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Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin

Theme: Faith
Grades: Grades 10-11

John Grimes is an African-American teenager living in Harlem in 1935. He hates and fears his stepfather, Gabriel, an overbearing, disapproving Pentacostal preacher who prefers John's younger brother Roy. (John does not know that Gabriel is not his natural father.) On his 14th birthday, John explores downtown New York, returns home to witness a violent family argument, then leaves to prepare the church for an evening service. During the service, John's stepfather, mother, and aunt relive the past in their minds. All three moved from the South to the North to improve their lives but found only frustration and bitterness. As the adults pray, John undergoes a dramatic religious experience in which he faces the suffering that is his heritage. At dawn he arises, feeling a new joy and strength.

  1. Background Music.
    To help students appreciate the religious environment of the novel, play a recording of spirituals or gospel music.
  1. Tapping Prior Knowledge: Parent/Child Relationships.
    A central conflict in Go Tell it on the Mountain is a teenage boy's troubled relationship with his stern and disapproving father. Have students imagine themselves living in a poor family headed by a strict, religious father who wants them to do nothing but go to church. Ask students to role-play the various reactions a teenager might have to to such a situation.
  1. Fire and Brimstone.
    Have students prepare a dramatization of one of Gabriel's sermons, such as the one at the Twenty-Four Elders Revival Meeting or the one that Esther and her mother attend. Students might watch a videotape of an African-American minister giving a sermon or a speech to try to capture the rhythm of the speaking style. The videotape of the "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one possibility that is available in many libraries.

  1. Mixed Media.
    Ask students to make a collage depicting their impressions of some aspect of the novel, such as John's vision, John's home, or Harlem life. Remind students that in collages, they can combine drawing or painting with photographs, newsprint, fabric, colored paper, or other materials.
  1. The Great Migration.
    Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence were all part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North during the early 1900s. But their hopes and dreams were dashed. Ask students: How typical were their experiences? Did the Great Migration result in any success stories? Did some African Americans improve their lives? Have students investigate the history of the Great Migration and prepare a report on the experiences of African Americans, both positive and negative.

  2. Biblical Allusions.
    Have students research one of the Biblical allusions from the novel, such as the reference to Ezekiel's wheel or Jacob's Ladder. Have them write a short essay identifying the source of the allusion and explaining its meaning and significance in the novel.