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Go Tell It on the Mountain [Book Review]

Summary

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin is a 1953 semi-autobiographical novel based on Baldwin’s life. The story follows a day in the life of John Grimes, a 14-year-old boy growing up in Harlem. The book explores John’s life in the present which includes his relationship with his family and church. But the pasts of the three adults in John’s life, how they intertwined and made them the people they are in the present, are also explored.

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Show Notes

I was very aware of James Baldwin, before reading Go Tell It on the Mountain, largely because I’d seen snippets of interviews with him from the 60s during the Civil Rights Movement. In those clips, he was providing commentary during appearances on TV shows. Not necessarily participating in debates but rather conversations about the Civil Rights Movement and the Black experience in America. I was also aware of the title and themes of some of his books. I knew that he’s regarded as being an incredible author but up to this point, I don’t think I’d read a James Baldwin book.

As I sat down and started planning out the books and movies that I would review for the year, I thought that it was about time to finally read something by Baldwin. He would be incredibly fitting for Black History Month. I looked through some of his titles and for some reason, Go Tell It on the Mountain stood out to me.

John is the oldest of his parents’ four children with one boy, Roy, after him and two younger sisters, one is about elementary school-aged and the other is a baby. His mother, Elizabeth, takes care of the kids and home but sounds like she might also work. While his father, Gabriel, is the preacher at a local church though it sounds more accurately like he’s a deacon.

Gabriel is like a backup for the main preacher thus he’s usually not the one that stands up and gives the sermons on Sundays. His duties and responsibilities are more focused on maintaining the physical church rather than preaching to the main body of the congregation. Because of his involvement with the church, his family is involved as well, with John, in particular, tasked with performing chores at the church.

Within the household, John and Roy are growing up under the strict guidance of Gabriel while their mother, Elizabeth, is a bit warmer and gentle with them. There’s a scene early in Go Tell It on the Mountain where their father has left the house to go to his part-time day job so it’s just the mom and kids at home. It feels tense when Gabriel is around as Elizabeth withdraws into herself and the boys, especially John, seem nervous. Gabriel is very demanding with the boys to the point of being overwhelming. He struck me as one of those parents who keep their kids on such a tight leash that the moment they get a bit of freedom they have no idea what to do with themselves.

Roy is a problem child who is very willful and does his own thing. I don’t think Roy’s age is ever stated explicitly but he’s a preteen at most. Despite his young age, he is already getting into trouble in the neighborhood due to ripping and running the streets with his friends. There’s a great deal of fear for him and his future because he seems to already be headed down the wrong path.

Meanwhile, John is rather inoffensive and seems to be a good kid who is just trying to avoid drama. That’s not to say that Roy is a lost cause but just that greater effort needs to be made to keep him on the straight and narrow. Whereas with John, he doesn’t get into any real trouble but Gabriel is always giving him grief.

When John was younger, the school principal singled him out as being intelligent and since then it has been his internal source of self-esteem. He takes great pride in being intelligent and it’s had a tremendous impact on how he moves through life. Being the oldest boy and because of Gabriel’s involvement with the church, quite a bit of expectation has been placed on John with regards to his future. There’s an expectation that he might follow his father into the ministry in some form.

But despite being so immersed in the church, John doesn’t feel the connection with the church that he thinks he should. It’s sad because to a degree it seems to be a result of his relationship with his father. Gabriel is overbearing and self-righteous and beats the family over the head with religion to the point that it turns the boys away.

John is subtle and keeps his true feelings to himself while Roy asks questions and pushes back against the authority of their father. At first glance, the two brothers seem to be very different from each other and to a degree they are. But because they’ve grown up in the same house under similar conditions, their internal feelings are much the same. They seem to be two sides of the same coin where the feelings that they have are very similar but how they express themselves and their frustrations are different.

We have insight into John though not Roy as the story is mostly but not completely told from John’s perspective. There are a few situations where the two boys are present and interacting with other characters. John seems to be the more subdued of the two but it’s more of a matter of him being less willing to openly express himself in comparison to his brother. Roy more openly wears his emotions on his sleeve and doesn’t hesitate to immediately state his thoughts and feelings while John hangs back and watches on. John keeps his feelings to himself but is honest with himself about those feelings.

During the scene where Gabriel is away from home, Roy is home which is often not the case when Gabriel is around. Both boys have a warm relationship with their mother while their father is somewhat cold towards them. It seems like outside of reprimanding them he doesn’t have a civil thing to say to them. There’s no regular conversation, everything is some kind of condemnation or him preaching the gospel. But he’s so heavy-handed even when just talking about religion that it turns the kids off. If he took a more gentle approach and reached out to them on their level in a way that they could relate they might be more receptive.

Their mom is open with them when she’s outside of the presence of their dad. She has conversations with them and allows them to ask questions. Elizabeth tries to keep them in line but doesn’t stifle them. She doesn’t try to raise them by stamping out their individuality or trying to turn them into robots.

Gabriel is well-meaning and cares about his sons. He wants good for his sons and is trying to keep them on the straight and narrow. But the methods that he’s using are counterproductive because they push the kids away rather than bringing them more into the fold. Elizabeth tries to function as a go-between and expresses to the kids that their father has good intentions. But Gabriel is even prickly and distant with her.

During conversations with Gabriel, Elizabeth pushes back and advocates for the kids and herself. Instead of listening, he just takes offense at anyone disagreeing with him. There’s a situation where Roy gets into some trouble and Gabriel places blame on Elizabeth for allowing the boy to run the streets. But the reality is that Elizabeth has her hands full with maintaining the household and keeping an eye on the three other kids, one of whom is still a baby or at least a toddler. As the situation escalates it shows the divisions within the family.

Gabriel has a contentious relationship with his older sister, Florence, who also lives in New York but has her own place. The siblings are originally from the South but moved to the city as young adults with Florence arriving first. Looking back over Gabriel’s life, you realize that the person he presents himself as today is not who he used to be. On the surface, there’s no harm in that as people can change. But it becomes clear that his public demeanor has changed but some of his faults from young adulthood are still very present.

He’s an ultra-religious man now but in his childhood and as a young man, Gabriel was very much a sinner. Gabriel was certainly out there running around and carrying on, doing many of the things that he sees Roy doing. He should be the perfect person to try to protect and divert his sons from the life he used to lead and what Roy at least is rushing towards. But his methods are counterproductive and unlike how his mother got through to him.

Instead of meeting the kids where they are and maybe sharing a bit of his story to form some kind of bond he just talks at them. As a preacher, this is something that he’s probably grown used to doing over the years. When the occasion arises, he stands in the pulpit or even just with his position within the church and people defer to him. He speaks at people but doesn’t necessarily have conversations with them.

They might listen to what Gabriel has to say but there isn’t a two-way flow of conversation. Both people aren’t speaking, listening, and explaining their ideas while also trying to understand the perspective of the other person. He might not be out in the streets carrying on, drinking or partying like when he was young. But there’s still a degree of selfishness and stubbornness that continues to exist within him and that has been present from childhood.

Gabriel and Florence were born into slavery to an enslaved woman, Rachel, and their father left when they were quite young. Emancipation occurred when they were still very young children so they spent the majority of their lives free. Rachel was an older woman and giving in to the sexism of the time, she vested all of her pride, focus, and dedication in Gabriel.

The reason was that Rachel placed limitations and low expectations on what she believed Florence would do in life. She expected Florence to one day get married, have a home and family but to do little in the world outside of that. So everything within the house was given over to Gabriel to improve his prospects for the future. Gabriel ended up being spoiled as he grew accustomed to everything revolving around him and his mother and sister catering to his needs.

Rachel granted Gabriel’s every whim but little was expected of him in return. It was a very one-sided relationship where Rachel also expected Florence to sacrifice for Gabriel and dedicate her life to him. With schools now available, Florence had aspirations to get an education and have a life of her own. But, there weren’t enough resources for both kids to attend school so the opportunity was given to Gabriel. Giving so much as a girl and later as a young woman, Florence decided to strike out on her own and headed to Harlem with hopes to get more out of life.

Something that I enjoyed about Go Tell It on the Mountain is that it’s a real character study. We see the adult characters as they are in the present but we also get a peek back into their early lives and an understanding of how they’ve developed over time. It’s so easy to make characters black and white. To take someone like Gabriel and cast him as the villain in the story. But he’s more complex and multi-layered, I found him incredibly selfish and frustrating but still sympathized with him as a character. Because you understand his backstory and development over time, it makes Gabriel feel like a fully fleshed-out character.

Outwardly, John is the most inexpressive of the characters yet he has a rich and passionate internal life. He’s probably my favorite character and one of the most interesting. Gabriel annoyed me to no end but was also incredibly engrossing. You see the story of Gabriel from his perspective but also from the characters around him.

From childhood to being a young man, given the way that his mom raised him Gabriel was the center of attention and a bit of a brat. Everything was focused on him and for him. He grew up with an expectation for women to cater to him and live for him. To take care of him, shield and guide him through the world.

As he got older and was partying and drinking heavily, his mother wanted him to get his life together to fulfill this vision of a good life that she saw for him and for which she sacrificed. For Rachel, that means Gabriel finding his way into the church and ministry. This is while at the same time ignoring the needs, aspirations, and personhood of Florence.

So much hope and effort are vested in Gabriel that it creates a sense of entitlement within him. Before getting into the church he does what he pleases. Gabriel knows that he’s doing wrong but doesn’t put in the effort or energy needed to move away from drinking and carousing with women. And when he finally does get into the church he’s a bit of a false prophet. Because he imagines himself to be saved, he says the words and performs the rituals but falls short when it’s time for him to start living and walking the walk rather than just talking about it.

It’s easy to stand up in the pulpit and speak about right and wrong, the path that one should take in life versus living it out day-to-day. Gabriel is very willing to point out the flaws and shortcomings of the people around him. But not as willing to acknowledge and eliminate those bad habits within himself. He might not be out there getting drunk, falling into the gutter, and chasing after random women. But the way of living properly as far as how he treats other people is still lacking.

Before joining the church he was a bummy guy and wasn’t living the most positive life. After joining the church his actions weren’t as bad but his thoughts were as he sat in judgment of many of the people around him while putting himself in situations to do wrong. He’s so concerned with everyone else that he’s not safeguarding himself from doing wrong and begins slipping.

His issue is a matter of gender but also sexism. Beginning with his mother, she focuses all of her attention on Gabriel and sacrifices everything for him while making Florence do the same. When he gets older and is now moving about in the world, regardless of being in or out of the church, he views women as being in service to him. Throughout Go Tell It on the Mountain, he has romantic relationships with three women.

The first of which was Deborah, a woman who was sexually assaulted as a preteen, and her supposedly Christian community viewed the event as a failing on her part. She came to be seen as having been defiled and was ostracized by the community. Terrible things happened in her youth which would have understandably made another person bitter and self-destructive. Yet, Deborah grows up to be a very decent person.

Despite the community turning its back on her, ostracizing and talking badly about her she never swayed in staying on the right path. She doesn’t just attend church but provides solace to the ill, food for the hungry, and resources for the homeless and poor. Deborah is doing God’s work and this is despite humanity being terrible to her. She’s a very good person and somehow winds up being Gabriel’s first wife. And this is after having known Gabriel when he was out there running about in the streets. She brings him more fully into the fold when he finally takes steps to turn his life around.

Gabriel was a disappointment to his mother throughout much of his life. She’d sacrificed her life for him and by the time of her death he was still struggling to turn things around. When she was old and laying on her deathbed, he was unable to provide her with the care and support that she needed. Deborah had to step in and care for Rachel. Gabriel was unable to dedicate time to his mother because he’d been raised to be selfish. He had received care and comfort from his mother but didn’t know how to give care or comfort.

And then here comes Deborah to take care of not just him but his mother as well. She also maintained a connection between him and Florence after she moved to New York. Otherwise left to their own devices, Gabriel and Florence would have likely permanently fallen out of contact with each other after their mother’s death. Deborah continued to provide support for Gabriel as he rose through the ranks of the church and began to make a name for himself as a preacher in the area.

Yet, despite all that she does for Gabriel, it’s still not enough. Deborah supports his dreams and ambitions, helping him despite Gabriel doing things to hinder himself due to a lack of faith in his abilities. He’s well aware of his flaws and shortcomings and she is as well but still encourages and supports Gabriel. In time he comes to dislike her and is annoyed by her presence because she doesn’t fit the image of what he wants and feels he deserves.

When another woman, Esther, comes along who is not at all religious. Under the guise of a religious mission, Gabriel takes it upon himself to attempt to save her soul and bring her into the church. This other woman is young, pretty, and living what the community deems an unreputable life. (I didn’t see the big deal with her lifestyle but I guess these were different times.)

Gabriel sits in judgment of Esther while at the same time being attracted to her. While lying to himself about saving her, Gabriel should be focused on trying to save himself because his faith and footing on the right path aren’t very secure. When Gabriel does wrong, he’s unable to fully accept responsibility for his actions and tries to hide his misdeeds. He makes excuses and tries to shift the blame and burden of responsibility onto someone else.

The situation with Gabriel and these two women struck me as something that happens when people change stations in life. Deborah helped Gabriel when he was at a low point in his life by providing support and encouragement while he tried to find his way. When he moved into a better position in life, she was a reminder of what he had been and he now felt that he could do better. Yet Gabriel didn’t let her go, he continued to hold on to her and made use of her capabilities. And he likely would have continued to hold on to her while feeling he deserved more if Deborah hadn’t died from an illness.

By the start of the story, Deborah had been dead for many years though it played a part in him meeting Elizabeth who would become his second wife. When they got together, he made her a promise that she would have a good life and he would cherish, protect, and take care of her. Once again playing the part of the savior, he disappoints yet another woman by making promises and then falling short of them.

Throughout Go Tell It on the Mountain, there is a theme in Gabriel’s life where he says all of the right things. But quite often, his actions don’t match up. He does the complete opposite of what he said he would do or what he says he represents. When he does things, it’s a matter of going through the motions rather than it being done with conviction and a willing spirit. When he does the right thing, it’s done begrudgingly.

Gabriel is a hypocrite and doesn’t even seem to know it. He’s a deeply flawed individual that believes he has been chosen. On the one hand, he’s a good person to stand in the pulpit and warn against sin because he’s been there and done that. But because of his dishonesty with himself and lack of conviction to truly change his ways and be a good person he continues to be an example of what not to do.

This struck me as the true genius of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Gabriel is exalted and able to move up in the church and stand in this high-ranking position, despite being completely undeserving of it. You have these two women that he married who were leading hard lives due to factors beyond their control and other church members would sit in judgment of them. But once they set themselves out on this path of following this way of life they stuck to it steadfastly. They truly turned their lives around. But yet they’re constantly reminded of what they once were and it wasn’t even their fault. And here Gabriel is constantly backsliding.

It’s revealed that Gabriel is John’s stepfather as his father died before he was born. It gives some unfortunate context to the way that Gabriel treats John. He tries to pen the children into just home, church, and school with no life or interest beyond that. The story in the present takes place during one day which also happens to be John’s 14th birthday.

Elizabeth didn’t get John a gift so she gave him some money for his birthday and told him to use it to buy or do something for himself that will make him happy. Instead of going and buying a toy, he takes the money and goes out into Harlem, to Central Park, where he stands atop a hill which is his favorite spot. He takes a little walk through the city and goes to the movies.

When Go Tell It on the Mountain takes a look back at Elizabeth’s life and her relationship with his birth father, Richard, you realize that these are the things that they did during the time they were dating. His birth father took his mom on dates to museums, the movies, Central Park, and just walking around to explore what the city had to offer. They went out and enjoyed the world as his father craved to take in as much of the world as possible because efforts had been made to keep so much of it from him.

Richard’s mother died in childbirth and his father wasn’t around so he had been bumped around from place to place until he reached an age where he began to take care of himself. He didn’t have anyone to look over or guide him and it sparked a hunger within him to know and learn as much as possible. He shared that curiosity and passion for exploration with Elizabeth. Compare that to Gabriel who has a limited way of viewing and experiencing the world.

Neither Richard nor Gabriel grew up with their fathers and Gabriel’s mother doted on him while Richard’s had died. But Richard still managed to pass along his kind, curious, and intelligent spirit to John. Gabriel’s sons grow up to be rather rough and head down a path plagued with crime and violence. It’s kind of a “sins of the father” situation where both men pass their core inner selves down to their sons to differing effects.

John isn’t a troublemaker, he’s a pretty good kid who stays out of trouble. He’s a normal child who wants to see and experience the world. But innocent things that he wants to do like going to the movies, Gabriel regards as being evil.

John goes to the church to clean up and prepare for the evening service. He spends some time playing around with a young man, Elisha, who is on his way to possibly becoming a pastor in the church. John has a bit of a man-crush on Elisha as a boy looking up to a cool older teen though it also has some unspoken romantic undertones.

When the church service begins and everyone is in a frenzy, John feels disconnected from what’s going on. Gabriel has come to represent the church or rather what Gabriel believes influences John’s view of the church. Gabriel being a negative, overbearing, hypocritical person is pushing John away from the church.

There’s a moment where they’re kneeling at the altar praying while Gabriel is presiding over the service. But John feels something within that tells him to stand up and it begins a fight between his internal feelings and impulses versus Gabriel’s wish for him to remain kneeling at the altar. When the voice within prompts John to attempt to stand, Gabriel tries to push him back down.

Gabriel believes he is chosen and regards John as being evil but this isn’t true. Yet, Gabriel regards himself as fighting for John’s soul by trying to continue to push him down and keep him down on the ground at the altar. Gabriel thinks he’s doing right but looking back over his life and who he is now it becomes clear that this isn’t a man that John should be following. John shouldn’t aspire to follow in Gabriel’s footsteps and shouldn’t be kneeling at this man’s altar because he’s not fit to lead.

During the interaction at the altar between John and Gabriel, I was all types of stressed and hoping John would get up and run out of the church. Maybe go and stay with his aunt because I just felt like no good could come of this. Gabriel just had it out for him and nothing John did was ever going to be good enough.

When Rachel and Deborah tried to get Gabriel to change his life, they used love not force. He’s not patient with John and doesn’t attempt to talk or explain things to him and meet him where he is. Instead, Gabriel tries to use force to beat the evil out of John. We see throughout Go Tell It on the Mountain that Gabriel tries to use violence to convert John. There’s a certain hostility and haughty self-centeredness in Gabriel and his preaching. It’s less about the other person and more about him and his perceived calling to save lives.

It was interesting looking back at this in contrast to the start of his career when there was a big revival in town and Gabriel was invited to speak amongst the other elders of the church. He looked down on them because they made an unkind comment about Deborah which was inappropriate and mean-spirited. But there was hypocrisy in Gabriel speaking out against these men because he looked at them and saw their shortcomings and unfitness to lead. Yet as he developed over time, Gabriel failed to recognize these things within himself and came to hold similar views about Deborah. His speaking out against them was less about righting a wrong and more about him being self-righteous.

Baldwin conveys a lot in this story about hypocrisy in a manner that is just incredible. This was the first book that I’ve read by him and sometimes with reading an author’s work, you have to pick up several books and give them a try to get a feel for them. But I could see Baldwin’s genius from the very beginning and understood why he is considered to be such a great author. Go Tell It on the Mountain is a relatively short book but a very complex and multi-layered story. Yet, at the same time, it’s told in a simple and very approachable way.

There are all of these different things going on as there is what’s taking place on the surface and then the deeper reality of what’s happening below. But it remains so relatable and accessible. It feels very human. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Go Tell It on the Mountain.

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