Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Part 1, The Seventh Day | Summary

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Summary

John Grimes is the oldest of four children growing up in a strict religious household in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. His family attends regular services at the Temple of the Fire Baptized, which John has been taught is the "holiest and best" of the churches in the neighborhood. As his family attends Sunday services, they often see other people in the neighborhood returning from Saturday night outings. John and his younger half-brother, Roy, are curious about these people, particularly about sex, and have spied on couples in basements and heard their own parents in the night. Roy claims he has been with a few neighborhood girls, but John is more fascinated by the idea of being holy like his Sunday school teacher, Elisha, the pastor's nephew from Georgia. Even after the pastor calls up Elisha and Ella Mae, a girl from the congregation, to stand before the church and be scolded for "walking disorderly," John continues to look up to Elisha for his repentance of this near sin and his restraint in not seeing Ella Mae again.

John's birthday falls on a Saturday in March 1935. He wakes to an unusually quiet apartment and wonders if anyone will remember his birthday this year. He thinks about the sins he has committed, but he also thinks about a life not dominated by guilt, prayer, and fears of God and of the man who readers will later learn is John's stepfather, Gabriel. His teachers and school principal praise his intelligence, and he clings to this praise as proof that he can have a different life even as he feels guilt for his defiance. He dozes off and wakes to hear his family having breakfast and his mother, Elizabeth, scolding Roy for his behavior. Roy complains about their father's rough treatment of his children. After breakfast Elizabeth sets the boys to work cleaning the apartment. John sweeps the dusty rug and looks at family photos in the living room, embarrassed that his baby photo shows him naked. He wonders about his parents' lives before they met and married, especially his father's previous marriage in the South to a woman named Deborah. When John finishes his chores, his mother praises him and surprises him with a little pocket money for his birthday.

Free for the day in New York City, John climbs his favorite hill in Central Park and daydreams about the glories of the city. Even as he notices some people looking at him with hostility, he wants to join their ranks. At the same time he believes his future will be like his father's life: a dirty house, hunger, and backbreaking work. He knows his family's beliefs lead to heaven, but he longs for the luxuries of Fifth Avenue, where he wanders next. As he sees wealthy people around him, he speculates about their likelihood of going to hell, even though they are beautiful and people like them have been nice to him at school. He remembers a teacher who brought him medicine at school. His mother said the teacher would be blessed, but his father said she wouldn't be because she was white. John remembers reading about white people's actions in the South involving killings, injustice, and segregation. Although John feels comfortable here in New York, he wonders what would happen if he tried to enter any of the stores or apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue. He feels seeds of fear and hate because his father has told him white people will never allow him access to this world, but he prays for change.

On 42nd Street John admires the lions in front of the main branch of the New York Public Library. He knows he can go inside because he has a library card from the Harlem branch, but he fears embarrassing himself by getting lost in the large building. He resolves to read every book in the Harlem branch before he will enter this building past the stone lions. He looks into a few storefronts and ends up buying a ticket at a movie theater. Fearing someone from church will spot him, he hurries to his seat. The movie is about a woman who drinks alcohol and uses men, but John sympathizes with her because she does as she pleases. Even though her life is in ruins, she possesses a freedom John envies.

When John returns home from his day out, he sees his half-sister Sarah run from the house and down the street. Sensing trouble John does not want to go inside, and some boys from the street tell him his brother has been hurt. When he gets inside he sees the apartment door open, a grocery bag on the table, his mother's open washtub, and blood specks on the floor. Sarah returns with a package and tells him Roy was stabbed. The family gathers around Roy on the sofa while Gabriel tends to a wound on the boy's head. When John enters Gabriel demands to know where he has been when he is needed at home. Roy is not fatally wounded, but John wishes his brother would die to punish his stepfather. As Gabriel washes Roy's wound with peroxide, John fetches his crying baby half-sister Ruth and tells her to run away as soon as she is able.

In the living room Gabriel tries to blame his sister, Florence, for letting Roy leave the house. Florence says Roy does what he wants, just like his father. Gabriel blames the white people who stabbed Roy, and Florence says Roy went across town looking for the fight. Then Gabriel blames Elizabeth for not looking after Roy, but Elizabeth also says Roy is headstrong and unstoppable. She tells Gabriel to pray that Roy changes before he gets himself killed. Gabriel then slaps Elizabeth, and Roy threatens to kill his father if he ever hits her again. Gabriel turns on Roy with a belt and beats him until Florence stops him; then Roy embraces his mother.

After the chaos at home, John escapes to the church to help prepare for the evening service. He can hear the street behind him as he enters the quiet storefront church. John knows his stepfather was a preacher with a great reputation in the South, but here he is only a caretaker. John begins sweeping and sees Elisha arrive to help him. They joke and wrestle together, something John enjoys. As they finish cleaning. Elisha explains what it means to be saved and how giving himself to God's service has changed him. John considers Elisha's words and wonders what Elisha is like in private as sisters Price and McCandless arrive for service. They praise the boys' work and cite John's potential as a church leader. Then John's family arrives without Roy but with Aunt Florence, and the sisters lead them all in a hymn.

Analysis

Living Up to the Church's Expectations

The opening paragraphs draw a sharp division between the world of the church and the secular world outside. The name of the church itself—Temple of the Fire Baptized—implies a certain violence or harshness associated with salvation. The scene in which Elisha and Ella Mae are shamed before the congregation illustrates how strict the church is about sin. The term walking disorderly originates in Chapter 3, Verse 6 of Paul's Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. It is a vague term, describing behavior, in its original context. While the minister makes clear that Elisha and Ella Mae have not yet had sex, they have been caught in some activity that raises fear that sex might follow. After this revelation John is fascinated by what might have happened between the two of them, and this feeds his own sexual feelings. Previously sexual activity has been a greater interest for Roy, whose claims to have actually engaged in sexual activity himself may be unreliable given his age. Still all of these incidents show an interest in sex that might be considered normal for adolescents in a secular background, if perhaps unseemly for the 1930s. In the church such interests and curiosities only bring damnation, and John feels pressure to live up to these standards, even if his brother does not.

John's initial wondering about whether his family will remember his birthday marks him as an outsider in his own home. He knows they have forgotten his birthday in the past, but his thoughts make no mention of his parents forgetting his siblings' birthdays, so the evidence indicates that this happens only to John on his birthday. John's place in his family is brought to his mind when he sees the baby picture that embarrasses him. He is the only one of the family who appears naked in his baby photo, which makes him feel exposed since the photo is on display in the family room. Unlike his siblings he is not granted any privacy, and this photo was clearly taken under different circumstances from theirs. John's questions about his stepfather's past, wondering whether Gabriel has always been as angry as he is with John, indicate that Gabriel is the source of John's alienation from the family, even though Roy shows that Gabriel is rough with all his children. The gesture of a small birthday gift from his mother shows her to be the heart of the small family.

John's Trip into the City

John's trip through the city highlights the deep internal conflict he feels between his desire to fulfill the expectations of his family and the church's expectations of his own spirituality and his desire for a better life. His current home is cramped, marked with more dirt than can ever be cleaned, and filled with bugs and other vermin. John dreams of wealth and comfort, of being able to move in these places he walks past, but he also fears what will become of his soul and begins to understand the difficulties true salvation might present for him in this life. The clean, comfortable homes of Fifth Avenue appeal to John's human desire for material comfort, but his church has taught him that these people who are concerned with the material world are going to hell.

Furthermore, Gabriel's admonition that white people will never let John into their world also implies blame. White men are the ones keeping John and his family in their squalid living conditions. John's own feelings about white people are likewise mixed. He believes there is goodness in them, as his familiarity with white violence against black people is largely abstract. He has lived his whole life in New York, whereas Gabriel witnessed acts of violence firsthand in the South. The fear and violence in Gabriel's past creates a level of resentment that no number of kindly white teachers bringing medicine can erase. While Elizabeth blesses the woman for her actions, Gabriel believes salvation comes not from action but from a level of belief in God that he does not think a white person can possess.

Though John's interactions with white people and others are generally positive, he is careful not to test those limits, and he feels some of his father's resentment, knowing instinctively that he can't go into the buildings around him. Even the public library intimidates John, although he has a card that grants him full access. He fears the judgment of white eyes if he should make even one mistake inside, and he decides he must work to make himself good enough to pass those stone lions and through the doors of the main branch.

John's only foray off the street takes place at the movie theater, which is an interesting choice for him. He knows his church forbids going to movies—another indication of how very strict the church's doctrines are—yet this is the one activity that draws him in. Had he decided to visit the candy counter at Woolworth's down the street, he would not have worried about being spotted by a church member. His choice to engage in the one activity forbidden by the church indicates that he wants to break these rules in spite of his fear. Furthermore, he chooses a salacious film about a fallen woman and her sins, and finds himself envious of her power to do as she pleases. John is so starved for any opportunity to exercise his own free will that his fantasies run far in the opposite direction, and he wants to be able to do anything he wishes without the harsh consequences imposed by his father.

John's Struggle with Morality

Although John tries hard to be obedient and follow the teachings of his church despite his desires for a better material life and occasional sins, his brother Roy makes no pretense about his desires and he follows them with gusto. Early in "The Seventh Day" he makes claims about his sexual activities with girls in the neighborhood. Here he has suffered an injury that nearly cost him an eye in a fight that he deliberately picked. He went out of his way to do so, traveling halfway across the city to get into this fight. Still Roy is the only member of the family, aside from Sarah and the baby, who never bears Gabriel's blame. John is trying to follow his stepfather's words and Roy is not, yet John is greeted with an accusation about not being at home when he is needed, even though he does not appear to add any meaningful contribution to the proceedings. Gabriel is simply angry at John for being John, while Roy, who follows none of his father's teachings nor the discipline of the church, receives tender care from his father. John desperately wants his stepfather's approval, and Roy openly criticizes Gabriel's treatment of them all, even threatening Gabriel for striking their mother, yet Roy remains Gabriel's favorite.

The revelation that Gabriel was a popular preacher when he lived in the South provides a possible indication for his frustration and tendency to lash out, not just at John but at his whole family. As obedient as Gabriel is and as active as he is in the church, becoming a caretaker in a church in Harlem must be a step down from his previous life as a charismatic preacher.

John's interaction with Elisha when he arrives in the church is brotherly, but it also borders on flirtatious. The two boys banter about hiding mops and being clumsy, ending with a tussle between the two that is playful but also framed in highly sensual terms. John's awareness of Elisha's body is highlighted as "John pushed and pounded against the shoulders and biceps of Elisha." Later their physical proximity is highlighted when "the odor of Elisha's sweat was heavy in John's nostrils," and John can see the veins in Elisha's forehead and neck. John is "filled with a wild delight" at being able to hold his own in the wrestling, but other occasions, such as when John watches Elisha play piano during services, indicate John's fixation on Elisha's physical presence. This fixation could be based on the younger boy's idolization of the older boy, an attraction to Elisha, or some combination of the two. John clearly admires Elisha's spiritual commitment, but at this point John remains a creature of the physical world as well.

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