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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 11 - 20


What causes John to buy a ticket for the movie he chooses in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

John studies the movie posters on several theaters to determine which movie he would like to see. The poster that catches his eye features "a wicked woman, half undressed, leaning in a doorway, apparently quarreling with a blond man." This image of the half undressed woman suggests an image of sexuality, a facet of human nature that both fascinates and frightens John, based on his previous experiences peeping at the neighbors. John is already engaging in an act of rebellion against his church's teachings by going to a movie in the first place, so he might as well make it count by seeing a story about wicked people doing wicked things. The film's tagline describes the man in the poster as the "fool like him in every family." Because John feels alienated from his family, like he is the fool in his home, he is curious about what happens to the foolish young man in this film. While watching the movie, John finds himself oddly sympathizing with the female character who embraces her sinful nature and uses it to wield power over people around her, something that appeals to the relatively powerless John.

What does the argument between Gabriel and Florence reveal about their relationship in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

The language Florence and Gabriel use in this argument includes phrases that indicate their conflict has deep roots and extends far back in history. Gabriel tells his sister, "Look like for once you could keep from putting your mouth in my business." Florence responds by saying, "You was born a fool, and always done been a fool." Words such as always and for once demonstrate the longevity of the siblings' ongoing war, implying that Florence has never thought highly of Gabriel or his actions, and Gabriel has been long frustrated by his sister offering her opinions. Florence makes reference to Roy's behavior being just like Gabriel's own in his youth, which hints at Gabriel's sordid past. Florence's opinions, however, have merit. She tells Gabriel the children will do their best to keep their lives from becoming like his, giving voice to John's secret yearnings to have a life different from his father's. Moments later when Roy threatens Gabriel—after Gabriel slaps Elizabeth—Roy's words outwardly confirm what Florence has said. Earlier in the argument Gabriel threatens to slap Florence, but she stands up to him, both calm and fearful, saying if he hits her, "I do guarantee you you won't do no more slapping in a hurry." Florence has known Gabriel's ways long enough to fight back against him.

What does the scene surrounding Roy's stabbing reveal about the family's relationships to one another in Part 1, The Seventh Day of Go Tell It on the Mountain?

After Roy is stabbed it is Gabriel, not Roy, who becomes the center of the ensuing conflict. He lashes out at everyone around him. He scolds John for not being home when his brother was brought in, even though it is unclear how John is "needed" in this situation or what help he might be able to offer. Gabriel then attacks his sister, Florence, who was supposed to be watching Roy at the time of his escape from the house, saying she should have stopped Roy from going out. He goes on to blame the white people who did the stabbing, even though Roy sought out the fight. Gabriel ends by attacking Elizabeth for not watching Roy and for not raising him properly. The scene paints Gabriel as a tyrant, making demands on each member of his family whether reasonable or not. The only member of the family he does not initially attack is the one most responsible for Roy's stabbing—Roy himself. Both Florence and Elizabeth stand up to Gabriel's rage in their own ways, but his threat to slap Florence and his actual slap of Elizabeth show his physical dominance and abuse toward the family. When Roy jumps to his mother's defense, threatening to kill his father if he hits Elizabeth again, Gabriel starts to beat Roy with his belt. The family dynamic overall is one of everyone trying to defend and resist against Gabriel's anger.

How does the sanctuary of the church contrast with the street outside in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

Early in Part 1 the novel describes John and his family on their way to church on Sunday mornings, passing the men and women who are on their way home from Saturday nights out on the town. These men and women continue talking, fighting, laughing, and smoking as the Grimes family passes them by on the way to their holy place. On Saturday night when John arrives at the church to prepare for tarry service, the party outside is only getting started. When he closes the door to the sanctuary, he can still hear the noise of children and adults in the street outside, but this contrast makes the silence of the church more quiet and peaceful. The room is dark while streetlights flicker on out on the avenue. As John moves forward toward the altar, the light and sound from outside fade further, making the street seem like "another world," which, of course, it is.

In Part 1, The Seventh Day of Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, how does the church contrast with John's home?

John's home is described as endlessly dirty and dusty, despite all efforts to keep the place clean. As John begins to sweep the floors of the church, he recognizes that the church has the same problem of endless dust. While John views his futile attempts to clean at home as a chore and a hassle, he volunteers to help clean the church. He feels a sense of comfort in the sanctuary and a pride in its appearance he does not feel for his house. Even though John's stepfather is an important figure in the church, Gabriel is not in control of the church space the way he attempts to control the home space, and Gabriel would never let the other church members, or saints, see him in the midst of his rage. Therefore the church is a safe space for John even as he is nervous and intimidated about his own spiritual purity. He knows the church will offer him peace from the chaos of his family life, if only for a short time.

What does Elisha reveal about the themes of sexuality and spirituality when he discusses his shame in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

Elisha doesn't immediately talk about the day he is shamed with Ella Mae. As he and John clean the church to prepare for the evening service, Elisha tells John to look after his soul and tells him, "You can't find no greater joy than you find in the service of the Lord." Elisha says the way will be difficult if John continues to focus on the physical world, to think with "a carnal mind." He says that once John is saved, his focus on God will burn out those physical urges and instincts, and that he [Elisha] notices girls at school but he does not think about them because they are not focused on God. Instead Elisha urges these girls to repent. The conversation implies that Elisha has brought his focus back to the Lord after his experience with Ella Mae, and Elisha confirms this as he continues his mini-sermon to John. He says that the day he was shamed showed him the error of his ways and that the Devil is everywhere, looking for a chance to tempt even the holiest among God's flock if they aren't thinking about what they're doing, as he and Ella Mae were not thinking.

What is the significance of the hymn that refrains "this may be my last time," in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 1, The Seventh Day?

When John's family arrives at the church, two of the sisters, McCandless and Price, along with Elisha, are singing a hymn that repeats the line, "This may be the last time I sing with you/This may be my the last time, I don't know." The hymn's message is somewhat ominous, especially as the next section, "Florence's Prayer," reveals that Florence is dying, and John is surprised to see her arrive at the church with his parents. In this sense the hymn refers to the possibility that this is both the first and the last time John's whole family will be together for worship. The hymn also carries the implied meaning of a great change coming, something that will alter the singers on a fundamental level. John doesn't know at this time that he will end the service by being saved and changed by the power of God, but the song foreshadows the important and life-altering events that are to come.

In Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Florence's Prayer), how does Florence feel about her mother and her stories?

Florence's mother, Rachel, is old when she has her last two children, Florence and Gabriel. From the time Florence is born, it seems, she knows her mother's story: born on a plantation in another state, working in the plantation's fields her entire life. She married and had children on the plantation, but one died, two were sold, and the last was taken from her and raised to be a servant in the plantation house. Rachel emphasizes how her faith in God carries her through all of these trials, and she believes God will free her from bondage one day. Then the Civil War comes and goes, the plantation is destroyed, and Rachel praises God for her freedom. The stories are repeated to Florence so many times that they cease to have any meaning for her. Florence does not adopt a particularly strong faith in God, and she disregards most of her mother's stories as "tales told by an old black woman in a cabin in the evening to distract her children from their cold and hunger." Her mother's experiences are an abstraction for Florence, something removed from her life, save one part. Florence lives for the story of the day when Rachel sees the plantation destroyed, ties her things into a cloth, and walks through the gate into a new life. This part of the story inspires Florence to do the same one day, and she makes it her life's ambition to leave the cabin and the town, never to return.

How does Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Florence's Prayer) in Go Tell It on the Mountain, reveal the origins of the conflict between Florence and Gabriel?

Florence is five years old when Gabriel is born, so she is already used to having all her parents' resources, thin though they may be. A few months after Gabriel is born, their father leaves the family, which means Florence now has only the divided attention and resources her mother can provide. Moreover Rachel values her son far more than she values her daughter: "There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel's." While Florence harbors ambitions to leave the town and make a better life for herself, those ambitions are hindered by Gabriel's presence. He is sent to school while Florence is encouraged to prepare for marriage. Gabriel gets whatever meat is available, on the few occasions the family can afford it, to build his strength to do a man's work. Florence does not get new clothes, but Gabriel does. Not only are all of these things Florence wants, and believes she deserves, taken away from her, but their mother expects Florence to indulge Gabriel's desires because it will prepare him for life with a wife. Florence is expected to make all of these sacrifices simply as a matter of course. This stirs her resentment of her brother and her lifelong judgment of his bad decisions and wasted opportunities because she believes she could have done better had she been given the resources and attention he received.

What is the town's attitude toward Deborah after she is attacked in Go Tell It on the Mountain Part 2, The Prayers of the Saints (Florence's Prayer)?

At the age of 16 Deborah is the victim of a brutal sexual assault by a group of white men. She is taken at night into a field and raped. Deborah's father threatens revenge, but his threats only anger the white men and put the entire black community in danger of having their houses burned to the ground. This does not happen, but it is clear from their fear of the white men's retribution that the community cannot openly blame them for what has happened to Deborah. Instead the community shames Deborah for the attack, taking away her "right to be considered a woman." She is regarded as damaged goods, "a harlot, a source of delight more bestial and mysteries more shaking than any a proper woman could provide." She is deemed unworthy of marriage, forever stained by her encounter in the fields that night. Rather than embrace this role that has been thrust upon her, Deborah eschews the company of men, and most other people, keeping to herself and evolving into a pious figure in the church.

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