The Isolation and Freedom in Go Tell It on the Mountain

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John knows that he is an intelligent kid, and does not want to fall into the cycle of oppression most of his fellow African-Americans do, either turning to the church or the streets. He feels suffocated in his home environment and in his seemingly limited life choices. When John climbs the hill and looks down on the city that Gabriel has warned him will lead his soul to ‘perdition,’ John stops and thinks: ‘These glories were unimaginable—but the city was real… feeling himself fly as the descent became more rapid, and thinking: ‘I can climb back up. If it is wrong, I can always climb back up” (Baldwin 34). Refusing to follow in Gabriel’s footsteps, John runs down into the city of sin, knowing of the danger. Currently, John rejects his beliefs and religion as unimaginable, and looks towards the city, knowing it is a real, tangible place. Through word choice and symbolism, Baldwins suggests the bottom of the mountain signifies sin and immorality, while the top denotes righteousness. ‘If it is wrong, I can always climb back up,’ John thinks to himself as he runs down the mountain. Ultimately, John does decide to climb back up and to use religion for his benefit and upward mobility.

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Baldwin utilizes climbing imagery to reveal that John views religion as a stepping stone to gain power, autonomy, and a sense of liberation over Gabriel and society, rather than viewing it as another oppressor. Through John’s experience on the ‘threshing floor,’ he reveals that he has been ‘saved’ by God, an experience his step-father had claimed to go through as well. John knows that this path will not be easy to stay put in his new, holy state. As John told Elisha: ‘It’s a long way,’ John said slowly, ‘ain’t it? It’s a hard way. It’s uphill all the way,’ he knows how difficult it is going to be (Baldwin 218). In response, Elisha alludes to the biblical image of the mountain of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, telling John: ‘You remember Jesus,’ Elisha said. ‘You keep your mind on Jesus. He went that way—up the steep side of the mountain—and He was carrying the cross, and didn’t nobody help Him. He went that way for us. He carried that cross for us’ (Baldwin 218). The mountain, and the climbing of it, represents sacrifice, which John is preparing himself for, as John feels like he has won a battle in the war against Gabriel. After John’s threshing floor experience, the power dynamic of the Grimes’ household shifts. Michael F. Lynch’s article, ‘The Everlasting Father: Mythic Quest and Rebellion in Baldwin’s ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain,’ summarizes my stance on John’s journey. ‘Through this initiation, the alienated, guilt-ridden John comes to feel himself part of the community, finds a sense of autonomous self-identity and self-acceptance, and gathers the strength to confront his father’s hatred with hope and love’ (Lynch 157). John and Gabriel are now both men, slightly more equal, suggesting John will come to hold more power and autonomy. John feels as he did on the hill in Central Park, yet instead of renouncing his religion to run down the hill, he is choosing to continue climbing. John comes a long way, spiritually, from the beginning of the novel, as he changes the perspective to desiring the power that comes from affirming himself in his religion rather than rejecting it.

Mountains, which represents both an ascent and descent, can symbolize power in the form of an inner journey for the pursuit of freedom, spiritually and physically. For John and Elizabeth, they both desire a better life for their families and themselves. During his struggles, John compares himself to Sisyphus, whose impossible, the lifelong task is to roll a boulder up a steep hill throughout eternity. John, feeling suffocated, wanted to rebel against his step-father and society. He accomplished it by both rejecting his religion, by putting himself in the ‘city of sin,’ and accepting it, through his conversion experience. Elizabeth, having been left alone by Richard, does what she can by marrying well-respected preacher Gabriel Grimes, to help support John and herself. After all, it is easy enough to walk down steps, as bodyweight pulls downwards, yet walking up requires the force and strength to get up those steps. High places, such as mountains, temples, etc. are universal symbols of nearness to God, as they seemingly reach toward the heavens and are inherently closer to God. Traditionally, mountains represent attainment, responsibilities, burdens, the path to success, and even loss, all of which are evident in the novel. As John and Elizabeth choose to climb their mountains, they decide to take charge of their lives. As goes the saying, ‘the best view comes after the hardest climb.’  

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