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.

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*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 occurs in a space away from the city streets, where...

(The entire section contains 4423 words.)

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Critical Essays