Go Tell It on the Mountain

by

James Baldwin

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Elizabeth and Richard’s son, Gabriel’s stepson, and the protagonist of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Elizabeth gives birth to John out of wedlock after Richard’s suicide and Gabriel is not his biological father, but John doesn’t know this. John is raised under the oppressive and abusive hand of Gabriel and is made to believe he is “ugly” and that he has “the face of Satan.” John and his siblings aren’t allowed to play outside or go to the movies, and their lives consist only of church, school, and prayer. It is expected that John will be a preacher like Gabriel when he grows up, but he hates the oppressive life Gabriel’s religion requires, and he doesn’t know if he wants to dedicate his life to such a “narrow” existence. Plus, John is obviously attracted to Elisha, his Sunday school teacher and a preacher at his church, but Christianity tells John that his sexuality makes him evil. John is unhappy and incredibly conflicted when he wakes on his fourteenth birthday. He believes he has already sinned by masturbating in the school bathroom, and he fears that his soul will be damned to Hell for eternity. Religion is not a source of comfort or joy in John’s life but a source of anguish and oppression, and Baldwin repeatedly draws attention to this. John goes to his church the night of his fourteenth birthday for tarry service, and there he finds himself on the threshing floor where he is held before God in judgement. John ultimately rises through the darkness and is saved, and it is in this way that Baldwin argues John isn’t a sinner after all. Gabriel believes that John is inherently evil because he is a “bastard,” but the fact that God stands in judgement over John and finds him righteous suggests that he isn’t inherently evil, by way of his birth or his sexuality. Through the character of John, Baldwin argues that true morality does not need to be confined to the “narrow way” of religion.

John Quotes in Go Tell It on the Mountain

The Go Tell It on the Mountain quotes below are all either spoken by John or refer to John. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of Go Tell It on the Mountain published in 2013.
Part 1: The Seventh Day Quotes

I looked down the line,
And I wondered.

Related Characters: John
Related Symbols: Music
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Every Sunday morning, then, since John could remember, they had taken to the streets, the Grimes family on their way to church. Sinners along the avenue watched them—men still wearing their Saturday-night clothes, wrinkled and dusty now, muddy-eyed and muddy-faced; and women with harsh voices and tight, bright dresses, cigarettes between their fingers or held tightly in the corners of their mouths. They talked, and laughed, and fought together, and the women fought like the men. John and Roy, passing these men and women, looked at one another briefly, John embarrassed and Roy amused. Roy would be like them when he grew up, if the Lord did not change his heart. These men and women they passed on Sunday mornings had spent the night in bars, or in cat houses, or on the streets, or on rooftops, or under the stairs. They had been drinking. They had gone from cursing to laughter, to anger, to lust. Once he and Roy had watched a man and woman in the basement of a condemned house. They did it standing up. The woman had wanted fifty cents, and the man had flashed a razor.

Related Characters: John, Roy
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

It seemed that he could not breathe, that his body could not contain this passion, that he would be, before their eyes, dispersed into the waiting air. His hands, rigid to the very fingertips, moved outward and back against his hips, his sightless eyes looked upward, and he began to dance. Then his hands closed into fists, and his head snapped downward, his sweat loosening the grease that slicked down his hair; and the rhythm of all the others quickened to match Elisha’s rhythm; his thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit, his heels beat on the floor, and his fists moved beside his body as though he were beating his own drum. And so, for a while, in the center of the dancers, head down, fists beating, on, on, unbearably, until it seemed the walls of the church would fall for very sound; and then, in a moment, with a cry, head up, arms high in the air, sweat pouring from his forehead, and all his body dancing as though it would never stop. Sometimes he did not stop until he fell—until he dropped like some animal felled by a hammer—moaning, on his face.

Related Characters: John, Elisha
Related Symbols: Music
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Through a storm of tears that did not reach his eyes, he stared at the yellow room; and the room shifted, the light of the sun darkened, and his mother’s face changed. Her face became the face that he gave her in his dreams, the face that had been hers in a photograph he had seen once, long ago, a photograph taken before he was born. This face was young and proud, uplifted, with a smile that made the wide mouth beautiful and glowed in the enormous eyes. It was the face of a girl who knew that no evil could undo her, and who could laugh, surely, as his mother did not laugh now. Between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes caused him to hate her.

Related Characters: John, Gabriel, Elizabeth
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

To sweep the front room meant, principally, to sweep the heavy red and green and purple Oriental-style carpet that had once been that room’s glory, but was now so faded that it was all one swimming color, and so frayed in places that it tangled with the broom. John hated sweeping this carpet, for dust rose, clogging his nose and sticking to his sweaty skin, and he felt that should he sweep it forever, the clouds of dust would not diminish, the rug would not be clean. It became in his imagination his impossible, lifelong task, his hard trial, like that of a man he had read about somewhere, whose curse it was to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have the giant who guarded the hill roll the boulder down again—and so on, forever, throughout eternity; he was still out there, that hapless man, somewhere at the other end of the earth, pushing his boulder up the hill.

Related Characters: John
Related Symbols: Mountains
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

His father said that all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. He said that white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies, and that not one of them had ever loved a [n_____]. He, John, was a [n_____], and he would find out, as soon as he got a little older, how evil white people could be. John had read about the things white people did to colored people; how, in the South, where his parents came from, white people cheated them of their wages, and burned them, and shot them—and did worse things, said his father, which the tongue could not endure to utter. He had read about colored men being burned in the electric chair for things they had not done; how in riots they were beaten with clubs; how they were tortured in prisons; how they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.

Related Characters: John, Gabriel
Page Number: 34-35
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Gabriel’s Prayer Quotes

The living son had cursed him—bastard—and his heart was far from God; it could not be that the curse he had heard tonight falling from Roy’s lips was but the curse repeated, so far, so long resounding, that the mother of his first son had uttered as she thrust the infant from her—herself immediately departing, this curse yet on her lips, into eternity. Her curse had devoured the first Royal; he had been begotten in sin, and he had perished in sin; it was God’s punishment, and it was just. But Roy had been begotten in the marriage bed, the bed that Paul described as holy, and it was to him the Kingdom had been promised. It could not be that the living son was cursed for the sins of his father; for God, after much groaning, after many years, had given him a sign to make him know he was forgiven. And yet, it came to him that this living son, this headlong, living Royal, might be cursed for the sin of his mother, whose sin had never been truly repented; for that the living proof of her sin, he who knelt tonight, a very interloper among the saints, stood between her soul and God.

Related Characters: John, Gabriel, Elizabeth, Esther, Roy, Royal
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: The Threshing-Floor Quotes

Then the ironic voice, terrified, it seemed, of no depth, no darkness, demanded of John, scornfully, if he believed that he was cursed. All [n_____s] had been cursed, the ironic voice reminded him, all [n_____s] had come from this most undutiful of Noah’s sons. How could John be cursed for having seen in a bathtub what another man—if that other man had ever lived—had seen ten thousand years ago, lying in an open tent? Could a curse come down so many ages? Did it live in time, or in the moment? But John found no answer for this voice, for he was in the moment, and out of time. […] Then his father stood just above him, looking down. Then John knew that a curse was renewed from moment to moment, from father to son. Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse forever.

Related Characters: John, Gabriel
Related Symbols: The Threshing-Floor
Page Number: 232-233
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Go Tell It on the Mountain LitChart as a printable PDF.
Go Tell It on the Mountain PDF

John Character Timeline in Go Tell It on the Mountain

The timeline below shows where the character John appears in Go Tell It on the Mountain. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: The Seventh Day
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For as long as John can remember, it has always been assumed that he will become a preacher like his... (full context)
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John’s first memories, which are his “only memories,” are of going to church on Sunday mornings... (full context)
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John’s family’s church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized, is just a few blocks from their... (full context)
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Each Sunday when John and his family walk to church, they pass “sinners” along the way. Men, “wrinkled and... (full context)
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Once, Roy and John watched a couple of “sinners” in a nearby basement, and “they did it standing up.”... (full context)
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...Gabriel is “head deacon,” but the pastor, Father James, preaches on Sundays and leads revivals. John’s family is constantly late to church on Sundays, which is “always [Elizabeth’s] fault.” According to... (full context)
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Appearing “more serious,” however, is hard for John because of Elisha, his Sunday school teacher and Father James’s nephew. Elisha is from Georgia,... (full context)
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Sunday service always begins with Elisha at the piano. To John, it seems as if “this music has been with [him]” ever since his “first drawn... (full context)
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John wakes early in the morning on his fourteenth birthday, which is on a Saturday in... (full context)
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John had “sinned with his hands” that which is “hard to forgive. In the school lavatory,... (full context)
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It is not only black people who “praise John” (according to John, “colored people” cannot “really know”) but white people too. Since he was... (full context)
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John’s intellect is part of his “identity,” which means it is not “subject to death or... (full context)
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At some point in the early morning, John falls asleep and wakes again to the sound of Roy arguing with Elizabeth. John enters... (full context)
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John looks at Elizabeth’s “perpetual scowl.” His mother looks differently in his dreams. There, she is... (full context)
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“Is Daddy a good man?” John asks Elizabeth without thinking. “Looks to me like he’s a mighty good man,” Sarah says.... (full context)
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...the Lord.” Elizabeth tells Roy to polish the woodworking in the dining room and tasks John with sweeping the front room. John agrees, as always. Indeed, it seems she does not... (full context)
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Cleaning the rug in the front room is an impossible task. John can “sweep forever,” but the rug is never clean. For every discarded pan of dirt,... (full context)
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After sweeping the rug, John must “excavate” his family’s “goods and gear” from the dust on the fireplace mantel. He... (full context)
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John begins to dust the objects on the mantel without “seeing” them, including cards and pictures,... (full context)
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On the mantel are pictures of John and his siblings, but John is the only one who is naked. He is just... (full context)
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With his work finished, John stares out the window at the neighborhood boys playing stickball. He wants to play with... (full context)
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John smiles and takes the money. “I know,” Elizabeth says, “there’s a whole lot of things... (full context)
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John leaves the house and heads in the direction of Central Park with his coins. At... (full context)
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John has seen the “marks of Satan” on people’s faces as they wait in lines outside... (full context)
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On Fifth Avenue, John sees “graceful women in fur coats” shopping for “silk dresses, and watches, and rings.” John... (full context)
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...people are “forbidden” to live in this part of the city, but no one bothers John as he walks down the street. Still, he doesn’t “dare” enter any of the shops,... (full context)
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John stops outside a movie house and decides to go in. He buys a ticket quickly... (full context)
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The woman dies, and John thinks about “her dreadful end.” If it weren’t “blasphemous,” John would think that the Lord... (full context)
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Later, as John returns home, he feels “weary.” From down the street, he sees Sarah run out the... (full context)
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...mercy of God that this boy didn’t lose his eye. Look here,” he says to John, forcing him to look at Roy’s face. His forehead has been gashed by a knife,... (full context)
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By six o’clock that night, John opens the church for “tarry service.” Service doesn’t begin until eight, and people usually don’t... (full context)
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“Praise the Lord,” Elisha says as he enters the church. John welcomes Elisha and the two begin to banter back and forth. Elisha’s presence causes John’s... (full context)
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“Boy, ain’t it time you was thinking about your soul?” Elisha asks John as they clean. Elisha says John still has “Adam’s mind” and is thinking too much... (full context)
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“Do you want to be saved, Johnny,” Elisha asks. “I don’t know,” John answers. Elisha asks him to try. “Just fall on... (full context)
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Sister Price and Sister McCandless visit with Elisha and John a bit, mostly talking about how wonderful Father James is. “Indeed, that is the truth,”... (full context)
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...time I pray with you, / This may be my last time, I don’t know.” John tries “not to hear the words” as he sings with the others. He doesn’t want... (full context)
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The church doors again open, and Gabriel walks in with Elizabeth and Florence. John has never actually seen Florence in church before, but now it seems as if she... (full context)
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Florence’s Prayer
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In the church in Harlem, all is silent except for the sound of prayer, but John’s mind is full of “doubt and searching.” Mother Washington and her granddaughter, Ella Mae, have... (full context)
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Gabriel’s Prayer
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...power of the Lord.” Gabriel opens his eyes, afraid that the sound is coming from John. Gabriel has two sons and neither are at the church tonight. One had been killed... (full context)
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...cursed for the sin of his mother, [Elizabeth,] whose sin had never been truly repented.” John, the “living proof” of Elizabeth’s sin, “stood between her soul and God,” like an “interloper... (full context)
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...he asked her. “I know you ain’t asking me to say I’m sorry I brought Johnny in the world. Is you?” She asked. Elizabeth refused to apologize for her son. “And... (full context)
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Meanwhile, in the Harlem church, John tries to pray. He can hear the other saints praying but doesn’t know where to... (full context)
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...Gabriel rises with the rest of the congregation and stands over Elisha on the threshing-floor. John, too, rises and joins them. Suddenly, Elisha begins “to speak in a tongue of fire,... (full context)
Part 2: The Prayers of the Saints: Elizabeth’s Prayer
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...by now. She never knew of Elizabeth’s “shame,” and Elizabeth had not told her of John until long after she had already married Gabriel. Her aunt had been “second in a... (full context)
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...disgrace either. She thinks of him now as she sings—about how much he would love John and how much John is like him. (full context)
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...stop it.” She sometimes thinks that perhaps it would have been better to have given John up for adoption, so that he would have had a better chance at a father... (full context)
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Elizabeth first met Gabriel through Florence when John was only six months old. Elizabeth and John were living alone in a furnished room,... (full context)
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One afternoon, Elizabeth took John to Florence’s house for a visit, and he instantly took to the older woman. “He... (full context)
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...Elizabeth grew quiet. “I was just thinking about this boy here,” Elizabeth said about baby John, “what’s going to happen to him, how I’m going raise him, in this awful city... (full context)
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...cried. “You see this wedding ring?” she asked Florence. “Well, I bought this ring myself. [John] ain’t got no daddy.” Florence immediately comforted her. “You poor thing,” she said, “you is... (full context)
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Elizabeth met Gabriel a few weeks later. She again took John to Florence’s house, and on the way into her building, John began to wriggle and... (full context)
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Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth sat and visited, while John fell asleep to the sound of the blues. From that moment on, Elizabeth, “who had... (full context)
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...she would have him. “And I’ll love your son, your little boy,” Gabriel said of John, “just like he was my own. […] I swear this before God, because He done... (full context)
Part 3: The Threshing-Floor
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Without knowing how, John finds himself on the threshing-floor. He feels “like a rock,” or like “something that has... (full context)
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A mysterious voice tells John “to rise” and “leave this temple and go out into the world,” and while he... (full context)
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“Set thin house in order,” John hears Gabriel say, “for thou shalt die and not live.” John again hears the mysterious... (full context)
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John doesn’t know where he is. There is only “silence” and a “faint trembling far beneath... (full context)
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...the mysterious voice says, “all [n_____s] have come from this most undutiful of Noah’s sons.” John wonders if a curse can “come down so many ages.” Does a curse “live in... (full context)
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John,” says Gabriel, “come with me.” He leads John down a “narrow, narrow” street. The street... (full context)
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“I seen it. I seen it,” John says as he runs from Gabriel. “And I heard you—all the nighttime long. I know... (full context)
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John tries to run, but he can’t, and he begins to call out for help. “Oh,... (full context)
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Suddenly, John sees the Lord, “for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, is... (full context)
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John approaches Gabriel. “I’m saved,” John says to his father. “It come from your mouth,” Gabriel... (full context)
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...her brother, “how the Lord would answer prayer.” She smiles, but Gabriel does not reciprocate. “[John] going to learn,” Gabriel says, “that it ain’t all in the sinning and the shouting—the... (full context)
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...for many a eternity before you see him crying in front of the altar like Johnny was crying tonight.” Gabriel grows angrier. “I going to tell you something, Gabriel,” Florence says.... (full context)
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...know, Florence says, that she isn’t “the only sinner,” and it will be good for John to know that he isn’t “the only bastard.” Gabriel sneers at her. “The Lord ain’t... (full context)
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John walks ahead with Elisha, feeling an “unspeakable joy” flood his heart. “Elisha?” John asks. “It... (full context)
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“Elisha,” John says again, “no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about... (full context)