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Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Why It's a Masterpiece (Week 13)

By Annie KapurPublished about a month ago Updated 30 days ago 8 min read
Top Story - May 2024
From: Amazon

Published on the 18th of May, 1953, ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ became the book that James Baldwin is probably most famous for. Including the very real impacts of violence upon the African American community during a time of turbulence for Civil Rights, James Baldwin became an absolute superstar not just of his race, but of the oppressed in every situation, in every country, all over the world. From Palestine to the Civil Rights Movement, from the LGBTQA+ to Muslim Migrants from war-torn countries, James Baldwin is the voice of the oppressed not just through the way he presents the division, but the way he presents a reality that the oppressors could not possibly be aware of. A reality in which every day is a fight to survive. What makes this even more real is that this is a semi-autobiographical novel. In my personal opinion, James Baldwin was the most articulate man in history.

Plot

From: Amazon

It’s John’s birthday and he must do regular chores and eat a regular breakfast of not much. He thinks about his strained relationship with his father and the church in which his father is sometimes a preacher. The church is a huge part of his family’s life and they spend a large portion of it supporting the church. His younger brother, Roy, also dislikes their father because he is so strict and has been rebelling unlike John. Once John has finished his chores, his mother (Elizabeth) gives him some birthday money. He goes to watch a film at the theatre.

When he gets home, he finds out that Roy has gone with some boys to pick a fight - he’s been cut with a knife. The father (Gabriel) is angry and looks for someone to blame aside from his son. He ends up blaming his wife and his sister (Florence) - who were in the house at the time. Both object leading to Gabriel striking his wife. He is still angry with Roy though and whips him with a belt until Florence intervenes. John leaves for the church where he plays with another boy called Elisha. The family arrive shortly after.

We then move on to Florence’s story where she recalls her childhood with Gabriel and their mother who was a former slave. Their mother always put Gabriel’s future above Florence’s because he was a boy, something she resented though she was much better behaved than he was. She heads north and meets a man named Frank in New York. Frank though was irresponsible with his money and left her for another woman, dying in France during World War One. A sad story yes, but Florence has so much colour to her character that she becomes alive and three-dimensional in her narrative, the most important person of her own story.

Gabriel recalls his youth of binge drinking and debauching then, becoming a preacher after Florence left - he was 22. Deborah (a young girl who was raped by a group of white men) supports him after his mother dies and Gabriel asks her to marry him. Gabriel is often resentful that John might be saved as opposed to his two biological sons and so, he has an affair with a woman named Esther who dies in childbirth. Royal, the son, is raised by Esther’s mother and though Gabriel doesn’t acknowledge him, he is still worried Deborah may learn the truth. Royal is killed in a knife fight, which forces Gabriel to confess to Deborah. Deborah tells him to pray for forgiveness and he believes marrying Elizabeth was a sign from God.

We move on to Elizabeth who recalls the death of her mother and the fact her aunt was never a loving person. She falls in love with Richard and gives birth to John later on, but Richard doesn’t know and eventually kills himself. She meets Florence in New York and agrees to marry Gabriel because of his dedication to religion. She wonders whether Gabriel resents John purely because he is another man’s child. She returns to the present where John is lying on the floor, overcome by a religious vision.

John begins to hallucinate where he confronts his father whilst imagining religious situations. He compares his story to that of Ham’s in ‘Noah’s Ark’. John sees a vision of God and thinks he’s been saved. Everyone is happy except for Gabriel who is cynical about the whole thing. Florence is sick and confronts Gabriel with a letter from Deborah about another son. Florence then accuses her brother of making his wife and her previous child suffer because of his own misdeeds and states she will reveal everything to Elizabeth. Elisha congratulates John on his experience and the book closes upon them walking to John’s home.

Into the Book

From: Amazon

There are many obvious themes and symbols in the books and some of those are more important to understanding the book than others. First and foremost, there is the strict Pentecostal faith of Gabriel and the ‘Grimes’ family. They have to live separately from the rest of the world around them and there are many musings upon the idea of how faith plays an important role in the lives of the oppressed, often giving them an outlet of togetherness. However, faith in this novel makes us question everything. For example: the story of Ham was usually used to justify the slavery of Black people, but it is something that John thinks about during his vision. This lets the reader know that John, even though he is still young, is well aware of the histories that plagued his grandmother, a former slave.

Another instance where we see ourselves questioning how religion helps or hinders is through the way Gabriel acts. From the point in which he states he has been saved at the age of 22, he continues to play out his life by inflicting pain upon others, blaming others for his lack of position, his misdeeds and his failures in life. He is the antithesis of introspection, an introspection which his religion especially, promotes. When John thinks about his father, the one thing he notices is whether or not he fits in with the sanctity of the religion of his father - based within his own father’s views. Often viewing this as the real reason his father does not like him.

The term ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ is a spiritual song from Africa and alongside this, we have numerous references to the Bible in the book. The creation of John as this holy visionary in contrast to his father who only thinks he is seems important since the first part is called ‘The Seventh Day’. John requires this growth towards the vision in the novel to understand his true identity and sense of self, knowing the religion as the religion it is and not simply the vision of his father imposed upon his family to cover up his own violences.

"The morning of that day, as Gabriel rose and started out to work, the sky was low and nearly black and the air too thick to breath. Late in the afternoon the wind rose, the skies opened, and the rain came."

- Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Another theme is race, which is prevalent in many of James Baldwin’s novels. The understanding of the racial conflicts in the novel is more important than the racial identities themselves. There is an understanding amongst many of the characters which John comes into understanding as we make our way through the text. As the children grow, they experience more and therefore, understand what is truly happening. Though the novel is not about race, it is about the contemplations that racial divides insight. For example: the grandmother being a former slave, how that had an impact on the lives of Gabriel and Florence and therefore, a knock-on effect upon the children of John and Roy, who are the products of different parentage but experience the same acts of violence upon their identities. John often questions his father’s hatred of white people, but often wonders about what opportunities have been denied to him. He does not comment on his race, though he understands the position he is in more and more as the book takes hold.

“His mind was like the sea itself: troubled, and too deep for the bravest man's descent, throwing up now and again, for the naked eye to wonder at, treasure and debris long forgotten on the bottom—bones and jewels, fantastic shells, jelly that had once been flesh, pearls that had once been eyes. And he was at the mercy of this sea, hanging there with darkness all around him.”

- Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

The last theme I would like to discuss is how guilt is played out in the book. The first comment on guilt is Gabriel’s conversion at 22. He converts but many of his behaviours go unchanged which possibly means that because the guilt is not realised in full, it will be projected on to any children he has. This is why Royal dies. Royal is the first biological child and as Gabriel never confronts the real reason he feels guilty, he must lose something quite dear to him. In a very King David style, he loses his first born son. Another Biblical allusion but more importantly, it was meant as a wake-up call to Gabriel who now must live in fear that Elizabeth may find out. This is what shakes the end of the book.

“The rebirth of the soul is perpetual; only rebirth every hour could stay the hand of Satan.”

― Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Why It’s a Masterpiece

From: Santana Books

This novel is generally called James Baldwin’s best novel, though my personal favourite must be ‘Just Above My Head’. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked the novel as 39th on its list of the 100 greatest novels written in the English Language of the 20th century. TIME magazine included it on its like of greatest novels written in English from 1923 to 2005. It is normally regarded as an explicit novel that arouses some controversy when presented on reading lists for its domestic violence and graphic sexual content. It is fought against but, this is to no avail. The books the world hates are the books that show the world its own shame. Oscar Wilde.

Conclusion

From: New York Times

I absolutely adore this book and I love the works of James Baldwin. He is quite possibly the single most articulate author in all of history. The way he can weave a story with so much vivid imagery and symbolism, create heaps of meaning and yet be also telling you a compelling narrative is a special skill that not every author has at all. It is a brilliant achievement of literature in any race, politic or domain.

Next Week: 1984 by George Orwell

literature

About the Creator

Annie Kapur

200K+ Reads on Vocal.

Secondary English Teacher & Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

X: @AnnieWithBooks

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Comments (13)

  • Andrea Corwin 26 days ago

    Congrats on TS. 🎉 I read James Baldwin way back in the 60’s and found him fabulous!!

  • Godspower Okoro28 days ago

    You are welcome

  • This is another one fro my every growing list. Thank you for your excellent review

  • I am back to say congratulations to you!

  • Shaun Walters28 days ago

    Great review! Baldwin is one of those writers that makes you want to memorize every turn of phrase and wish it was your own

  • Kendall Defoe 28 days ago

    I knew you'd get TS for this! I have always preferred his essays, but I am glad you covered this one!

  • Angel Malaika 28 days ago

    Very interesting 🤔

  • Christy Munson28 days ago

    Loved your article and second your opinion that James Baldwin is a rare gem in the world of lit. Thank you for your timing. I think I'll go dig into some of his works now, once more. Congratulations on Top Story! 🥳

  • Ada Zuba28 days ago

    I’ve read James Baldwin and I agree with you! Fantastic review!

  • Godspower Okoro28 days ago

    Magnificent review, keep it up!

  • Caroline Jane30 days ago

    Fantastic review.

  • Esala Gunathilakeabout a month ago

    You've brilliantly done it.

  • angela hepworthabout a month ago

    Baldwin is too good. Great review!

Annie KapurWritten by Annie Kapur

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