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Go Tell It on the Mountain
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Group Reads Archive > August 2014- Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

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Jennifer W | 1002 comments Mod
Welcome to August's fiction group read of Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.


Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I'm just a little way into this one and finding it excellent so far - James Baldwin's style of writing is intense and very readable, and I really feel for the young boy at the centre of the novel.

Thanks to Val for nominating this, I'm not sure it is a book I'd have thought of reading otherwise!

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments I read this earlier this year on audiobook. I enjoyed it, but definitely some parts more than others. I wouldn't've thought of reading it either, but we had the cds so I did. I'm glad I did.

message 4: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb I tried to read this book twice and, whilst it is clearly well written, could not engage with the story so I decided to abandon it.

I wrote a few notes about the family living in 1930s Harlem, and The Church of The Temple of the Fire Baptised, however I can't find them now, which is rather annoying. Perhaps as other people read and comment on the book my memory will be refreshed.

Here's to a great discussion.

message 5: by Judy (last edited Aug 02, 2014 10:27AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Just realised that the film he goes to see on his birthday is 'Of Human Bondage' - as a 1930s film fan I recognise it from the plot description!

So the "pasty-faced" woman with blonde hair is Bette Davis in one of her first star roles - clearly making a strong impression on John with the power of her performance even though he thinks she is ugly - and the man with a club foot is Leslie Howard. It was released in 1934, so I'm guessing that may be the date at this stage of the story.

Just editing to say that Nigeyb had just suggested in the Ashenden thread that I should try Of Human Bondage - and then it turns up in this book! Strange how often things connect like this.

message 6: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val The group read the book last year.

Roisin | 729 comments Looking forward to reading this. Read some of his other books, 'Giovanni's Room' and 'The Fire Next Time', which are both good.

message 8: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Val wrote: "The group read the book last year."

Yes we did. And what a marvellous read, and discussion, it was too.

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Nigeyb wrote: "Val wrote: "The group read the book last year."

Yes we did. And what a marvellous read, and discussion, it was too."

Thanks, Nigeyb and Val - when I read it, I'll remember to look in the archives.

I've also been wondering about the relevance of 'Of Human Bondage' to the themes of Baldwin's novel. I can't see any direct parallels between characters in the two (going on the film), but this book is certainly dealing with human bondage too, as all the characters are bound up in difficult relationships and the older ones are haunted by the memory of slavery.

message 10: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I've now finished the book, which I found very powerful and hard to put down - just thinking over my reactions to it.

Looking for some background, I found that the Chicago Public Library chose it as their book for "One Book, One Chicago" in spring 2007 and has a mini-website about it with useful info on topics such as the Harlem Renaissance and Great Migration:

message 11: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val The bondage in Maugham's book is emotional, with some social expectation mixed in, so there are similarities. I think the film is intended to show John's state of mind about good and evil and his feelings about his father more than the idea of bondage though, as it is Mildred John identifies with more than the emotionally bound-up Philip.
It is a bit early in the month to include anything which might be a spoiler, but I will say that I don't think that trying to beat religion into one's children is ever going to turn out well.

Roisin | 729 comments There is this article from the British Newspaper 'The Guardian':

Roisin | 729 comments This online study guide has some interesting stuff too:

message 14: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Thanks for that article from the Guardian, Roisin, it's really interesting. The study guide will be useful too.

Roisin | 729 comments Ta Judy! Those articles seemed interesting and are worth a look. Religion is highly problematic in terms of children and can determine apparently what they think is real and not real:

Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments I am guessing that "religious" refers more to fundamentalist religion than just following faith. I grew up as a preacher's kid and this had little basis in our household. So I am thinking they mean more extreme religions.

Although I am not certain that questioning the bible was actually encouraged I am also not sure that it was discouraged.

Roisin | 729 comments People make that assumption, but it does not state that it refers to religious education. When I was a Catholic as a child I went to Catechism classes prior to my Communion. The article talks about religious education and young children:

'It seems that between three and five the children learned to trust instruction from adults more than their own powers of observation. This new research suggests that it is parents and religion that undermine a child’s ability to separate fact from fiction.'

Of these children who grow into adults the results may or may not be the same. If you believe in something without evidence, are you more likely to believe in things that are not true? Highly contentious but...

Roisin | 729 comments I am sure that religious people on this forum, think that they can navigate between what is real and what isn't, but if you believe in a someone as the son of god, who went on a suicide mission to save our sins, that is not extreme, that is standard Christian belief.

The black rock attached to the Kaaba in Mecca is believed to have been sent as a sign, it has significance to Muslims. This is not an extreme view but the view of most Muslims, hence the stone's significance. The fact that rocks from space sometimes fall and impact the earth is of no consequence. The impact sometimes can be so great to create large amounts of energy which results in yellow crystal for example. However, people believe that this stone was sent despite these facts.

Such views may appear to be contentious but to have faith one has to be able to believe in things via feeling as oppose to evidence. Which suggests to me that such individuals are more likely to believe in things that are unreal to be true. Logic!

A religious viewpoint on these matters I sure would differ...

message 19: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val A lot of people believe things which have no rational explanation, some of them based on faith or religious teaching, some not. Some of them may even be true.

Roisin | 729 comments Yeah sure. I suspect some of the stories are rooted in events that happened, but the reason for them is not divine, but rooted in nature. However if you believe in an interventionist god you will think otherwise. With Religion people are frightened to say that someone's belief system is cuckoo, wacky or just plain lies for fear of insulting. Have a good look at some of the stories in the bible for example, some are clearly allegorical and use plot devices. Incest is frowned upon but used as a means to an end. I don't see why religion should have special treatment and seen as true just because some people do.

The religious characters in the book seem very smothered by it. Though I'm not that surprised since such beliefs were forced on black people by slavery (also justified in the bible), ignoring African mythology and ideas.

There is the religious good world and the very bad, outside, wicked world. A real difference between the believer and the non-believer.

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments I agree Roisin. I think that that's some of the point of the book. The good, Christian people are some of the most awful and ungodly folk and the actual good people aren't Christian or are some how almost punished? for it not believing. I'm not sure I'm articulating properly what I'm trying to say. The examples of the father v. Florence or Elizabeth. Granted we are shown some of why they all are why they are and where they are, but I think there's some of that.

Looking at the book's Wikipedia page I think I definitely missed some of the religious allusions having grown up in a non-religious home. Also, Baldwin's own history definitely comes through. (The belief -> non-belief, and the homosexual undertones.)

message 22: by Val (last edited Aug 06, 2014 03:54PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Roisin wrote: "The religious characters in the book seem very smothered by it. Though I'm not that surprised since such beliefs were forced on black people by slavery (also justified in the bible), ignoring African mythology and ideas."
I agree with you there. Many of them have the idea that only those who suffer in this world can be saved and that if they stand tall they are sinning. That could well be an idea implanted during the slavery era. I'm thinking of Florence's story particularly, because I can't see that she did anything wrong.

Most religious people do seem to be able to live in the world without rejecting absolutely everything, Gabriel Grimes' views are extreme. He is supposed to be based on James Baldwin's own stepfather though, so perhaps there really are people who think like that.

message 23: by Greg (new) - rated it 4 stars

Greg | 330 comments I'm halfway through part one. So far, - the overbearing father brought to mind Philip Larkin's 'This Be The Verse'.

Regarding this subject of childhood religious education, here are two different examples.

Here's a view from the brilliant British journalist Alexander Cockburn, who's father was the equally brilliant left-wing journalist Claud Cockburn. Alexander's parents sent him to the Public School Heatherdown.  Alexander Cockburn describes in Corruptions of Empire: Life Studies & the Reagan Era, in the section 'Deep Background', the essay 'Heatherdown', on his school years, he says of his religious instruction,

"From the age of nine to the age of eighteen, my schoolmates and I  had about thirty minutes of prayer each morning and each night - about three hundred hours of public worship a year. On Sundays, at Glenalmond, we had at least an hour each of matins and evensong. During these prayer-choked years I acquired an extensive knowledge of scripture, of the Book of Common Prayer and of 'Hymns Ancient and Modern'. It is one of the reasons I favor compulsory prayer at schools. A childish soul not inoculated with compulsory prayer is a soul open to any religious infection. At the end of my compulsory religious observances I was a thoroughgoing atheist, with sufficient knowledge of Scripture to combat the faithful."

Also, the other approach. In George Orwell's extensive essay on Charles Dickens, in All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays, Orwell notes that (in 1868) Dickens wrote a letter to his youngest son:

"You will remember that you have never at home been harassed about religious observances, or mere formalities. I have always been anxious not to weary my children with such things, before they are old enough to form opinions respecting them. You will therefore understand the better that I now most solemnly impress upon you the truth and beauty of the Christian Religion, as it came from Christ Himself, and the impossibility of your going far wrong if you humbly but heartily respect it . . . Never abandon the wholesome practice of saying your own private prayers, night and morning. I have never abandoned it myself, and I know the comfort of it."

Hats off to Dickens.

Roisin | 729 comments Hi Bronwyn! Your point is interesting as someone who wasn't brought up into religion, about not connecting/understanding parts of the text. My husband was brought up wit our religion and I sometimes forget that there are things within Catholicism that he does not know or understand.

Roisin | 729 comments Val - idea that you have to suffer in order to be saved, well spotted. Yes! Some religions make it a virtue! : ) I'd forgotten about that.

Greg - love those quotes! Will check those out.

Roisin | 729 comments As for extreme views in religion, I think we take for granted what is extreme and what is not. Bill Maher in his film Religulous
Which is very funny, in one of his performances he jokes about how people think that Scientology is wacky, but the talking snake, that is ok. Or an American Senator who does not believe in Evolution, but believes in Creationism. This clip especially what he says at the end is very funny:

We take for granted that some people see or speak to ghosts for example, but do you know anyone (other than William Blake) who has come across the ghost of a flea? Or how about a horse? A dinosaur? Yet these are all things that are living or as in the dinosaur were. : )

Most people reject the things that don't make sense in religion, but Sharia law are biblical Jewish laws the ones that people have forgotten, but yes some people are able to live within the modern world and be religious. But should the chap in the clip be helping to run a country??? Hmm?

message 27: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Roisin wrote: "Most people reject the things that don't make sense in religion..."
They do, but I don't see it as rejection exactly or as picking and choosing which bits of the Bible to believe. Even the most fundamentalist Christians agree that Jesus told parables, stories to illustrate a point that people found difficult to understand. Most Christians see the Old Testament stories which don't make sense or which contradict logic or scientific discoveries as allegories, again illustrating a difficult point.

The laws should perhaps be seen in the context of the history. At the time the Jews were trying to form a nation and draw up a constitution. Most countries have laws and a legal system which is amended over time and 5,000 year old laws are not always still applicable in modern society. Dietary laws against pork or shellfish made sense in a hot country before the invention of fridges. Laws against murder and theft still do (and to answer one point in the clip - just because there is no specific law against rape or child abuse in Leviticus, does not mean it is permitted).

Roisin | 729 comments Yeah sure, I take your point, but Bill Maher's about the 10 commandments is spot on. There are many important things to legislate against which should have been in there. Yes it was a different time.

All the more reason to be not religious, the science is wrong and tries to fix laws in time. Things change and yes so has some religions, hence the different number of groups within say Judaism,Islam and Christianity for example, but to see the world fixed and governed in one way by divine rule, total madness, sorry.

message 29: by Val (last edited Aug 07, 2014 04:28AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Bill Maher does make several good points and a lot more sense than his Arkansas senator, but I don't think anyone in any of the three monotheistic religions has ever suggested that the ten commandments are or should be the whole law.
Greg's quotation from Dickens about the underlying truth being much more important than mere formalities could refer to strict observance of old religious laws as well as to observing rituals.

Roisin | 729 comments Fair point, but underlying truths what does that really mean...people use it all the time to big-up myths and lies.

Roisin | 729 comments Rituals such as the communion I can understand why that is done, but Transubstantiation. Nuts! Some do believe this. No truth whatsoever scientifically or possibility in nature yet some hang on to such wild crazy ideas. Strange...

message 32: by Val (last edited Aug 07, 2014 06:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Transubstantiation is very difficult to test. A devout Catholic would have to spit out the host and send it for analysis, where it would be found to contain DNA from their saliva. Any theologian would probably then argue either that the DNA proved the presence of the Holy Ghost in each believer, or that by spitting it out the communicant was rejecting the host and it would change back.
(In case you had not gathered from the above, I don't subscribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation either, although I know several usually rational people who do. I'm quite happy with communion as symbolic.)

P.S. I realise I have ducked the 'underlying truth' issue, but I can't second guess what Dickens meant by it and the idea behind it is probably different for everyone. It makes negligible difference to me whether the host is flesh or bread (for example) and to be thinking about the logic of it too much would undermine its importance, not strengthen my faith by trying to believe something I find illogical.

P.P.S. I think it is most probably a mediaeval misunderstanding of a Greek idea.

Roisin | 729 comments Hahaha! Loved your analysis! Spot on! Wow! You know people who believe in transubstantiation. Wild!

message 34: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Roisin wrote: "Hahaha! Loved your analysis! Spot on! Wow! You know people who believe in transubstantiation. Wild!"
My Dad's side of the family are Irish Catholic. He was more likely to question articles of faith than most and encouraged us to do so as well.
...and I studied enough Chemistry to know that there is no Philosopher's Stone (which comes from the same Greek idea).

message 35: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val The 'tarry service' in the book is not a mass, transubstantial, insubstantial or anything in between.
The form of worship for this church involves chanting, singing, calling out, percussive rhythms, dancing, falling to the floor and speaking in tongues (I presume this is the syllabic type which needs an 'interpreter', not the Acts of the Apostles type everyone understands in their own language). As described in the book, it sounds very similar to shamanic traditions found in Africa, native Americas and elsewhere, though without the hallucinogens often associated with them. Could this be a remnant of African traditions imported into slave Christianity?

Jan C (woeisme) | 1526 comments When I was 13, there was a big ecumenical movement. So one Sunday we went to one of the local (possibly) AME Baptist churches. We were the only white folk in the congregation. But after a few tense moments we were accepted. We were also a little startled when various members of the congregation started calling out "Amen, brother" and similar comments. But I had been warned against having any reactions. A far cry from the Presbyterian Church.

Roisin | 729 comments Val-Possibly! You know more than I do on this subject. : ) I'll investigate...

Roisin | 729 comments Found this review Val, which has some useful notes/bibliographical references:


Notes in particular a book by Clarence Hardy, who mentions a connection with African rituals and black churches. Your experience Jan is probably not far off.

message 39: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Thanks Roisin, that is an interesting summary.
I like the cover shown. I guess that would be Florence, Gabriel, Elizabeth and John looking out at us and Roy walking away.
I had not seen all those possibilities in his conversion experience. He is writing about something that he went through himself at fourteen, but it depends whether he is recreating how he felt then or writing from the perspective of his older self. It might also depend on which aspects of Baldwin's life each of the commentators is most interested in.

Jan, I sometimes think our services would benefit from a bit of spontaneity.

Roisin | 729 comments Hehehe! Yeah some services are just a bit stiff.

message 41: by Pink (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pink Hey everyone! I haven't posted on here for ages (took a bit of a break) I couldn't resist joining in for this book though. I've wanted to read James Baldwin for a while and have Giovanni's Room sitting on my shelf waiting to read, but decided to start with this as it's his first novel. Really impressed by it. So many comments above about religion, which obviously was a huge aspect to this book, but I especially enjoyed how he constructed the relationships and kept me interested going from one person's story to the next. Reading that Baldwin used his own life experiences and learning of the parallels between them makes me wonder just how much of the book is based on real life events.

Roisin | 729 comments Hi Pink! I suspect that quite a lot of it is pretty accurate and true. The relationships between the characters are fascinating, especially how they perceive each other and other black people, the different types of black person assumed.

The obsession with the literal truth of the bible and Christianity, I have known people who think along the same lines who sound like some the people in the book.

Roisin | 729 comments Some of the characters fears of the outside, everyday world and how it will sway behaviour and lead people down the wrong path is being discussed, particularly here in the UK. The Internet, what is appropriate, Miley Cyrus, the wearing of the veil as means to express piety, criticism of some women's sense of dress over here etc.

Roisin | 729 comments This comes from the guardian. The link for the article is some posts back:

"The story was moulded by Baldwin's painful relationship with his stepfather, David, a disciplinarian preacher from New Orleans who repeatedly told his stepson that he was ugly, marked by the devil. When I first read it 10 years ago, I knew little of Baldwin's life and work, but something in his prose hit me, almost winding me with its intensity. I'd never read a novel that described loneliness and desire with such burning eloquence."

This makes sense when you read the book

Roisin | 729 comments Here is another article which talks about his writing influences from the Guardian newspaper, here in Britain:

message 46: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val That is a very thoughtful and eloquent article.
We probably should get away from talking about religion and discuss other aspects of the book and James Baldwin's writing, but church and religion are pervasive in this novel and tied up in the colour consciousness, sexuality, interactions with the outside (mainly white) world, family relationships and even the writing style in some ways.

Roisin | 729 comments I know what you mean. Religion shapes and moulds the characters within the book. It directs their every move, traps them from moving and existing in a different way. They are trapped by the history of slavery and segregation. This section from the Guardian newspaper article makes an important point:

'Both Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room were declarations of independence for Baldwin. In the first, he dramatised the destiny of a black family in Harlem, but refused to allow that destiny to be shaped by a plot in which being black could only lead to mayhem and tragedy. In that sense it is as much a landmark in American writing as Dubliners was in Ireland. Dubliners refused to allow its characters to have their destiny shaped directly by Irish history, by the land wars or the British presence. Both Joyce's characters and Baldwin's characters suffer because of what is inside them.'

Refusal to change has often been the downfall of many. Humans are good at survival, we adapt to our surroundings. Baldwin's characters in this book are those who have not changed or feel not able to change and are being left behind, stuck doing the same things, doing only what is expected of them. Doing what was taught to them by their masters. Quite sad really...

Roisin | 729 comments By the way Pink, Giovanni's Room is good so hope you get around to reading it.

message 49: by Pink (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pink Roisin thanks for the links above, they were very insightful. I definitely want to read Giovanni's room soon, all the more since finishing this book.

Roisin | 729 comments I've reserved from my local library some of his essays and Another Country which I don't think I've read. So I'm looking to read more by him.

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