Go Tell It on the Mountain


James Baldwin

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Go Tell It on the Mountain Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James Baldwin

Baldwin was born at Harlem Hospital to Emma Berdis Jones in 1924. Jones left Baldwin’s biological father, who was a drug addict, before Baldwin was born and married David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher. The couple had eight more children together, and Baldwin’s stepfather had one son from his previous marriage as well. David Baldwin was cruel and abusive, just as Gabriel is to John in Go Tell It on the Mountain, and he later died of tuberculosis when Baldwin was not yet 20. Baldwin attended Public School 24 in New York City and began writing at a young age. He wrote a play that was performed by the student body, contributed to the school newspaper, and is even credited with writing the school’s official song. Like John, Baldwin was expected to become a preacher like his father, but he believed Christianity to be hypocritical and inherently racist, and he left organized religion after his teenage years. By 1948, Baldwin had already been harassed by local police because of his race, and after he was denied service in a New York City restaurant because he was black, he moved to France to escape the racism of American society. Living in Paris, Baldwin continued to write, and in 1953, he published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, followed by Notes of a Native Son—a book of essays based in part on Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son—just two years later. In 1954, Baldwin won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and later that same year his third book, Giovanni’s Room, was rejected by publishers because of its homosexual content. The novel wasn’t published until 1956. During the 1960s, Baldwin was active in the American Civil Rights Movement and was personal friends with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. He agreed to write a screenplay about the life of Malcolm X, but after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Baldwin left the project and moved back to France. He continued to write into the ‘70s and ‘80s, often exploring issues of racism and homophobia. In 1983, Baldwin accepted a professorship of Literature and African American Studies at the Five College Network in Amherst, Massachusetts, and in 1986, he was made Commandeur de la Légion D’Honneur, France’s highest honor, by French President Mitterand. Baldwin died in 1987 of stomach cancer at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
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Historical Context of Go Tell It on the Mountain

In Go Tell It on the Mountain, John’s biological father, Richard, moves from the American South to the North in 1919, during a time known historically as the Red Summer. During the spring, summer, and fall of 1919, America saw a marked increase in violence against people of color, and hundreds of African Americans were murdered, most by lynching, by white supremacists. The term “Red Summer” was coined by American writer James Weldon Johnson—widely known for his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—who was an early member and secretary of the NAACP. In the late winter and spring of 1919, racial tensions in America erupted, resulting in the kind of widespread fear and violence that drives Richard to the North in Baldwin’s novel. On May 10, for instance, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, imposed martial law, and sailors of the United States Navy led a race riot that resulted in the deaths of over 165 black people. Similarly, police in Bisbee, Arizona, attacked the 10th U.S. Calvary, a unit of African American soldiers, on July 3. Riots and isolated lynchings spread across the nation during the Red Summer, and the violence culminated in Elaine, Arkansas, on September 30. After a white farmer was fatally shot by a group of black sharecroppers, a massive riot ensued, and when it was over, more than 200 black Americans were dead, compared to just five white Americans.

Other Books Related to Go Tell It on the Mountain

The period of Contemporary American Literature, generally accepted by scholars to have begun in 1945, was greatly shaped by novelist Richard Wright, whom Baldwin references directly in his book of essays, Notes a Native Son. Wright’s 1945 memoir, Black Boy, chronicles Wright’s early life in the American South and his move North to Chicago in the 1920s. Like Baldwin, Wright examines the systemic and institutionalized racism in American society, and his work has been credited with the improvement of race relations in the latter part of the twentieth century. Baldwin was also influenced by Countee Cullen, a poet and prominent Black American who came to fame during the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen wrote several books of poetry, including Color and Harlem Wine, but he is perhaps best known for the individual poems “Heritage” and “Yet Do I Marvel.” Baldwin was close friends with writer Maya Angelou, and she claims he was an influence in the writing of her own autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Like Go Tell It on the Mountain, Angelou’s autobiography explores her coming of age and the trauma caused by America’s racist society.
Key Facts about Go Tell It on the Mountain
  • Full Title: Go Tell It on the Mountain
  • When Written: Early 1950s
  • Where Written: Paris, France
  • When Published: 1953
  • Literary Period: Contemporary American Literature
  • Genre: Semi-autobiographical novel
  • Setting: Harlem, New York, in 1935; as well as the American Antebellum South and Maryland in the early 1900s.
  • Climax: John is saved on the threshing-floor of his Harlem church and becomes a man of God.
  • Antagonist: Gabriel
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for Go Tell It on the Mountain

Famous Friends. Baldwin was close friends with Marlon Brando, the Academy Award-winning actor who played the title role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Baldwin and Brando were even roommates in their youth.

And the Oscar Goes to... In 2019, actress Regina King won an Academy Award for her performance as Sharon Rivers in the film adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. The 2018 adaptation was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.