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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day, what is significant about the Grimes family's living conditions?

The Grimes family lives in a small apartment for six people, and the section indicates that Elizabeth is expecting another child. There are bugs and mice, but the dirt in the apartment defies all efforts to clean. The dirt is in the walls and the floors, around the stove, under the sink, and in the pots and pans, baseboards, and cupboards. John and Roy labor each week at their chores, and Elizabeth cleans as well, but the dirt does not go away. It is even in the family name, Grimes. On the surface the dirt reflects the living conditions typical for a poor black family living in a ghetto like Harlem in the 1930s, subject to forms of segregation even in the ostensibly more enlightened North. Symbolically the dirt represents the sins and secrets in the Grimes family history, the "dirt" that people do to one another.

What similarities and differences exist between John and his brother, Roy, in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

Both John and Roy resist the heavy hand of their father in their own ways. Roy engages in active rebellion against his father, carousing with girls and getting into fights. He openly criticizes his father and even threatens him when Gabriel hits their mother. John tries hard to follow his stepfather's religious teachings, and he never speaks out against his stepfather. Privately though John wishes for a life completely different from what his stepfather wants for him and curses his stepfather in his mind when Gabriel gets violent. John and Roy also share an interest in the sinful actions taking place around them, going so far as to spy on a man and woman having sex in a basement. Roy is enthralled by this sight and seeks out similar scenes, but John avoids them. John is also bothered when he hears his parents having sex at night, but Roy is unaffected by the sounds, observing only that their mother will be "going away again" to have another baby.

In Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day, what sins has John committed that worry him, and why?

When he wakes on the morning of his birthday, John worries about a sin he committed "with his hands ... in the school lavatory, alone," which implies he has masturbated. According to the teachings of his church, this is a difficult sin, but it is compounded by the fact that John has become aroused by thinking of the other, older boys in the bathroom making bets about the arches of their urine streams. By John's estimation this makes the sin "hard to forgive." John also feels guilt about sins against his stepfather, Gabriel. Although John is obedient and dutiful as a son, he dreams of escaping his home and his church, and of his resistance and scorn toward the saints at church and his stepfather's rules, "the hardheartedness with which he resisted God's power." John feels bad that he has committed a sin with his hands, but he knows that sin is a reflection of the sin in his spirit, his lack of righteousness in God's eyes.

What do the two framed mottos on the mantle reveal about the family in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

Two mottos grace the Grimes family mantel. The first reads: Come in the evening, or come in the morning, Come when you're looked for, or come without warning, A thousand welcomes you'll find here before you, And the oftener you come here, the more we'll adore you. The second is from the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, Verse 16: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. The first motto indicates a warm, welcoming, loving environment, and was likely placed there by the warm and loving Elizabeth. It stands in contrast to the fear and intimidation the family feels from its father, Gabriel. The second motto is a message of hope and faith from the Bible, which should also indicate a loving environment, but it reflects the strict belief of Gabriel and the belief he expects from his family members.

What is the significance of John's allusion to the man rolling the boulder up a hill in Part 1, The Seventh Day of Go Tell It on the Mountain?

Every Saturday John finds himself assigned to sweep the living room rug, threadbare and faded past its former glory. Like everything else in the tiny apartment, the rug is infused with dirt and dust, which makes cleaning the rug an impossible and futile task. John does not remember the name of the man in the story, but he is referring to the myth of Sisyphus, a king in Greek mythology, who is punished in the afterlife by having to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll down again, thus spending eternity rolling a boulder up a hill and knowing the task is useless. This is how John feels about cleaning the rug. The allusion refers to Sisyphus's punishment by the gods, which suggests John's sense of his own divine punishment as well.

In Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day, what kind of relationship does John have with his mother?

John feels a special connection to his mother, first indicated by his dread of her having other children. He does not dislike his siblings, but he feels afraid when he sees the swell of a new pregnancy because he knows she will go away from him again and return with a new person who will divide her attention even more. People tell him he cried and threw fits the entire time she was gone when Roy was born. He has become less expressive about these fears in the years since, but he still feels the dread when he learns another baby is on the way. John's mother also feels a special connection to him. On his birthday they share a private moment in which she calls John her "right-hand man" and says she is proud of how he is growing up. She tries to encourage him to love God and believe that everything will work out, a different approach from Gabriel's use of fear and threats, because she senses John is feeling troubled about his faith on this day. Even though money is tight, she also manages to save a little for a birthday treat and sends him out to enjoy himself.

Why is John's chance encounter with the old man in the park important in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

When John is in Central Park, he comes down from the hill he climbed to enjoy the view and almost knocks over an old white man with a beard and a cane. The boy and the old man surprise each other, and John tries to apologize, but the old man only smiles at him. John smiles back, and "It was as though he and the old man had between them a great secret; and the old man moved on." This is a situation that might have gone badly for John. He nearly knocks over an old man, an old white man at that. This moment more often than not would result in strong scolding even if the element of race were not a factor, which it is here. Given the year, 1935, it is just as likely that the old man would accuse John of deliberately trying to knock him down or rob him. Instead the old man smiles before John can even apologize, rendering the apology unnecessary. The secret they seem to share is one of common humanity and dignity. This is a very different view of relations between white and black people from the one Gabriel has instilled in John at home, and it provides a moment of hope in John's day.

What do John's fantasies about a better life reveal about him in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

When John sees the horse-drawn carriages on Fifth Avenue, he imagines someday having a horse he will call Rider. He actually imagines Rider will be one of several horses who live in the fields surrounding his large house. In that house will live a beautiful wife and children who call him "Papa." He dreams of having turkeys, cows, chickens, and geese. He thinks about the abundance of toys he will give his children, the whiskey and wine he will have for himself, and the cars they will drive. This fantasy shows John's desire for wealth and comfort, to have the finer things in life, and to have the ability to give his children the things he has not been given. He does not dream of a life in a luxurious penthouse in the city but craves open space and a farm full of animals, a return to the rural life his parents have left behind—but with money. The fantasy falls short, however, when John considers where they will go to church and what he will teach his children, revealing the deep conflict John feels between his material desires and his spiritual needs.

In Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day, why does John assume everyone is going to hell?

John's belief that the people around him are going to hell, even the people who are kind to him, comes from his stepfather's rigid interpretation of Christianity. Following a narrow path that is simple and without luxury of any kind—even the simple pleasure of going to a movie—is the only way to spiritual salvation. The implication that their church is "the holiest and the best" also means that membership in other churches is less legitimate. Gabriel also believes all white people are automatically consigned to hell because they are inherently wicked and untrustworthy. Having grown up in the South, Gabriel has seen firsthand the wickedness white people have inflicted on black people, so his opinions were formed by his experience.

Why does John avoid entering any of the stores he passes in Part 1, The Seventh Day of Go Tell It on the Mountain?

Although John feels safe and secure as he walks down Fifth Avenue, one of the wealthiest streets in New York City and in the world, he knows there are limits to what he can do here. Gabriel has taught John repeatedly that white people will never allow a black boy or man into their world, so John believes he can't go into any of the stores along this street without repercussions. When he moves to 42nd Street, the wealth divide isn't so much of a problem, but John still feels intimidated about going into stores. He lingers before a candy display in front of Woolworth's but decides the store is too crowded for the salesgirl to notice him. He feels invisible in this world, either because the girl can't see him or because he believes the girl will refuse to see him. Even standing in front of the library, which isn't a store and is a fully public space, John fears embarrassing himself in front of the white people inside if he gets lost in the maze of books. John feels safe and free in the city, but only within certain parameters.

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