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Go Tell It on the Mountain: Finding Peace in Chaos

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‘The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness’ (Psalm 72:3). An internal spiritual struggle or obstacle inside oneself is often portrayed as a mountain, associated with divine inspiration, transcendence, and spiritual elevation. Symbolic of a rise or fall from power, many works allude to mountains, such as the Bible. As seen in the stories of the prophet Moses and Jesus, the son of God, when they climbed a mountain, it represented a place of sacred power and spiritual attainment. Yet mountains can also symbolize sacrifices, such as in the stories of Abraham and Isaac. Throughout history, high places have been a symbol of power and status, think of a pulpit in a church or the throne of a king. Power comes in the form of mental and physical strength; people tend to take and give one another power. Mountains spring up imagery of the ascent vs. descent or the climb and fall. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin, the novel tells the story of John Grimes, an intelligent young boy in 1930s Harlem, and his close relatives’ relationship with each other and their church. John’s mother Elizabeth, had him out of wedlock, and when his biological father commits suicide, she marries an abusive husband, Gabriel. The main struggles of John, Elizabeth’s son, are dealing with his abusive step-father, religion, and societies’ expectations. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin uses climbing and falling imagery as a symbol for power as an escape from pressures, such as religion, family, and society, highlighting the internal struggle and situation of both John and Elizabeth Grimes.

Elizabeth’s decisions surrounding men determine her worth, status, and power in the eyes of society, highlighting Baldwin’s use of climbing imagery as an escape from her situation. In the early 1930s, women did not have access to jobs that could support a family and themselves. As a result, women typically needed a man for their economic safety and marriage for societal acceptance. For Elizabeth, when she starts falling for her boyfriend, Richard, and as he takes her into his arms, she is ‘on the edge of a steep place: and down she rushed, on the descent uncaring, into the dreadful sea’ (Baldwin 162). Baldwin describes the sensation of her ‘falling’ in love and the ‘sin’ of premarital sex as a downward fall, a loss of status. Demonstrating the state of American society in the 1930s and the importance of public opinion, her decision to love Richard and go against her religion and societal norms in order to have premarital sex is her ‘downfall.’ She is judged harshly by society for having a baby outside of wedlock, hence losing power in the form of status. After Richard’s suicide and losing the male figure in her life as support, getting back to good, sin-free standing in the community is not easy as, ‘She would have to climb back up alone’ (Baldwin 165). Climbing back up is harder because she has a baby out of wedlock. Therefore, when Gabriel appeared to bring her back to the faith from which she had strayed, he offered her strength, protection, and an upward climb, promising to love John as his own. She went to him for security, out of a desperate longing to return to grace, not out of love, and she ‘had begun her upward climb—upward, with her baby, on the steep, steep side of the mountain.’ (Baldwin 185). Baldwin’s mention of a mountain refers to Elizabeth’s uphill climb to salvation and redemption. Elizabeth Grimes wants to do what is best for her family and herself, crawling her way upwards and making sacrifices for the sake of her children.

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John contemplates whether to break free from the oppression his step-father, religion, and society dump on him, employing falling imagery to symbolize his desire for release from the hardships in his life. At the beginning of the novel, when John heads for Central Park, he finds his favorite hill and runs to the summit. He envisions wielding the supreme power that comes from being metaphorically ‘at the top.’ John ‘felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush this city beneath his heel; he felt like a long-awaited conqueror… the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed’ (Baldwin 33). In John’s mind Gabriel, his step-father, is uniquely tied with power and religion as he is the ‘ruler’ of the Grimes’ household and the preacher of their church. At the top of the hill, John feels a sense of raw power. John desires to wield the same power that Gabriel does to be able to protect his mother, siblings, and himself from his step-father’s abuse. Nevertheless, John does not desire to live his life as Gabriel has, living the ‘narrow way.’ ‘Narrow was the way that led to life eternal… But he did not long for the narrow way… there awaited him, one day, a house like his father’s and a job like his fathers… The way of the cross had given him a belly filled with wind and had bent his mother’s back’ (Baldwin 34). The ‘narrow way’ is the life path of a ‘holy’ man, such as Gabriel follows. From the beginning of the book, people always tell John that he will be a preacher, just like his father. However, John refuses to follow in his abuser’s footsteps. ‘John Grimes, pubescent and confused, must not only escape the ghetto and its destructive forces but must also find release from his father’s authority’ (Warren 20).  

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