Go Tell It on the Mountain

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John Grimes wants to be a man standing on his own; at the same time, he wants his father, Gabriel, to love him. He feels oppressed by his father and by his circumstances as a black youth in New York during the Depression. To achieve manhood, he must either accept his heritage or embrace a world he instinctively feels is evil: the materialistic and oppressive white world.

In order to accept his heritage in the religious terms he understands, he must come to terms with his father, the prophet and preacher. To John, it appears that Gabriel loves neither John nor his mother. John both loves and hates Gabriel; he wants to kneel before God but not before his father.

Gabriel is a hard and passionate man who sees himself as chosen by God to found a long line of preachers of the true gospel. Gabriel has made himself hard in order to control his strong desires for worldly pleasure. If Gabriel does love his wife and stepson, it is with the stern love of a judging God rather than the forgiving love of Jesus. Gabriel seems to reserve tenderness for his wayward, natural son, Roy. Gabriel prefers that Roy continue the line of preachers and resents the fact that John is more likely to be a preacher.

In the third of the novel’s three parts, John experiences a religious conversion. Though this conversion does not make his father love him as John hopes it may, it allows John to feel compassion for Gabriel and for all suffering people whose hearts’ desires conflict with their souls’ aspirations.

Baldwin has drawn on his childhood in Harlem to give authenticity to his story. Because John, Gabriel, and other family members are so fully and deeply portrayed, this is a powerful first novel. Though the religious experiences of these characters may seem sectarian, they are really universal. All of the major characters are trying to build and sustain community in the face of dehumanizing oppression. Their particular version of Christianity is an effective response to being captives in a racist culture.


Baldwin, James. Conversations with James Baldwin. Edited by Fred Standley and Louis H. Pratt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. The...

(The entire section is 914 words.)