Go Tell It on the Mountain

by James Baldwin

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Places Discussed

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*Harlem. Predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City’s Upper Manhattan. Harlem is the scene of the real-time narrative of the novel, an urban community in which the lives of the central characters intertwine. Harlem is also symbolic of the historic northward migration of African Americans seeking escape from the Jim Crow South in the early twentieth century. As a physical marker of historical transition, Harlem symbolizes an ambiguous free space for the Grimes family, providing the sanctuary of a Black-defined neighborhood in America, but also signifying restricted space on another level for the characters. For example, when John Grimes and his biological father, Richard, try to create a life outside the boundaries of Harlem, they must struggle with external racial barriers and internalized mental barriers to do so.

*American South

*American South. As a region, the South resonates with symbolic importance in the memories, prayers, and visions of the novel’s characters. None of the real-time action of the novel occurs in the South; however, the South is symbolic of the psychological and historical origins of the Grimes family and other key characters. The South also works symbolically on other levels. It signifies the legacy of slavery in American history, with all of its physical, mental, spiritual and political implications for the characters, for African American history, and for the country as a whole. As embodied in the consciousness of the characters, the South also signifies the continued reality of American apartheid, which through the literary device of visionary prayer is projected “north” and played out in the present of the novel, and, by extension, it is projected into the 1950’s context of the novel’s original publication. As the place from which many of the key characters come, the South profoundly affects “where they are.”

Pentecostal church

Pentecostal church. Harlem church in which John Grimes, his family, Elisha and the “Saints” gather for prayer services on the threshing floor as the symbolic (and ironic) center of African American history and consciousness. This temple is also the place where the characters confront American history and culture, through the intense visionary experience of their prayers. Interpreters of Go Tell It on the Mountain disagree regarding whether or not John Grimes has a religious conversion on the threshing floor, and whether whatever kind of conversion he does experience is toward, or away from, the tradition represented by Gabriel and the Black church. However, among these differing interpretations, there is no dispute about the importance of the threshing floor as the altar, so to speak, where John “descends” into history and where he experiences his ultimate epiphany.

Movie theater

Movie theater. Midtown Manhattan theater that John visits on his birthday, the day of his profound rebirth. The movie theater becomes a secularized temple for John, a place where the film he sees symbolizes the world of art, open sexuality, and creativity. Drawn toward the “temptation” of art, John struggles throughout the novel to see his history and the history of his people, as a source for the liberating possibilities of artistic expression.

*Central Park

*Central Park. Large park in the middle of Manhattan that serves as a transitional space, working symbolically within the richly textured biblical imagery of the novel as a whole. Early in the novel, John crosses the park, the wilderness, to climb to the summit of a hill, and is gripped by a prophetic presentiment of freedom, power, and transcendence. His brief but sharply focused encounter with an elderly White man in the open space of the park symbolically affirms the possibility of a mutually acknowledged shared humanity. This encounter...

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occurs in a space away from the city streets, where the characters are protected for a brief moment from the identity pressures and pre-set patterns of American society.

Historical Context

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The Rise of Harlem

The Harlem area of New York City, where the Grimes family resides, is internationally famous as a predominantly African-American neighborhood with a rich cultural history spanning back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The first great wave of Blacks started migrating to New York in the 1890s. Like Gabriel and Florence, this was the generation that had been born after slavery ended in 1865, the children of freed slaves in the South—a generation with a greater sense of freedom than any before them. Between 1890 and 1910, the Black population in New York City tripled.

At first Harlem was planned as an upscale neighborhood for wealthy Blacks, but an economic depression in 1904-1905 cut off money for investment and development. Huge apartments that were meant for wealthy families were cut up with makeshift walls or rented to several families to live in together. Blacks arriving in New York City almost always ended up in Harlem, where they were allowed a degree of peace they were not given anywhere else. They migrated from the South, where Jim Crow laws made it legal to keep Blacks at economic disadvantage and where violence against Blacks was left unpunished. They arrived from Panama, where thousands of workers from the West Indies had been transplanted to build the Panama Canal and then left without jobs when the canal was completed in 1914. They also came from the Armed Forces, since a great number of the 370,000 Blacks who had served in World War I had seen racial tolerance in the rest of the world, particularly France and found it hard to go back to their small-minded home towns.

By the 1920s, Harlem was a vibrant community, the center of the African-American world. The Harlem Renaissance is the term used for the intellectual and artistic community that flourished in Harlem in the 1920s. Harlem nightclubs, such as the famous Cotton Club, were popular with affluent White New Yorkers, so that Black entertainers could earn more in a week in Harlem than they made in a month on the road, battling travel conditions and racism. As Harlem's fame grew, more people arrived.

But then in 1929, the stock market crashed, and in the months that followed the country sank into the worst financial depression in its history. No one had money for entertainers and the artists scattered to find jobs. Racist employment practices gave preference to unemployed Whites over unemployed Blacks. The Depression ruined Harlem: the thriving neighborhood became an overcrowded slum, where the lucky residents had menial jobs and the unlucky residents were unemployed. By 1935, the year this novel takes place, the former center of culture was well on its way to becoming an international symbol for poverty and urban blight.

Civil Rights

Go Tell It on the Mountain was published just as the Civil Rights movement in America was starting to show results, bringing greater social justice than there had been since the Civil War ended almost a century earlier. After the slaves were freed.

Black Americans were still not accorded equal social status. In the North, they were not held back by specific laws so much as by covert actions that were not talked about in public. In the South there were laws passed that prevented Black citizens from advancing. Blacks were kept from gaining political power by voter registration laws, which put restrictions on voters that favored Whites. Some places required land ownership in order to vote, even though Blacks had never been able to earn high enough wages to buy property; another favored trick was the I.Q. requirement, which allowed election judges to ask increasingly difficult questions of Blacks until they failed to answer one, at which point they were rejected as voters.

In 1896 the Supreme Court approved the legality of segregation in America as long as both races were offered facilities that were "separate but equal." This led to a two-tiered society that seldom practiced equality. Throughout the South, Blacks ate at different restaurants, slept at different motels, drank from different water fountains, rode on different train cars, etc. Although the accommodations for Blacks were usually shabby, people of any race could be arrested for crossing the color line.

In the mid-1950s, due in part to writings by authors like Baldwin, Blacks and Whites both became less tolerant of discrimination. The Supreme Court of 1954 ruled that the idea of "separate but equal" was impossible, that one side would always be left with substandard facilities, and so they ordered that public schools had to be open to people of all races. In 1955, one of the modern heroes of race relations Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a White man—the resulting year-long boycott of the bus system, which made officials realize that they needed their Black passengers as well as the White ones, brought international attention to the boycott's leader, Dr. Martin Luther King.

In 1957, Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, stood with protesters in front of a high school in Little Rock and refused to let nine Black students enter; the President sent National Guard troops to protect the students, showing that the federal government would protect equality even if they had to act against the state government.

Literary Style

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The setting of this novel—the impoverished part of New York known as Harlem, and more specifically the storefront church within the Harlem community—was undoubtedly a key reason for the book's popularity upon its first publication, giving intellectuals an inside look at a world not many of them had known. This setting may be the reason some people read Go Tell It on the Mountain today, even with the inner city well documented by television cameras. The important thing about this setting, though, is that it is integral to the personality of the characters, affecting them and being formed by who they are. The adult members of the Grimes family, for instance, all came to New York for different reasons.

Florence came first, thirty years earlier, rebelling against the limitations put on her as a woman; Gabriel to escape the deaths of his illegitimate son and his barren wife; and Elizabeth came with hope and love for Richard. The fact that three such diverse characters end up in the same small section of town says much about how narrowed opportunities for African-Americans were. Similarly, the fact that they all attend the Temple of the Fire Baptized despite their different reasons (Florence in despair, Gabriel to control and Elizabeth with true religious devotion) helps define the narrowness of the options each character has.

John is a true son of New York. He goes to Central Park to feel triumphant while looking out over the powerful metropolis and goes to a seedy theater in Times Square to experience the lower side of life. But he can also connect with his country roots at the local church, which is itself urban enough to have a busy hospital across the street.


The novel starts on a specific Saturday morning in 1935, but it intermingles stories from the family that go back in time to 1876, and it refers to times even earlier—back to the time of John's grandmother Rachel on the plantation before the end of the Civil War in 1865. Technically, a flashback occurs within the mind of the person that it happens to, and it happens "in scene"—that is, the narrative travels to the specific place and time of the flashback and does not just summarize what happened then. The scene where Rachel learned that the slaves were free is not a flashback because it is presented in Florence's memory as something her mother told her; Richard's death is not rendered in flashback because the action is not described as it occurred, only the evidence that his landlady found the next day that he had slit his wrists. The sermon that Gabriel gave at the Twenty-Four Elders Revival Meeting is rendered as a flashback, presented in his memory with actual details. The "Prayers of the Saints" section of this book is told mostly in flashback, but returns periodically to the real setting of the story, John's fourteenth birthday.

Stream of Consciousness

Much of the final chapter of the book, "The Threshing-Floor," applies a form of the stream-of-consciousness technique. Thoughts are presented as they pass through John's mind without reason or order, imitating the ecstatic experience that he is having on the floor of the church. John's thoughts are not recorded directly, but are filtered through the third-person narrator, who interprets what John is thinking—it is, for instance, unlikely that John would use the words "malicious" and "ironic" to describe the voice inside of his head.

Literary Techniques

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Go Tell It on the Mountain employs many of the techniques of autobiographical fiction. The author's natural familiarity with the characters and with their milieu leads to heightened subjectivity on the characters' parts, for the autobiographical author is more comfortable dealing directly with his characters' thoughts. Thus, the reader gets the characters' stories from the inside, and is much more intimately connected to them than to characters in a more conventional, objective narrative form.

Baldwin also makes extensive use of flashbacks, compressing the lives of his characters into one day by having them remember events from the past.

Social Concerns

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If Baldwin's fiction seems suffused with social issues, they are there primarily because they exist in the lives of his characters. Baldwin writes first about the human problems associated with living in the modern world, about the difficulty of balancing the pressure to conform with the need to establish an individual identity, about the inflexibility of Western culture, and about its inability to accommodate the individual when the individual differs from the norm. Since the characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain are Black people deeply involved in religion, their concerns are centered on the church's inability to solve worldly problems and on the political and socioeconomic situation of Blacks during the 1930s and 1940s (the novel is set in 1935, but is autobiographical and chronicles Baldwin's experiences in the 1940s).

The Blacks' socioeconomic trap, set up by the dominant White society, works several cruel ironies on the inhabitants of Harlem. Forced to adopt the values of White society, these people find themselves betrayed by hope. In an attempt to conform and thereby succeed, they must deny their culture, their own deep-seated values, even their Blackness. All energies focus on escaping from the harsh setting of Harlem, and yet there seems to be no permanent escape. Sex, drugs and alcohol, and religion are the only generally available escapes this novel offers its characters. To try any other route is to court disaster by stepping across the line and coming into contact with the White world, where Blacks encounter even more difficulties and dangers than in Harlem. Yet to accept the available escapes means living in a world of markedly limited possibilities. Sexual pleasure offers only a momentary respite from the outside world, while drugs and alcohol provide a temporary release that is bought at a very dear rate — prison or physical decline and, eventually, early death. Religion's "solution," as it existed during Baldwin's youth, offered an escape similar to that of drugs (forgetfulness), yet it did not solve any problems or make any of the problems go away. The values engendered by the religious escape allowed one to live a long life, but that only prolonged the individual's suffering. Thus, salvation in Harlem is really a form of condemnation, and self-condemnation at that.

Compare and Contrast

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1935: America was, like most of the world, in the midst of a long economic depression, which began with the collapse of the stock market on October 29, 1929 and lingered into the early 1940s.

1953: The United States economy finally absorbed the returning veterans from World War II reaching the lowest unemployment rate since the war ended in 1945.

Today: The stock market reaches new highs every month, which keeps production high and unemployment low.

1935: Adolph Hitler, having become the chancellor of Germany two years earlier, began exercising the dictatorial control that would eventually lead to the extermination of millions of Jews as part of his government's "Final Solution."

1953: Josef Stalin died. He had ruled the Soviet Union since 1928, and there are unconfirmed estimates that his government killed as many millions of citizens as were killed during the Nazi Holocaust.

Today: Mass murders by governments against various ethnic groups continues, including 250,000 killed in Bosnia in 1995 and 150,000 Tutsi civilians killed in Rwanda.

1935: Crime syndicates that established their power during Prohibition (1920 to 1933) continued to do battle with the government, making legends out of criminals such as Al Capone, John Dillinger and Dutch Schultz.

1953: America was in the middle of the Cold War with citizens suspected of belonging to the Communist party or associating with anyone who did could be blacklisted and lose their jobs.

Today: With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country no longer fears Communist influences; although alcohol is legal, the government wages a continuing "war on drugs."

1935: The Social Security Act was passed in order to offer government aid to senior citizens.

1953: During the post-war prosperity, the country experienced a huge swell in the birth rate, creating the "Baby Boom" generation of those born between 1947 and 1961.

Today: Government economists predict that unless the system is restructured the Social Security system will be driven to bankruptcy when the baby boomers start retiring in the year 2012.

Media Adaptations

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James Baldwin, Author, a videocassette from the Black Americans of Achievement collection, available from Schlessinger Video, 1994.

James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, a video-cassette, available from California Newsreel, 1990.

My Childhood: Hubert Humphrey and James Baldwin. Videocassette of a 1964 motion picture from Benchmark Films, 1989.

The View From Here: A National Press Club Address by James Baldwin. Audio cassette available from Spoken Arts, 1988.

James Baldwin: An Interview with Kay Bonetti is an audio cassette available from American Audio Prose Library, 1984.

James Baldwin, an audio cassette from Tapes for Readers, 1979.

The Struggle, by James Baldwin. This is a record album from Buddha Records, #BDS2004,1960.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Shirley Allen, "Religious Symbolism and Psychic Reality in Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain" in CLA Journal, Vol. XDC, No 2, December, 1975, pp. 173-99.

Richard K. Barksdale, "Temple of the Fire Baptized," in Phylon, Vol. 14, 1953, pp 326-27.

Robert Bone, "James Baldwin," in The Negro Novel in America, rev. ed, Yale University Press, 1965, pp 215-39.

Granville Hicks, "Go Tell It On The Mountain," in Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction, New York University Press, 1970, pp 87-90.

James de Jongh, Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp 5-33.

Edward Margolies, "The Negro Church James Baldwin and the Christian Vision," in Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors, J. B Lippin-cott Company, 1968, pp 102-26.

J. Saunders Redding, "Go Tell It On The Mountain," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, May 17, 1953, p 5.

For Further Studv

Robert A. Bone, "The Novels of James Baldwin," in Tri-Quarterly, Winter, 1965, pp. 3-20.

Bone suggests that in Go Tell It On The Mountain Baldwin "approaches the very essence of Negro experience" and presents a "psychic drama" of religious conversion.

Arna Bontemps, 100 Years of Negro Freedom, Dodd, Mead & Co, 1961.

At first glance, this book appears to be a pnmer for grade school children, but the author, Bontemps, was one of the most respected intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance. This book is clear and straightforward, covering history lessons that are not touched by mainstream reading lists.

Jane Campbell, "Retreat into the Self Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' and James Baldwin's 'Go Tell It On The Mountain' " in Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History, University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp 87-110.

Compares confessional elements in both novels.

Richard Courage, "James Baldwin's 'Go Tell It On The Mountain': Voices of a People," in CLA Journal, Vol. 32, No 4, June, 1989, pp 131-42.

Courage argues that the novel "highlights the role of the black church in maintaining a sense of communal identity."

Michael Fabre, "Fathers and Sons in James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain," in James Baldwin A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Keneth Kinnamon, Prentice Hall, Inc, 1974, pp. 120-38

Explores the religious and psychological symbolism of the novel.

Neil Fligstein, Going North: Migration of Blacks and Whites From the South, 1900-1950, Academic Press, 1981.

Fligstein, a sociologist, wrote this work for other professors, and it is filled with statistics and tables, but the average student should be able to get a good view of the abstract social dynamics that control the characters in Baldwin's novel.

David E. Foster, '"Cause My House Fell Down': The Theme of the Fall in Baldwin's Novels," in Critique, Vol. 13, No 2, 1971, pp 50-62.

This article explores the fall from grace in many of Baldwin's novels including Go Tell It On The Mountain

James R. Giles, "Religious Alienation and 'Homosexual Consciousness' in 'City of the Night' and 'Go Tell It On The Mountain'," in CLA Journal, Vol 7, No. 3, March, 1964, pp 369-80.

Discusses themes of religion and homosexuality in John Rechy's City of the Night and Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Howard M Harper, Jr., "James Baldwin Art or Propaganda" in Desperate Faith A Study of Bellow, Salinger, Mailer, Baldwin, and Updike, University of North Carolina Press, 1967, pp. 137-61.

Explores the fall from grace in many of Baldwin's novels including Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Marcus Klein, "James Baldwin: A Question of Identity," in After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century, World Publishing Company, 1962, pp 147-95.

Examines the link between maturation and identity in Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land. The Great Black Migration and How It Changed Society, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Covering a period later than the one portrayed in the novel—from the 1940s to the 1960s—Lemann explores the effect of the population shift on three specific cities- Chicago, Washington, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. The relevance of this book to Baldwin's novel is slightly abstract, but it is still helpful for understanding the social situation that the Grimes family faces in Harlem.

John R May, "Images of Apocalypse in the Black Novel," in Renascence, Vol 23, No. 1, Autumn, 1970, pp 31-45.

This article includes an exploration of images of apocalypse m Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Therman B. O'Daniel, "James Baldwin. An Interpretive Study," in CLA Journal, Vol 8, No 1, pp. 37-47.

Analyzes the themes of homosexuality and racism in Baldwin's novels including Go Tell It On The Mountain

Horace A. Porter, Stealing Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin, Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

This book holds Baldwin to a high standard and is not at all shy about criticizing his flaws, but it is just as free with its praise. The well-researched portrait of Baldwin that emerges here is that of a man of contradictions who learned from the best of White tradition and kept his sympathies rooted in Black culture.


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Sources for Further Study

Baldwin, James. Conversations with James Baldwin. Edited by Fred Standley and Louis H. Pratt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. The conversations are the widest-ranging collection in one book. Their subject areas are broad, including race, hatred, sex, the new South, and the role of the writer. The interviewers include a similarly broad array of writers, philosophers, and people in political and social movements, such as Studs Terkel, David Frost, Nat Hentoff, and Josephine Baker.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991. Examines Baldwin’s life and writing in the context of the Civil Rights movement, his abandonment of Christianity, and his relationships with other major writers.

Gibson, Donald B., ed. Five Black Writers: Essays on Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hughes, and LeRoi Jones. New York: New York University Press, 1970. There are four excellent chapters on Baldwin’s work, including his philosophy of being, his interpretation of the African American community in relation to the larger American society, and defenses of his work in response to critics.

Inge, M. Thomas, Maurice Duke, and Jackson Bryer, eds. Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. The long segment on Baldwin not only reviews his major works, including Go Tell It on the Mountain, but also includes his additional manuscripts and interviews that he granted about his writings.

Köllhofer, Jakob J., ed. James Baldwin: His Place in American Literary History and His Reception in Europe. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1991. This collection of essays by a polyglot group of European literary critics and theorists is, in effect, a festschrift on the occasion of Baldwin’s death. It includes the results of a symposium of international scholars who assess the impact of Baldwin, the man, and his work on European readers. Of particular interest to this group of scholars is Baldwin’s representation of African Americans to European readers.

Lynch, Michael F. “Staying out of the Temple: Baldwin, the African American Church, and The Amen Corner.” In Reviewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, edited by D. Quentin Miller. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000. Presents Baldwin as a “deacon” speaking to readers about the African American experience and Christian faith. Contains many references to Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Olson, Barbara K. “’Come-to-Jesus Stuff’ in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Amen Corner.” African American Review 31 (June 22, 1997): 295-301. Compares Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner (pr. 1954) with his first novel to determine whether they are ironic depictions of Christianity or vindications of it.

Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Inspired by the author’s dissertation, this book is a series of thoughtful, critical essays on Baldwin’s early works and ideas and professes to reinterpret his “genesis as a writer.” Essentially, Porter finds in the early works Baldwin’s ambivalence as a writer and as a Black man.

Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Contains an excellent introductory essay on the literature of Baldwin studies. It serves as a survey of some of the principal sources for the study of Baldwin, together with the discussion of the evolution of Baldwin criticism. It contains general essays as well as essays on his fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Of particular interest are essays by Fred Stanley and Shirley Allen on Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1989. A biographical “portrait” of Baldwin based on conversations and interviews with his friends as well as the recollections of Weatherby, who knew him for more than twenty-eight years. This biography takes as its starting point and theme the mystical view that Baldwin had of his life. It also is particularly instructive on the autobiographical aspects of Go Tell it on the Mountain.




Critical Essays