Go Tell It on the Mountain
James Baldwin's stunning first novel is now an American classic. With startling realism that brings Harlem and the black experience vividly to life, this is a work that touches the heart with emotion while it stimulates the mind with its narrative style, symbolism, and excoriating vision of racism in America. Moving through time from the rural South to the northern ghetto, starkly contrasting the attitudes of two generations of an embattles family, Go Tell It On The Mountain is an unsurpassed portrayal of human beings caught up in a dramatic struggle and of a society confronting inevitable change. "The most important novel written about the American Negro," says Commentary. "It is written with poetic intensity and great narrative skill," writes Harper's. Saturday Review praises it as "masterful," and the San Francisco Chronicle declares that this important American novel is "brutal, objective and compassionate."
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Part One: The Seventh Day
A quote, poem or phrase that is set at the start of a piece of literature is called an epigraph. It usually references a theme or relates to another work of literature that the author wants you to make connections with. Learn more about famous epigraphs by looking over this article. Are you familiar with any of these books? (This annotation contains a link)
This text is semi-autobiographical, which means that it is loosely based on the author's life. With that knowledge, which of the following characters represents James Baldwin?
James Baldwin wrote "Go Tell It on the Mountain" in 1953, and though it is considered a classic, it has grown more and more obscure. This article from The New York Times describes why a high school in Harlem chooses to continue teaching this text. As you read the article, answer this question: Why does this school believe that students can still relate to this text? (This annotation contains a link)
In the highlighted sentences, Baldwin's repeated use of which of the following literary devices describes the way in which the church's music brings its congregation to life?
In the text, Baldwin describes the elders of the church as "the saints." These are the people who have given their life to the church and have been 'saved.' As you continue to read, you will notice that there is a divide between those who have been 'saved' and those who have not been 'saved.' It is in the middle of this conflict that John will often find himself.
When John admits that he has "sinned with his hands," what sin is Baldwin describing here? Why is John so embarrassed of his sin?
Here, Baldwin reveals the primary conflict in this novel: a "man vs. man" conflict between John and his religiously tyrannical father. Learn about how conflicts shape texts by watching this video. Is this an example of internal or external conflict? (This annotation contains a video)
Baldwin uses vivid imagery to describe the family's house. Based on his description, which of the following inferences best applies?
In order to create a realistic tone, Baldwin writes in the colloquial language of African Americans in Harlem. This link explains more about colloquial language and why authors use it. (This annotation contains a link)
Based on Roy's speeches and actions, what can you conclude about his attitude towards his father?
John's reference to the man "whose curse it was to push a steep boulder up a hill" is an allusion to the myth of Sisyphus. In this myth, Zeus punished a king named Sisyphus for believing that he was smarter than the gods. His punishment stated that he would be required to push a boulder up a hill. When he reached the top, the boulder would be rolled down the hill and Sisyphus would be forced to start again, repeating this task for all of eternity. Today, when people speak of 'Sisyphean tasks,' they are describing tasks which seem to be never-ending. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following best describes Baldwin's purpose in including these mottos in the story?
Baldwin litters this text with Biblical allusions - references to characters or scenes from the Bible which shed light and significance on the characters and events in the text. Understanding these allusions will greatly enhance your understanding of the text. This link begins to explain the allusions. Start with this question as you skim this article: How is John's character symbolic? (This annotation contains a link)
Here, when John's mother gives him money for his birthday, he reacts much differently than most teenagers would. Which of the following correctly describes John's reaction?
During the 1930s, the time when this book is set, Harlem was experiencing a birth of cultural exploration. While the island of Manhattan had always represented the promised land to many white immigrants, African Americans in New York City were beginning to experience a similar attraction to the city. They owned shops, theaters, and other businesses in the city and, in contrast to the oppression of the South, had freedom and independence in New York. Use this link to learn more about the Harlem Renaissance. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following answers best summarizes the main idea of the past two paragraphs?
These carriages on Fifth Avenue still carry tourists in rides around Central Park to this day. (This annotation contains an image)
In a 1963 interview, Malcolm X said: "We contend that the white man is a devil. If he is not a devil, let him prove it!" Which of the following answers correctly articulates how John's father would most likely respond to this quote?
Here, Baldwin uses an extended metaphor to describe John's experience in the movie theater as a trip into Hell. Why do author's use these figurative devices? Learn why in this video. (This annotation contains a video)
In this highlighted sentence, Baldwin revisits a common motif in this text: dirt. Based on the other reoccurrences of this motif, which conclusion best explains the symbolism of this motif?
This highlighted sentence, as well as other aspects of the text, imply that John's father often flies into rages and is easily angered by his family. Baldwin leaves his reader clues about the characters throughout the text. This is an important one. As you read, make sure that you are looking for these clues and considering them as you read.
Finish this sentence: John knows that his father __________________________.
Aunt Florence is Gabriel's (John's father) sister. She dislikes her brother's intense anger and his mistreatment of his family.
Which of the following statements CANNOT be inferred from the highlighted sentence?
Character development over the course of a text plays an extremely important role in the plot. Watch this video to learn more about how characters develop over the course of the text and create the story. After you have watched the video, think about this question: What can the reader infer about Gabriel's childhood based on what Aunt Florence says about him? (This annotation contains a video)
In this paragraph, the author uses a type of figurative language to describe John's interaction with his father. What type of figurative language is it? How does Baldwin describe Gabriel?
The Church of the Fire Baptized plays a central role in this text, symbolizing important religious themes and dictating the development of the plot and its characters. Use this article to read more about the role of the church in this text and the way in which Baldwin incorporates religion into his fiction writing. (This annotation contains a link)
Here, the reader again sees a recurrence of which of the primary motifs of this text?
This scene, in which John and Elisha wrestle on the church floor, is considered by many academics who study Baldwin to be an allusion to a story in Genesis. In this story, Jacob wrestles with an angel who God has sent to teach Jacob a lesson. Baldwin draws on this story in order to give deeper meaning to this interaction. Watch this video to learn why authors use allusions. (This annotation contains a video)
Based on this conversation, one might characterize Elisha as a _______________.
Being 'saved' is an extremely important part of the church and presents an important struggle for John: he does not know if he wants to be saved or not. This decision is one of the central themes of this text and consumes John's coming of age transformation. Read the following excerpt of a poem by William Wordsworth and consider the similarities in the coming of age theme between this text and the poem. Think carefully as you read, as you will answer a question about this in a few pages. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of these statements best describes the relationship between Wordsworth's poem and Baldwin's coming of age themes?
Baldwin often incorporates the language of hymns and African American spirituals into his writing. The title of this novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is, itself, a reference to a famous Gospel hymn. Listen to the song closely and you will hear how Baldwin closely aligns the story with the text of the song. (This annotation contains a video)
Mini Quiz 1
As we read further into the book, it is very important to keep track of timelines, character relationships and settings. Quiz yourself right now: where are Gabriel and Florence right now? What are they doing?
Based on this description, what can you infer about what is currently happening to Florence?
These sections of the book, each one titled "The Prayers of the Saints" and narrated by a character in the story, contain many flashbacks. Make sure to read extremely carefully in order to keep track of the timeline and watch this video to understand how authors use flashbacks to structure their writing. (This annotation contains a video)
What happened to Deborah?
Here, Florence references Sherman's March to the Sea, a famous military conquest that ended the Civil War. As General Sherman, a Northern general, marched to the sea from Atlanta, they burned everything in their path and destroyed towns and cities on their way. This map shows the hundreds of miles that they decimated, while also freeing slaves and liberating the people of the South. (This annotation contains an image)
Florence's repeated allusions to the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and her dislike of the Southern oppression and customs most likely foreshadow
Which of the following answers best describes the most significant similarity between Gabriel and his son, Roy?
Baldwin often uses irony to draw contrasts between the many different parts of his characters' lives. Here, he illustrates the situational irony of Gabriel's life by explaining his attitude toward religion during his youth. If you need to remind yourself of the definition of irony, watch this video for a refresher. (This annotation contains a video)
The symbolic meaning of the clock whose "hands did not cease to move" can be described as
Florence was one of many African Americans who left the South during the early 1900s and traveled North in search of freedom and opportunity. Use this link to answer the following question: Was the life that Blacks found in the North far superior to the life that they had in the South? (This annotation contains a link)
Here, the story switches from Florence back to John. Why does Baldwin switch stories and narrators frequently?
This "terror" that John describes is his fear of the unknown; his fear of what is in front of him in his life. He cannot understand his place in religion and in the world and that confusion gnaws at him and terrifies him. This uncertainty is one of the hallmark experiences of the 'coming of age' process.
Frank was Florence's husband to whom she was married after her journey to the North. Who is narrating this piece of the story?
Here, Florence realizes that women all suffer greatly at the hands of men. Using an example from the text, describe another woman in this novel who has suffered this fate.
In Florence and Frank's interactions, the reader is exposed to another toxic male/female relationship, similar to but also different from Gabriel and Elizabeth's marriage. The technical name for this type of writing is 'using parallel plots." Watch this video to learn more about how and why an author does this. (This annotation contains a video)
Baldwin describes Frank in the mornings after his nights out as "petulant and penitent." Based on the context of this sentence, Frank was most likely
A bastard is a name for a child who is born outside of marriage, often as a result of infidelity.
Why does Florence keep the letter for so many years after Deborah dies?
This epigraph is an excerpt from a spiritual. It describes a person who has finally found God and then finds himself. This section of the text is about Gabriel, John's father. Make a prediction based on the theme of this epigraph: what is Gabriel's story going to center around?
Why does Gabriel describe his heart as 'desperate' and 'wicked'?
Though Gabriel quickly emerges as the antagonist of this text, his character is very complex and not easily characterized as evil or wrong. This link explains important aspects of Gabriel's character and the significance of his role in the story. Reading it will deepen your understanding of the central themes and conflicts of the text. (This annotation contains a link)
Gabriel's assertion that he "wept like a little child" supports which of the following descriptions of his character as a young man?
Often in literature, a character undergoes a transformation as a result of an important event or interaction. What event prompts Gabriel's transformation from a sinful young man into a God-fearing, responsible adult?
Why is Gabriel the only man who even considers marrying Deborah?
When Baldwin describes Gabriel as having been "only yesterday...lying, vomit covered, in the gutters of sin," the author uses hyperbole to exaggerate this description. What is hyperbole? Learn its definition by watching this video. (This annotation contains a video)
Based on the context of this verse from Isaiah, the phrase "people of unclean lips" most nearly means
Often in African American churches, the preacher engages the congregation in a 'call and response' style of worship. The preacher gives his sermon and the congregation responds with affirmations. This style is often replicated in the music of the church as well.
Which of the following pieces of evidence explains why Gabriel has great distrust and disgust for these other preachers?
Do you agree with the men's mockery of Deborah? Was Gabriel wrong to marry such a damaged woman?
In the Bible, the daughters of Zion are described as "haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles." Baldwin uses this allusion in order to
There are many motifs in this text. You have already analyzed the motif of dirt and here, Baldwin prominently displays another motif: dreams. Watch this video and then consider larger symbolic meaning of dreams in this text. (This annotation contains a video)
Baldwin's narrative structure can best be described as
Based on Gabriel's narration in this section, the reader can infer that there is an important difference between Roy and John. What is that difference and how does Gabriel feel about it?
Here, Gabriel describes how he associates Esther with flame and fire. Fire is often considered a positive source of life. However, here, Baldwin changes the connotation of the word and manipulates its meaning. Not sure what the difference between connotation and denotation is? Watch this video to refresh your knowledge! (This annotation contains a video)
Why is it ironic that Gabriel repeatedly chastises Elizabeth for the birth of her bastard son, John?
The clothes that characters wear in this novel are extremely symbolic. They represent important characteristics about the individual who wears them. For example, Esther wears gaudy, attention-seeking clothing while Deborah wears drab long skirts in grey and black.
James Baldwin once said, "People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead." Which of the following statements describes the common theme of this page and this quote?
In this portion of the novel, Gabriel believes that Esther is sent to tempt him into sin. Based on what you have read so far, would you characterize Esther as the antagonist? Watch this video to learn more about the dynamic between the antagonist and the protagonist. (This annotation contains a video)
How do Esther and Gabriel end up in the kitchen together?
Based on what you have read about Esther thus far, do you think that she is a respectable character? She does not make excuses for her lifestyle and does not regret it. However, she is extremely sinful compared to Gabriel and Deborah. Is she deserving of respect?
Baldwin uses the term 'fallen' to describe Gabriel's descent into sin. In Biblical stories, angels who sin are cast out of heaven when they 'fall from grace.' Gabriel seems to think of himself as an angel who falls briefly and then, after nine days with Esther, returns to a holy life. This statue depicts an angel who has fallen from heaven. (This annotation contains an image)
Which child of Gabriel's is a result of this 'fall from grace'?
As a result of Gabriel's dream, he now describes himself as a "prophet." How does the point of view of the narrator in this section impact how the story is told? How might this description of Gabriel change with a different point of view? This video explains the role of point of view in a text. (This annotation contains a video)
Esther's highlighted words can be interpreted to mean that
The word 'ruined' is usually used to describe an object that has been damaged. Here, however, Baldwin uses it to describe Esther. What connotation does the word take on when it is used in this context?
Which adjectives best describe Gabriel's attitude towards Esther?
Based on the contents of the letter that Florence has in her possession and this letter that Esther sends, the reader can interpret letters in Go Tell It on the Mountain to be representations of
Here, Baldwin draws on an illusion to the Biblical story of the golden calf in Gabriel's description of the sin around him. In the story of the golden calf, the Israelites began worshiping an idol in the desert and descended into a life of greed and sin. Gabriel suggests that the men and women around him have fallen into sin in the same way. The image below illustrates the adoration of the golden calf. (This annotation contains an image)
Based on the context of this paragraph, the phrase "Esther came home too" most nearly means that
Though many authors use irony as a humorous device in their writing, Baldwin uses it often to highlight the sad hypocrisy of life. As you read, make sure to analyze Baldwin's use of irony. Are all of the instances sadly ironic or does he ever use it to inject humor into the text?
Based on your knowledge of Royal's character (through Gabriel and John's narrations), how does this scene foreshadow an event in Royal's life? Need to brush up on your knowledge of foreshadowing? This video can help! (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following quotes describes an important similarity between Royal and Gabriel?
Take note: Baldwin has switched narrators again with very little notice. Reading closely will help you be aware of these important, narrative changes.
Fill in the blank: Here, Baldwin uses a ________________ in order to draw a comparison between the tempestuous fury of hatred and confusion in John's mind and the uncontrollable tumult of the sea.
The phrase 'a cross to bear' is an idiom that is used to describe the weight of sin or sadness that someone has to cope with. It is a reference to Jesus being forced to carry his cross on his back, as illustrated in the painting below. (This annotation contains an image)
Deborah's response to the realization of Gabriel's infidelity can best be described as
Speaking in tongues is an occurrence in Evangelical or Pentecostal churches where an individual is taken over by spirits and falls into a trance. This video, an excerpt from a documentary called "Jesus Camp," profiles young children who discuss and demonstrate this spiritual transformation. (This annotation contains a video)
How might a reader describe the similarities or differences between the narrative styles of the first two "Prayers of the Saints"?
Though Elizabeth feels shame about John's birth out of wedlock, she repeatedly tells Gabriel that she would not change the situation of his birth. Should she be ashamed of having a bastard son?
Elizabeth's 'disgrace' can best be interpreted as which of the following events?
Elizabeth narrates the negative impact that living with her aunt had on her childhood. Make a text-to-text connection here: what other books have you read in which a child is raised by a cruel or angry adult? How did that adult's influence affect that child?
Which of the following paraphrases the highlighted proverb from the Bible?
Because Baldwin's timeline can be confusing, it is important to keep track of the hints that the author gives the reader throughout the text. For instance, when we read the highlighted portion of this sentence, we can immediately infer that Elizabeth only found religion after Richard's death. Additionally, we can assume that Richard's lifestyle was not God-fearing and that he must have been wild and sinful.
Fill in the blank: When Baldwin describes Elizabeth's heart as giving "a dreadful leap," the author uses ______________________ in order to illustrate the excitement and happiness that the young girl felt in the presence of this handsome man.
As you read Elizabeth's section of this novel, pay close attention to the way in which Baldwin creates a tone and a mood that are very different from the tone and mood of Gabriel's section. How do authors create tone and mood? Watch this video to find out what role specific words play in these two devices. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following idioms could be considered synonymous with the highlighted portion of this sentence?
Elizabeth's aunt refers to her virginity as "her pearl without price." Here, the pearl symbolizes the value and beauty of an untainted woman. Authors use symbols (objects) to represent larger, deeper ideas hidden in the text. Watch this video to learn more about how authors incorporate symbolism into a text. (This annotation contains a video)
Fill in the blank: This highlighted paragraph illustrates Elizabeth's _____________ for Richard.
Like many of the characters in this text, Elizabeth is uneducated. She is intimidated by Richard's knowledge of art and culture. This lack of education was extremely common during this time period, especially for African Americans who left the extreme segregation of the South for the economic promises of the North.
Based on the clues that Baldwin is giving the reader through foreshadowing, make a prediction about what is going to happen to Richard.
Baldwin gives us hints about the characters through the clothes they wear, the things they say, and the things that characters say to them. When the policemen tell Elizabeth that she looks "like a girl a man could rob a store for," what is is Baldwin telling us about Elizabeth's appearance?
Two types of common external conflicts are man vs. man and man vs. society. Which of the following best explains the type of conflict present here in the story about Richard?
The police's targeting of Richard based on the color of his skin is similar to a tactic used today which is often referred to as 'racial profiling.' Police departments target people for searches and arrests based on the color of their skin. Read this article from The New York Times and consider this question: is racial profiling worth the discriminatory cost if it increases the safety of a city? (This annotation contains a link)
In this moment, Elizabeth is feeling utterly
Baldwin's interjections of these hymn lines throughout the stories serve to
Elizabeth's trials and tribulations eventually bring her to a relationship with God. Similarly, an event in Gabriel's life changed him from a sinful man to a religious one. Think back to Gabriel's story. What event changed the trajectory of his life?
Which of the following characterizes the personalities of Florence and Elizabeth?
A brooch is a fancy pin that women wore in the early 20th century to decorate their clothing. The image below illustrates an example of such jewelry. (This annotation contains an image)
Using evidence from earlier in the text, explain why Florence and Gabriel's relationship is so strained.
Elizabeth bought herself a wedding ring in an attempt to hide the fact that her son, John, was born out of wedlock. Illegitimacy is a common theme in literature and often fascinated authors because of the stigma that society placed on bastard children. This site lists famous texts that consider this idea. Have you read other books in which children are born out of wedlock? How does it affect their lives? (This annotation contains a link)
Baldwin's use of a metaphoric description of Gabriel as a "rock" in this sentence serves to
This interaction shows the reader that Gabriel and John's relationship was not always negative and full of hate. Somewhere, in John's coming of age, a conflict arose between the two. Watch this video to learn about the many types of conflict that authors use in texts. (This annotation contains a video)
Writers place every word with purpose. Here, Baldwin uses the word "dirt" in order to imply the connotation of
Often, authors use the metaphor of climbing a mountain to convey the challenges of a character's journey. What mountain are you currently climbing in your own life? (This annotation contains an image)
Based on your knowledge of Elizabeth and Gabriel's relationship, what makes his words ironic?
Mini Quiz 2
This section of the story is titled "The Threshing Floor." On a threshing floor on a farm, the wheat that is harvested is beaten until it is separated from the chaff (the inedible part of the plant). In the Bible, the chaff symbolizes evil or wicked people (or things) that are about to be destroyed. As you start reading, think about how this process - the separation of the good from the evil - might apply to this text. (This annotation contains an image)
Though this book is deeply rooted in Biblical themes, many professors of literature note the way in which ideas about homosexuality are woven into this text. Using your knowledge of the text thus far, do you believe that John's adoration of Elisha is strictly brotherly or could it be considered sexual instead?
As John undergoes a hallucination about his spiritual conflict, Baldwin uses intense imagery to communicate the depth of John's inner conflict. What is the impact of imagery in a text? Watch this video and then apply that knowledge to this specific section. (This annotation contains a video)
In this story, Baldwin makes a direct allusion to the story of Noah and Ham. The story in Genesis tells how Noah got drunk and fell asleep naked and his son, Ham, saw him and was ashamed. As punishment, Noah cursed his son and all of his people. The original text explains the story here in lines 20 - 29. (This annotation contains a link)
In this passage, John realizes that Ham's curse is borne by
Gabriel's repetition of the phrase "I'm going to beat it out" refers back to which central theme of this portion of the novel?
This highlighted phrase encapsulates the tug-of-war that John's soul is currently undergoing. Despite his skepticism of religion, John finds himself in this spiritual trance, being pulled between salvation and a life of sin.
In John's hallucination, Roy's 'death' represents what about his character?
Baptisms play an important role in African American churches. Often, in the South, individuals are baptized in the waters of a river or a stream, such as in the picture below. It is also important to consider the symbolic meaning of a baptism. The washing of the water represents the purification and rebirth of a person. Their dirt of their sins has been washed away and a new life awaits them. (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Baldwin bring all of these names from the Bible together in this passage? By incorporating all of these allusion (and all of the associated stories) into one paragraph, how is he illustrating John's new relationship with religion?
Which of the following best characterizes Gabriel's reaction to John's religious salvation?
John's spiritual transformation is commonplace for a young man during the first half of the 20th century. Today, however, young adults are less and less likely to ascribe to religious beliefs. This article from ABC notes that almost 40% of young Americans state "none" as their religious affiliation. Do you think that young people today are more or less likely to be involved in religion? Why? (This annotation contains a link)
In this highlighted paragraph, Baldwin's writing is best characterized as
Baldwin introduces a new narrative technique here, interlacing flashbacks into the dialogue of the text. This video explains how authors manipulate time in their writing in order to communicate important ideas. (This annotation contains a video)
Fill in the blank: After many years of keeping the secret, Florence finally confronts Gabriel about _____________________.
Florence makes a reference to the 'Day of Judgement,' when God will determine who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Throughout the course of history, artists and writers have been fascinated with this topic. Dante wrote his famous text, Inferno about the less fortunate who were not chosen and Michelangelo painted the image below, which depicts the judgement of the souls. (This annotation contains an image)
What is Florence's motivation for blackmailing Gabriel with the letter? What does she want to get him to do by holding this secret over his head?
Baldwin's statement "Now the storm was over" illustrates the conclusion of John's coming of age transformation. He has evolved from innocent to experienced over the course of this text. In many ways, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is an autobiographical text, based loosely on Baldwin's own life. Read the following interview, looking for similarities or common experiences that Baldwin shares with his protagonist, John. (This annotation contains a link)
In the Old Testament, Ezekiel sees a wheel in the sky, representing a divine sign from God. Baldwin uses this allusion to Ezekiel in order to reinforce which of the following conclusions of the text?
Repeatedly, through this last section of the text, Baldwin uses the motif of the ambulance siren to bring the characters back to the impermanent reality of life. What do you think this motif of the siren represents?
A few pages ago, you learned that this text derives some of its inspiration from Baldwin's own coming of age. Based on the conclusion of John's story, what can you infer about the role of religion in Baldwin's life?
Mini Quiz 3