Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 1952. Vintage International, 2013.
Summary of Work
John, the stepson of Gabriel Grimes and son of Elizabeth, is sure he is expected to be a man of God, but he worries he is not yet saved. He knows that there is sin in him and he doesn’t know what to do about it. He goes to church regularly with his family. Elisha, the preacher’s son, comes into town, and he teaches Sunday school. John is having a hard time paying attention because he is focused so much on Elisha. He gets to watch Elisha dance before God and pray and sing, and he wants to be very much like Elisha. Elisha is once reprimanded for spending time with Ella Mae, Harriet Washington’s ward. They are publicly shamed in front of the congregation and made an example of for being together so often unchaperoned and unmarried. After that, Elisha never sees Ella.
John wakes up the next Saturday to realize it’s his fourteenth birthday, and wonders if his family will remember. Sometimes his family has completely forgotten. But he doesn’t make a fuss about it. He goes downstairs for breakfast and his mom and his brother Roy are having a heated discussion about their father Gabriel. Gabriel, a man of god and a former preacher, regularly beats his sons for disobedience. They are not allowed to play outside with other children or go to the movies or do anything that Gabriel Grimes considers unholy. So they spend their days in the house or at school doing work and they go to church as a family on Sundays. They also go on Saturday evenings to the prayer service and they regularly have Bible lessons.
When his mother asks him to do chores, he believes his mother has forgotten about his birthday. He does the chores, and afterwards his mother calls him in the kitchen. She gives him some coins and tells him he can go out and buy what he wants for his birthday, but that he needs to do so before his father comes home. He goes into New York City and determines that he will go see a movie, an activity which has been forbidden him by his father. He feels guilty as he starts watching the film, but as the film goes on he empathizes with the main character. John is tormented because he cannot decide if he wants to follow religion or if he wants to participate in what his father determines are sinful activities. He knows that the people in his school and at other places are good people, even though his father says they are sinners. His father has also told him to never trust a white person.
When he gets out of the movies he sees his sister Sarah running home with a package. He quickly follows and finds that his brother Roy has been sliced open with a knife from his temple to his eye. He had gone to the West side of town and picked a fight with white boys. His father is taking care of his son and is angry that John has been gone so long. John goes to take care of his baby sister. And his Aunt Florence is also there. They argue over what happened and over his wife’s inability to keep his son in the home, and Florence is defending his wife Elizabeth when Gabriel strikes his wife. Roy tells his father never to strike his mom again or he will kill him.
That evening John goes to the Church early to clean it before the Saturday evening prayer service. Elisha also comes along. They wrestle and then clean the Church. Slowly people come in and they start to pray as Elisha plays a sad tune on the piano. As Florence prays, she thinks back on her past: she was a girl born to a former slave, and her mother saw no need to move North. She forced her daughter to stay home instead of go to school so she could learn what her mother saw as the skill set she needed to be a wife, mother, and housekeeper in the South. Florence resented her brother Gabriel’s opportunities to learn and be out and about doing whatever he pleased, and felt disgusted at his philandering and drinking and gaming. His mother always asked him to come to God, but he never would. Then, as Florence’s mother was about to die and her employer had asked her to be his concubine, she decided to buy a ticket to New York and leave everything behind. Her family tries to stop her, but she goes North and gets a job and finally meets a husband, who is a bluesman and who wastes his money on drink and frivolous things. She loves him, but always fights with him. One day he comes home and they have a large fight and he never comes back. She finds out from his mistress years later that he has died in the war in France. She is heartbroken.
As Gabriel watches his sister pray, he prays and thinks back on his life. After his sister left he became a preacher, and he was very successful. He marries Deborah, a woman who had been gang raped by white men in a field as a young girl. She is plain and eight years his senior, but very faithful and a woman of God. She is barren, and one day he meets a young woman named Esther who he is tempted by. While they are at work together, she gets a little drunk and lures him into the house, and he decides to sleep with her. They have sex together for nine days, and then he determines he can no longer be unfaithful and ends the affair. But she gets pregnant. He will not leave his wife and marry her and wants nothing to do with her, so he steals his wife’s savings and gives it to Esther to go to Chicago. She dies in childbirth there, and her family brings her body back and buries it, and take care of the baby, Royal. Royal is the name he was going to give his firstborn son. He watches his son grow up but will not claim him, and he dies in a knife fight in Chicago when he is 18. When he learns this and breaks down, Deborah admits that she knows about the affair and wants to know why he never admitted it and claimed his son. She tells him that he had better repent and keep repenting until he knows for certain God has forgiven him. She dies soon later from her illness. Florence also knows about her brother’s sins because Deborah sent her a letter about it.
Elizabeth was the daughter of a bluesman. Her mother died young, and she was taken away from her father by her Aunt, who believed her father would not raise her right. Elizabeth resented her Aunt for it her whole life and hated the church. While living in the South she met Richard, the store boy, and they fell in love. She follows him to New York City, and they work in the same hotel together. She starts sleeping with him and gets pregnant, but doesn’t tell him. One early morning when they stay out too late, he takes her back to Harlem but then gets caught in a bad situation that lands him in jail. The cops tell her he robbed a store, even though he didn’t and was simply caught in the crosshairs. He will not sign a confession, and he is severely beaten. The cops let her see him, and he stands trial and is found innocent on others’ testimony. He is broken when he gets out of prison and he kills himself, and she never gets to tell him she is pregnant. She still works to take care of herself and the baby, and now she lives in her own space instead of her Aunt’s friend’s home, but she is miserable. She meets Florence, and confides in her about her son and his daddy. She becomes fast friends with Florence, and when Gabriel comes to town, she doesn’t understand why Florence doesn’t like him. Gabriel ends up marrying Florence and promising he will raise the child like his own. She thinks about his promise and that he kept the word but not the spirit. Gabriel hates that John is more righteous than his own son, and cannot stand the thought of John being better than his flesh and blood.
John falls under the power of the Lord and has a vision of going through the gates of hell and being under Satan’s power, and being lifted up by Christ. The congregation is elated that he has been saved. Elisha helped him through the process. The only people who are not so happy are his mother and stepfather. As they walk in the morning light, for they have prayed all night long in the Pentecostal Church, Elisha and John talk about praying and staying on the path to God. Florence and Gabriel talk about Gabriel’s past and Gabriel is furious that Florence knows and that she knows how much he hates John. Elizabeth is crying for her past love and for the lack of love Gabriel has for her son and herself and the sorrow he has brought into her life as the other members of the Church talk about how amazing it is that John has so young discovered the path to God and been saved. As Elisha and John get to John’s home, John wishes to tell him about his father, but only asks for Elisha to always pray for him and be with him. He walks into the house at his father’s bidding before Sunday services later that morning.
Brief Note on Themes
Religion and how it works within people is a large theme in this book. This is particularly true for how certain truths for certain individuals lead them in specific paths and often lead to their downfall as they think their way is the only right way. What does it mean to be saved? How can a person come to be saved through Christ? And can a person stay saved, or are they destined to continually fail and fall into sin?
There is also a theme of finding identity and what it means to be religious and American and living in the North versus the South as a black person. Black identity is also overtly discussed, as each of these people come to learn what it means to be black in America and to in one way or another fear and resent white people and their power.
The power of the word of God through the Bible and through prophecy are always present in the work. There is a big tension between being part of the world and being part of religion. This is always in some way or other expressed using the blues and bluesmen and the jook joint spaces they are played in as a secular representation, and the church and the Bible and God as contrast. That tension is a long and well established running theme in black history, and many preachers were at some point bluesmen before they turned to God. Others were originally preachers who turned to blues. So there is a lot to explore in the ways the “world” is represented in comparison to religion. It’s also interesting that dance is associated with the Bible and God, and there does seem to be a sense of possession, much like the mounting of the Vodun, in black Christian worship in the book. When blues is mentioned, any activities surrounding it are always linked to sex. This continues to show that the music and dances, both done secularly and religiously, have the same call and response ties, the same roots.
Family relationships and sexual relationships and dalliances, are also very common in this work, and love as real and love as convenience are explored. Gabriel loves for duty or convenience: he marries those he thinks will bring him closer to God because he is called to lift them up. Elizabeth comes the closest to finding true love with Richard because no matter what they stick together until he commits suicide. Florence falls into the trap of loving someone to have someone around, and though she does love her husband, she cannot truly forget his faults.