Top 100 Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin (1953)

Electric Writing and Powerful Characters

“There are people in the world for whom “coming along” is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive.”


Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

Somehow as a senior in high school, they decided that it was a good idea to have school only every other day. I was taking community college classes at night, so they put all my other classes a on an “A” day, which left me with way too much free time. Outside of Madden ’06, Star Wars: Jedi Knight II, and creating  a 20×20 mural for the prom theme of a Midsummer Night’s dream, I did a lot of reading.

I’m not even sure how I found Go Tell It on the Mountain back then, but I remember it being a good read full of fiery language had a bizarre ending.

That opinion still stands.

James Baldwin was born in 1924 and grew up in Harlem with a preacher step-father. He ended up moving and living in Paris as he wanted to get away from american racism as well as homophobic culture. Go Tell It on the Mountain can be viewed as a semi-autobiography as the protagonist, John, grows up in Harlem himself in a religious household as Baldwin weaves themes of gender and sexuality into the story.

The book is divided into three parts.

  1. The first focuses on John, a child living with his parents in Harlem during his 14th birthday. We are introduced to the characters and you see their interactions with each other, but really don’t learn much about what they are thinking.
  2. The second part is a flashback of the three main adult characters, as they pray at the church and reflect about past sins and their personal history.
  3. The last part focuses again on John as he has a religious experience and conversion. We are left with the sense that John has turned a page in his life and now has found some meaning for himself.
James Baldwin.

The first thing that I noticed about the novel was the writing: it is electric and chocked full of fire and brimstone. The scenes are described in a crisp and cutting style and backed by biblical language and tone.

This is appropriate as the theme of religion suffocates every page of this novel. No doubt racism is ubiquitous, but the themes of religion really defined the characters for me as I found out more about their story: their guilt and identify incessantly tangled with their ideas of God. This quote from John shows how deeply God is intwined within him, as even questioning God’s existence makes John begin to feel like a sinner and swell with fear:

“…calling out to a God who cared nothing for them– if, above this flaking ceiling, there was any God at all? Then he remembered that the fool has said in his heart, there is no God…”

What I love best about Baldwin is that he never makes a direct comment on whether Religion is bad or good, he kind of just lets the characters play out in messy reality. While Baldwin was probably an atheist at this time, he seems to be passionate that religion still has an important role to play in people’s lives.

If there was an antagonist in this book, it would be John’s “father” Gabriel, a current preacher that treats most characters in the book horribly, and when you discover his backstory, feel very little empathy for him. While it would have been easy to make Gabriel an evil, flat-caricature of religion, Baldwin gives him moments to show that religion was positive for him as he stands up to Elders in the south mocking his friend Deborah:

“I don’t think it’s right,” said Gabriel, “to talk evil about nobody. The Word tell me it ain’t right to hold nobody up to scorn.”

The setting of this book (1930s) and the time when Baldwin wrote it (1950s) were both periods of migration for African Americans where many left the south for opportunities elsewhere in the country. Baldwin does not pull punches here: he adamantly shows the characters who have all migrated dealing with the same oppressions that they supposedly left. This cutting analysis demonstrated in this quote from Florence:

“There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South which she had fled; there was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other.”

This kind of characterization seems in line with Baldwin’s personal experience, which lead him to moving to Paris to escape the blanketed racism.

While the characters all have different stories, there is a clear difference in a person’s circumstance depending on their gender. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, the world is a very sequestered place for woman as they are expected to raise the children and endure anything that life throws at them. While they are given some agency in their life, the impetus to make any decision (which in this book was to migrate north) happened because of a situation they were put in because of a male character.

Males, on the other hand, seem to be given a longer leash; they are free to destroy and self-destruct to their hearts content and leave the burden of their decisions on the woman in their life. The men do not escaped unscathed, but even an early death frees them from their responsibility of living with their “sin.” The quote below is by John’s mother, lamenting the fact that she has to live this way:

“…the menfolk, they die, all right. And it’s us women who walk around, like the Bible says, and mourn. The menfolk, they die, and it’s over for them, but we women, we have to keep on living and try to forget what they done to us.”

This book, while coming in at only ~250 pages, was a heavy read — Baldwin keeps the stakes high by having each character struggle with their guilt and given the unabating fear of sin, redemption and being saved. John’s conversion in the last chapter was fiery, hectic and almost psychedelic. Pair this writing with the powerful themes and you have a solid novel that I would suggest reading.

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