Melanie Page's Reviews > Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
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The summary on the back of the book is incorrect, and the summary on Goodreads is a bit misleading. So......

Summary: The story of John Grimes, an intelligent teenager in 1930s Harlem, and his relationship to his family and his church. The novel also reveals the back stories of John's mother, his biological father, and his violent, religious fanatic stepfather, Gabriel Grimes.

1) What does your book say about the African American experience during which it is set?

Go Tell It on the Mountain is set in 1935, which is around the end of the Harlem Renaissance, a time during which black artists created prolifically but ended due to the Great Depression. Slavery has a link to the setting of Baldwin’s novel: in order to make slaves compliant, masters taught slaves Christianity with emphasis on humility and obedience. Gabriel, a black storefront preacher, tries to control everyone around him with religion, much like those slave masters did. In a large city like Harlem, people saw evil everywhere, and Gabriel was no exception, even if much of the evil in the novel stems from him.

2) Compare the treatment of African American men and women in your book.

James Baldwin really takes me to task in Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was uncommon at the time. Men were leaders, women were helpmates. In this novel, though, Gabriel tries to control people by claiming they are sinners while he has been forgiven for his numerous, egregious sins. The women, however, are no shrinking violets. Gabriel’s sister, Florence, has evidence of her brother’s wrongdoing and will use that information against him. He has faith, but she has facts. Gabriel’s first could have destroyed him with what she knows about his behavior, but chooses not to. Instead, she forgives him and endless loves. I’m not sure how I felt about that, though it seemed like she was a stronger woman because she is capable of forgiving. Gabriel’s second wife has her own secret, a secret that no one would bat an eye at today but was a grave sin in 1935. Gabriel is able to use facts about his second wife to control her -- basically the opposite of his sister.

3) What is the role of white characters in your novel?

To my memory, not a single white character is named in Go Tell It on the Mountain. There are scenes in which Gabriel’s son, John, imagines himself walking through the city just like white folks, almost willing himself to ignore racism. Different characters mention white people in general as bad, and one character notes that they’ve never met a white person who actually cared about them. This same sentiment appears in Malcolm X’s autobiography, published in 1965, which I find interesting.

4) How did your book affect you emotionally?

I had a hard time getting through my novel. The synopsis on the back of the book does not match the contents in any way, and when I looked at other synopses, they are all different. It seems that no one knows how to describe Go Tell It on the Mountain. And that’s because it wanders. Fourteen-year-old John seems like the main character, but his sections are all weighed down in religious imagery. I couldn’t grab a plot when I read his sections. When Gabriel and Florence are younger, they are described in their own sections, and I enjoyed these moments because there was actually a story to follow, one that had me thinking. Even Gabriel’s second wife (Elizabeth) had her own section, and her story is one I could have read for much longer. In fact, I can see how If Beale Street Could Talk uses some of the same ideas. Overall, I had a hard time connecting to Go Tell It on the Mountain, but when the strong female characters made their voices heard, I was happy. The religious aspects weren’t great for me. I have a hard time figuring out how someone can take the entire Bible literally and then be scared all the time. Perhaps a Christian reader would fare better than I?
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Reading Progress

June 25, 2015 – Shelved
June 25, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
April 16, 2019 – Started Reading
April 19, 2019 –
page 60
April 24, 2019 –
page 135
April 29, 2019 –
page 182
April 30, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Michael The novel has a slippery, introspective quality to it that definitely makes it difficult to "summarize." Reflecting on it, I can think of several ways to describe the plot - and none of them are wholly adequate. That said, "He has faith, but she has facts." is perhaps the best description of their relationship I've read, on Goodreads or anywhere.

message 2: by Melanie (last edited May 09, 2019 07:02AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Melanie Page I think that because the introspection largely stems from biblical concern, it wasn't the right novel for me. I have loved many of other James Baldwin's works, and I used to teach his short stories when I was still a professor. I think it was just this book wasn't for me, and that it possibly suffered a little from being a first novel. He definitely got better since Mountain, and wrote more balanced tales.

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