the features of the devil on his own face, those that his father has told him time and time again are there.
Giving up on trying to discover himself in his features, John reviews the family's possessions on the mantel. A malevolent green metal serpent sits in the midst of family photos and greeting cards. A photo of his father taken long ago in the South where Gabriel and his sister grew up reminds John that this is not his father's first marriage and makes him realize that, if Gabriel's first wife had lived, it would have negated John's entire existence. John wishes that he could ask this long dead woman, whom he believes Gabriel had loved, how he, John, could win his father's love.
John is called to the kitchen where his mother is doing laundry. To his surprise, she gives him money so that he can buy himself something for his birthday. He chooses to go to the movies, an activity forbidden by his father and, upon returning home, is told that his brother has been stabbed.
Although there is a great deal of blood, it is immediately obvious that Roy is in no mortal danger. While tender with Roy, Gabriel lashes out at Elizabeth verbally and then physically. After Roy calls his father a "black bastard" for slapping his mother, Gabriel removes his belt and beats Roy until Florence, the boys' aunt and Gabriel's sister, stops him.
John opens the church to clean before Saturday night Tarry Service and is shortly joined by Elisha, John's friend and youth minister, who has come to help him. The two argue playfully and then wrestle, a match that, for the first time, ends in a draw. Elisha speaks to John about salvation and foregoing earthly pleasures for the promise of Heaven. John is warned against sin and is urged to ask for the help of Jesus to overcome the devil. Soon other members of the congregation begin to arrive. John sees his parents and aunt walk in. He is shocked because he has never seen Florence in that church before and wonders what other strange happenings the night will bring.
The title of this section has certain thematic significance: "The Seventh Day" is a biblical allusion referring to Genesis 2, verses 1-3: "And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it. . . . " The biblical seventh day is a respite and a day of reward, a holy day of celebration and rest from the previous days' work in which God had completed his creation, and "God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."
Baldwin uses this creation-birth-rebirth image throughout the novel: The novel opens in March, the beginning of spring, associated with new life and birth. It is John's 14th birthday, "birthday" itself suggesting some significance in this regard and the special significance of the 14th birthday connoting puberty, that is, the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. Elizabeth, John's mother, is pregnant. The home and church pressure "unit[e] to drive [John] to the alter," that is, drive him to "being saved" or "born again." Perhaps most significantly, the image can be seen in the symbolic new beginning that virtually every adult character in the novel seeks in moving from the oppression of the South in search of something better in the North. The image appears even in the title of the novel; the "It" in Go Tell It on the Mountain is "Jesus Christ is born."
In the Christian world, Sunday has been designated as the symbolic representation of the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day that Christians have set aside as a day of rest to worship and to celebrate their religion. The allusion is certainly significant here in at least two ways. First, according to the Bible, God rested on the seventh day after his crowning creation — that of man — on the sixth day. Poignantly, it is on the sixth day, a Saturday, that John, one of the major characters, is fated to end his own childhood (innocence) and initiate the biological process of becoming a male adult — symbolically the physical creation of a man. As we will learn in the climax of the novel (Part Three, "The Threshing Floor"), John will also end his religious dilemma and questioning and initiate the religious process of rebirth, symbolically creating a new Christian soul. The process of creation at least for that part of his life ends, and, when his life is taken up again the next day, John is changed and redefined.
Second, the mood, tone, and atmosphere of the Genesis creation serve as direct contrasts to the world that Baldwin describes in this section. When God created man on the sixth day, he gave him "dominion . . . over every living thing that moveth upon the earth," and when he surveyed his creation, God concluded "it was very good." The mood and tone are triumphant, hopeful, proud, and glorious. There is anticipation of great accomplishments and power for God's favorite and most significant creation in a bright, new, and clean world. This, however, is hardly the world or fortune of the Baldwin characters and, especially, of Baldwin's new man, John, who essentially has dominion over nothing and survives in a world that he views as filthy and sinful.
The opening vignettes represent the various settings — home, church, neighborhood — as dingy, drab, depressing, nearly worn out, and poverty laden. It presents the various characters — family, passersby, congregation, ministers, and authority figures — as oppressed and manipulated, highly sexual and emotional, and driven by reacting to circumstances rather than controlling (having dominion over) them. These descriptions conform to and exemplify the dirt imagery that Baldwin links to the story's general environment. These images communicate, at different times, various meanings from filthy or squalid conditions to contemptible or vile acts to personal corruption and sin. For example, consider the scene in which John surveys the family kitchen. Dirt doesn't just exist passively in the kitchen; it is personified: It "triumphs," "crawls," and lives "in delirious communion with the corrupted walls." The rug in the parlor, once beautiful, is now frayed from use and impossibly dirty, demons adding dirt while John tries to remove it. Even the family and neighborhood church is a storefront — a used, converted (from its original intended purpose), and dust laden environment.
Religion for this community is not merely a Sunday, once-a-week happening; it is a part of everyday life. Because there appears to be no avenue of escape from one's oppression in this world, one holds out hope it will happen in the next. Consequently, religion and religious activities are of primary importance. Because of this, Baldwin uses numerous religious and biblical references, allusions, and parallels to communicate and emphasize his themes. (The reader will do well to keep a copy of the Bible with a decent concordance close at hand.) Following are some of the more important allusions.
The phrase "Go tell it on the Mountain" is, itself, a verse from an African-American spiritual: "Go, tell it on the Mountain, over the hills and everywhere, that Jesus Christ is born!"
Many of the characters have biblical names that reflect their personalities, mirror their biblical counterparts, or add depth or subtle meaning to their character. Gabriel, for example (see the Character Analyses for further identification), is an angel in the Bible who acts as God's messenger. The name itself means "mighty man of God." As a minister, the character Gabriel in the novel does indeed bring the word of God to his neighbors, and he is mighty in the lives of his family members. Also, the biblical Elizabeth is a very devout woman who was a cousin to the Virgin Mary. God promised and gave the barren Elizabeth a son in her old age. Her son was John the Baptist. Baldwin's Elizabeth is the mother of John, the central character. (There is some scholarly debate over which John in the Bible John Grimes is intended to mirror. Some argue that he is intended to be John the Baptist whose mother was Elizabeth. John baptized the holy, including his cousin, Jesus, while prophesizing that God himself would later baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Other scholars insist that it is John of Patmos whom John Grimes is intended to resemble. They argue that there are many correlations between this biblical John and the novel's John, including several passages that are closely paralleled. Also, Baldwin's John is helped through his struggle on the threshing floor by recalling a religious song about John of Patmos.)
The biblical Deborah, the name in the novel of Gabriel's first wife, is a prophet and the only female Judge in the Bible who, with exemplary faith and courage, assisted in defeating the Canaanites and saving Israel, circa 1200 b.c. Elisha, whose name means "God is salvation," was a miracle worker of the Old Testament and, therefore, preceded Jesus. Although he was available to all social strata, Elisha ministered mainly among the common and poor people. He was very sensitive to the needs of the suffering and performed miracles to alleviate their pain. The novel's Elisha is much like his namesake. While he does not raise the dead or multiply food, he is still very close to his Lord and often overcome by spiritual ecstasy, falling down and speaking in tongues. He preaches salvation to the young John and acts as his friend while the boy is going through a difficult period in his life. He lessens John's mental anguish and the pain of his solitude.
Finally, the scriptural tone and syntax of the language Baldwin uses throughout the novel demonstrates biblical influence in the everyday lives and language of the community.
In the short, opening paragraph of the novel, Baldwin introduces several conflicts and issues in the life of one of the central characters of the novel, John Grimes. These various issues include John's conflict with religion in general and the ministry specifically (as evidenced in the narrator's observations that "Everyone had always said he would be a preacher just like his father . . . ;" "John, without ever really thinking about, had come to believe it;" and by the age of 14, " . . . it was already too late" to change this fate); the conflict between John and his father; the conflict with his society (as represented by the "everyones" in this paragraph and their collective expectation that he would become a preacher); and the conflicts associated with pubescence (he is just turning 14).
But more significantly, a few pages later, the careful reader is already sensing that there is another — perhaps, more serious — conflict present: Something is wrong in this community of individuals who demonstrate or articulate personal feelings of frustration, of helplessness, and of dissatisfaction because of their inability to control or to have significant influence over their lives and circumstances — a far cry from having dominion over all other things. In addition, there is much more here than the typical conflicts faced by just any young male facing manhood, even one who is also wrestling with his religious identity and beliefs.
Through John, his family, and his environment, Baldwin exposes the social and psychological devolution of a people who have suffered and continue to suffer the insidious affects of racism from which there appears to be no escape, save death. The characters in the novel are only slightly removed (a generation or two) from their slave ancestors. We learn, for example, in Part Two, that Gabriel and Florence's mother was a slave, freed only by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 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).
As a result of this proximity to slavery, the characters of the novel suffer a special set of physical, psychological, and social circumstances: As we learn later, 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 (the journey north for many southern blacks) originally held promise of better times and circumstances for each character but ultimately resulted in only a different, often more oppressive, manifestation of the racism they were attempting to escape.
These outcomes and consequences of the American slave era and other vestiges of this period 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.
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 deliberately do evil things, but most of us feel a need to convince ourselves — and, most often, others — that what we do is, at least, not wrong. Therefore, we construct a rationale that justifies our actions. And so it was with the justification of slavery and racial categorizing. In subsequent generations, these rationales are accepted as moral or ethical truths. Hence, at some point, one or both populations may generally believe and endorse religious fabrications, such as the African-American blackness being the mark of Ham (Genesis IX, 25); distorted cultural values, such as lighter skin tones are "better" than darker skin tones; diminished expectations or standards of success and satisfaction, such as, a "storefront church" or merely "putting food on the table" or "clothes on the back" as being sufficient; or they may resort to opiates for escape, such as drinking and exaggerated adherence to religion and religious activity.
Baldwin demonstrates this affect of racism in each of his major characters, but in the two main characters, John and Gabriel — father and son — most vividly. John is the central character in the story's main plot (the maturation of a boy physically and religiously) while Gabriel figures most prominently in its major theme (the tragic effects of racism on a people and a society). Each character is the product of his environment, and each reflects the debilitating nature and consequences of the racism in his environment.
The plot of the story concentrates on the man-child, John, who is just turning 14 and wrestling both with the natural biological transformation that is taking place within him and with his confused social and religious status. John sees himself connected to evil. In part, he feels this because Gabriel, the second most significant character in the plot, has told him seriously and often that he is ugly and that the face of Satan can be seen in his features. But John also feels this way, in part, because he is reacting as a normal young male reacts who, during puberty, is confused by the irresistible urges of his new sexuality juxtaposed to the social, religious, and parental proscriptions against them.
Baldwin emphasizes John's sexual-moral conflict in the incident on the morning of his birthday. While looking at a stain on the ceiling which in John's mind has begun to resemble a naked woman, his thoughts turn to his "sin" of masturbating in the restroom of his school while thinking of the older boys who competed to see "whose urine could arch higher" and he "had watched in himself a transformation of which he could never speak." Although these feelings and, in fact, these episodes fall well within what is normal for the pubescent male, John is not aware of that, and he believes that he is evil, that his "heart was hardened against the Lord."
We learn a good deal about John in this first part through the literary device of character foil. The reader is informed of the differences between John and his younger brother, Roy: John is the good son, and Roy has a reputation as the typical bad seed. Whereas John is expected to become a minister, Roy looks as if he is headed for damnation. Roy is unabashed and boastful about his sexual conquests involving some of the girls in the neighborhood, and he frequently watches the prostitutes in the basement of a condemned house, which John avoids doing. John's virtues are reflected by Roy's apparent vices.
This relationship is often troublesome for John because he is expected to act as a good example to his younger brother and is often reprimanded for Roy's actions. John is held to a higher standard by his parents and everyone else in the community and is chastised for slight deviations while Roy trespasses with impunity because it is his expected behavior. For example, when neither John nor Roy know the Sunday school lessons, John's forgetfulness "earned him the wrath of his father," but "no one really expected of Roy what was expected of John." Also, unless Gabriel keeps a strict eye on Roy, Roy would disappear after Sunday school and not return to morning service. He would, in fact, be gone all day. It is in this manner that Baldwin reveals to the reader John's character. We find out who John is through direct description, and we find out who John is not through descriptions of Roy.
Baldwin further develops John's conflicts with his father and his religion in the episode of the movie house in the city. The city acts as an unholy lure for John. On Broadway, John sees beautiful lights and magnificent towers, movie theaters, and motor cars. Here John imagines being rich and loved. It is a lure that is more attractive than the alternative: his own surroundings, the buildings, "huddled, flat, ignoble, close to the filthy ground, where the streets and the hallways, and the rooms were dark, and where the unconquerable odor was of dust, and sweat, and urine, and homemade gin." John has "seen rich people in fancy clothes but never an angel of the lord robed in white. He has looked upon all sorts of finery in the shop windows but has never had a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. He sees that the way of the cross had given [Gabriel] a belly filled with wind and bent his mother's back," but John has never seen religion make anyone happy or strong. How can one doubt that a child of barely 14 would be tempted by the broad way to shun the narrow way? The rewards which he had been promised in heaven for a good and holy life "were unimaginable — but the city was real."
One real pleasure of the city for John is the movie houses, movie houses forbidden by Gabriel. So, ignoring Gabriel's mandate against them, John quickly enters the theater lest he be seen by a member of his church, revealing that John, too, feels guilt about attending the movie, guilt beyond his father's admonishments. John initially chooses this particular movie because he identifies with the young man on the advertisement. However, by the end of the film, John wants to be like the cruel woman who torments the main character. She is proud and strong and able to tell the whole world, "You can kiss my ass." John sees these as desirable characteristics because he has constant feelings of humility and contrition. He lacks the strength to stand up against his father or his community to protect himself. John, who is forever holding back, not expressing all that he desires, wants the freedom of expression that this wicked, godless woman has. In the end, the woman dies and John imagines that her soul is transported to hell, which makes him think twice about his plans to emulate her. He believes that God led him to this movie to reinforce the teachings of his church. Thus, John's dilemma is defined: the narrow way (the church) or the broad way (the material world).
The character with the most thematic significance is Gabriel, who has a major impact on every other character's life. 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; the anticipation and separation anxieties associated with the Great Migration; and the angst and ego-devastating environment of the Northern oppression and bigotry. In Part One, we learn that Gabriel is viewed differently by different characters.
The theme that permeates the novel and that Gabriel's character in particular illustrates is that of racism and its various forms and consequences. Racism is evident in nearly every paragraph of the work. Every character, in large part, is the result and product of racist concepts, racist values, and racist activities. The views of John and Gabriel regarding racism are polar opposites. But John is yet 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.
John is not without racist attitudes, however. John, in fact, 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.
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. 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. He recalls a white teacher who brought him medicine when he was ill. He knows that there are regulations that prohibit him from living side by side with whites in the fancy apartment building that he passes, but no one has accosted him during his walk. Quite the opposite, when he ran down the hill in Central Park, he nearly knocked down an old white man. Surprised, but far from being angry, the man smiled at John, who smiled back. It was nothing but kindness and pure affection for a stranger, another human being, which passed between the two in that smile.
Oppression is always about power of some sort, and the power in Mountain appears to be heavily skewed in Gabriel's favor. He wants it all, and, in relation to his family, he has it all. If family members disagree with him or do something he does not like, he physically attacks them. In the larger context, however, in issues relating to having dominion, sovereignty, or control over one's life, Gabriel has been emasculated. Gabriel's dominance of family is an illustration of a diminished and distorted standard of power. The reader learns that, at one time, Gabriel was very powerful in the community also. When he was still living in the South, his name was known far and wide, and he was considered a great man of God. He traveled widely, his name appearing on great signs that heralded his arrival. It was after he moved north and had a family to provide for that his status, and hence his power, decreased. Instead of caring for the flock's souls, he was relegated to changing their light bulbs. It may be partially due to his loss of status in the community that Gabriel rules his family with an iron fist. Overcompensation at home does not replace his lost glory, but it helps to ease the blow.
John is also developing a sense that he, too, is powerful. When the school principal tells him that he is bright, he sees not only power but also salvation. He immediately grasps that his intelligence is power, a power, he feels, that will assist him in escaping his oppression which, at this point in his maturation, he sees as his dominant father. Someday John will be able to raise himself out of his father's world, which he does not want for himself. It is John's conflict with his father that feeds his intellect. Although John sees himself as having a heart full of sin for rejecting his father's life, he understands that his head will lead him to a different life.
A common literary device used by Baldwin in this section is that of foreshadowing, which predicts something in the future that the character (and sometimes the reader) knows nothing about. Perhaps the line most full of foreshadowing because it calls upon two separate events is spoken by Elizabeth. During her argument with Roy, she warns him against his headstrong ways, saying that it appears that he won't stop "till someone puts a knife in you." Later that same day, someone does indeed put a knife into Roy. Elizabeth's line also conjures up another event. Royal, Gabriel's unclaimed son, died from a stab wound he received over a game of cards.
The actual stabbing of Roy again calls to mind Royal's death. Elizabeth inadvertently calls up Royal's death when she suggests to Gabriel that they pray to God to stop Roy before he receives a mortal wound. Her unwitting reminder to Gabriel of his first son earns her a blow that knocks her to the floor. Despite the fact that Roy's wound is to his forehead, Gabriel says that his attackers were trying to cut his throat. Again, it was Royal whose wound was to the throat. That Royal's death is referenced four separate times in such a short period suggests its significance.
tarry to wait: in this context, to wait for the Lord.
Tarry Service Saturday evening service in which the churchgoers wait for the Lord to speak to them.
saints members of the Church of the Fire Baptized who have been saved.
deadlock a tie between opponents in the course of a contest.
Harlot a prostitute.
blasphemous irreverent or profane.
golden text Holy scripture; the Bible.
squalling crying or screaming loudly and harshly.
Redeemer here, God.
malevolent having or showing ill will; malicious.
ravenous greedily or wildly hungry; voracious or famished.
commune to talk together intimately.
testify to bear witness to; affirm; declare.
the Word here, the word of God; Holy Scripture.