Go Tell it On the Mountain

Go Tell it On the Mountain Quotes and Analysis

That moment gave him, from that time on, if not a weapon at least a shield; he apprehended totally, without belief or understanding, that he had a power in himself that other people lacked; that he could use this to save himself, to raise himself; and that, perhaps, with this power he might one day win that love which he so longed for. This was not, in John, a faith subject to death or alteration; it was his identity, and part, therefore, of that wickedness for which his father beat him and to which he clung in order to withstand his father.

pg. 15

The "moment" in question is when John realizes that his intelligence sets him apart from his peers. Without the religious experiences and insights he thinks would take for Gabriel to appreciate him, John looks to his intelligence to put him on equal par with the much-vaunted whites Gabriel so despised. He depended on his intelligence for his identity, and clung to it in opposition to his father's abusive dogmatism -- yet he hoped to win his father's love with that same intelligence.

"And this is why, though he had been born in the faith and had been surrounded all his life by the saints and by their prayers and their rejoicing, and though the tabernacle in which they worshipped was more completely real to him than the several precarious homes in which he and his family had lived, John's heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God's minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father."

pg. 20

Early on in the book, this quote reveals the fundamental obstacle between John and faith: his stepfather, Gabriel. All throughout his life, John had been surrounded by a good impression of religion: full of rules, perhaps, but similarly full of love and warmth. Gabriel's anger and abuse, coupled with John's pride in his intellect, was enough to turn John away from religion.

My soul is a witness for my Lord. There was an awful silence at the bottom of John's mind, a dreadful weight, a dreadful speculation. And not even a speculation, but a deep, deep turning, as of something huge, black, shapeless, for ages dead on the ocean floor, that now felt its rest disturbed by a faint, far wind, which bid it: "Arise." And this weight began to move at the bottom of John's mind, in a silence like the silence of the void before creation, and he began to feel a terror he had never felt before.

pg. 88

This is the first major turning point in John's spiritual life. Baldwin is telling us that John will have a conversion experience before the end of the book; the word 'arise' is a reference to one of Jesus' miracles where he called a dead girl back to life by telling her to arise. The huge black shapeless thing dead on the ocean floor refers to John's soul.

"...You think I want to stay around here the rest of my life with these dirty niggers you all the time bring home?"

"Where do you expect us to live, honey, where we ain't going to be with niggers?"

Then she turned away, looking out of the kitchen window. It faced an elevated train that passed so close she always felt that she might spit in the faces of the flying, staring people.

"I just don't like all that ragtag . . . looks like you think so much of."

Then there was silence. Although she had turned her back to him, she felt that he was no longer smiling and that his eyes, watching her, had darkened.

"And what kind of man you think you married?"

"I thought I married a man with some get up and go to him, who didn't just want to stay on the bottom all his life!"

"And what you want me to do, Florence? You want me to turn white?"

This question always filled her with an ecstasy of hatred. She turned and faced him, and, forgetting that there was someone sitting in the parlor, shouted:

"You ain't got to be white to have some self-respect! You reckon I slave in this house like I do so you and them common niggers can sit here every afternoon throwing ashes all over the floor?"

"And who's common now, Florence?"

Frank and Elizabeth, pg. 95-96

This quote demonstrates the fundamental difference between Florence and Frank. Though Florence says that her ambition is not toward whiteness, her actions don't follow suit. She looks down on Frank for being himself. What she takes as lack of ambition in Frank is actually a general contentment with himself and his life, which is something that Florence has never had – and, sadly, it is probably something that she never will have.

"Then how come you got to be so smart? How come you got to know so much?"

And he smiled, pleased, but he said: "Little-bit, I don't know so much." Then he said, with a change in his face and voice which she had grown to know: "I just decided me one day that I was going to get to know everything them white bastards knew, and I was going to get to know it better than them, so could no white son-of-a-bitch nowhere never talk me down, and never make me feel like I was dirt, when I could read him the alphabet, back, front, and sideways. Shit--he weren't going to beat my ass, then. And if he tried to kill me, I'd take him with me, I swear to my mother I would." Then he looked at her again, and smiled and kissed her, and he said: "That's how I got to know so much, baby."

She asked: "And what you going to do, Richard? What you want to be?"

And his face clouded. "I don't know. I got to find out. Looks like I can't get my mind straight nohow."

She did not know why he couldn't--or she could only dimly face it--but she knew he spoke the truth.

Richard and Elizabeth, pg. 190-191

This quote reveals the essential conflict within Richard. On the one hand, there is the bitterness that would not allow white people any additional leverage in terms of knowledge over him; on the other hand, there is the lack of ambition--not because he didn't want have goals (like Florence thought of Frank), but because he never found how to apply all his intelligence and ability. It also provides insight into the fundamental motivations that spur him on to find a place to settle. Tragically, he never finds this.

"She felt a great commotion in the air around her--a great excitement, muted, waiting on the Lord. And the air seemed to tremble, as before a storm. A light seemed to hang--just above, and all around them--about to burst into revelation."

pg. 212

This quote demonstrates the way in which faith transformed the saints' daily lives. They operated--particularly in the atmosphere of church--in the full expectation that God would make himself and his will known to them. Within the confines of the church, sanctified as it is to the visiting of the Lord, Elizabeth and the other saints can tell when God is going to work among them.

She thought of that far-off day when John had come into the world--that moment, the beginning of her life and death. Down she had gone that day, alone, a heaviness intolerable at her waist, a secret in her loins, down into the darkness, weeping and groaning and cursing God. How long she had bled, and sweated, and cried, no language on earth could tell--how long she had crawled through darkness she would never, never know. There, her beginning, and she fought through darkness still; toward that moment when she would make her peace with God, when she would hear Him speak, and He would wipe all tears from her eyes; as, in that other darkness, after eternity, she had heard John cry.

As now, in the sudden silence, she heard him cry: not the cry of the child, newborn, before the common light of earth, but the cry of the man-child, bestial, before the light that comes down from Heaven. She opened her eyes and stood straight up; all of the saints surrounded her; Gabriel stood staring, struck rigid as a pillar in the temple. On the threshing-floor, in the center of the crying, singing saints, John lay astonished beneath the power of the Lord.

pg. 216

In an incredible stylistic move, Baldwin draws agonizing and beautiful parallels between John's birth, Elizabeth's metaphorical journey through her "dark night of the soul" when John was born, and John's rebirth as a believer. Just as John's birth was agonizing and long, so was Elizabeth's rebirth--but John's conversion at 14, notably, was not.

"John," said his father, "come with me."

Then they were in a straight street, a narrow, narrow way. They had been walking for many days. The street stretched before them, long, and silent, going down, and whiter than the snow. There was no one on the street, and John was frightened. The buildings on this street, so near that John could touch them on either side, were narrow, also, rising like spears into the sky, and they were made of beaten gold and silver. John knew that these buildings were not for him--not today--no, nor tomorrow, either! Then, coming up this straight and silent street, he saw a woman, very old and black, coming toward them, staggering on the crooked stones. She was drunk, and dirty, and very old, and her mouth was bigger than his mother's mouth, or his own; her mouth was loose and wet, and he had never seen anyone so black. His father was astonished to see her, and beside himself with anger; but John was glad. He clapped his hands, and cried: "See! She's uglier than Mama! She's uglier than me!"

"You mighty proud, ain't you," his father said, "to be the Devil's son?"

But John did not listen to his father. He turned to watch the woman pass. His father grabbed his arm. "You see that? That's sin. That's what the Devil's son runs after."

pg. 225

The narrow way is a term commonly used to describe the Christian life. The woman John and Gabriel see is a representative of sin--but for Gabriel it's the specific sin of lust that he struggled with in his youth. In the vision, he tries to turn this notion around to teach John, but John knows it is Gabriel's sin and not his own. Outside the vision, this is a picture of what Gabriel does with John and Elizabeth. Gabriel considers Elizabeth's sin the source of her and John's and his own problems, while refusing to acknowledge his own culpability in the exact sin he accuses Elizabeth and John of.

“Yes, he had heard it all his life, but it was only now that his ears were opened to this sound that came from darkness, that could only come from darkness, that yet bore such sure witness to the glory of the light. And now in his moaning, and so far from any help, he heard it in himself--it rose from his bleeding, his cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave, rage and weeping from time set free, but bound now in eternity; rage that had no language, weeping with no voice--which yet spoke now, to John's startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash; of humility most wretched, the dungeon most absolute, of love's bed defiled, and birth dishonored, and most bloody, unspeakable, sudden death. Yes, the darkness hummed with murder: the body in the water, the body in the fire, the body on the tree. John looked down the line of these armies of darkness, army upon army, and his soul whispered: Who are these? Who are they? And wondered: Where shall I go?

pg. 228

The turning point in John's conversion, this is where he realizes what exactly he needs salvation for. Just like how, earlier in the book, John knows he will never be able to actually clean the house, he realizes that he is too full of darkness, rage, and weeping to rid himself of it. The knowledge wakes him up to the vision of the "armies of darkness," who are representative of saints who have lived and gone on before him, who had experienced the same thing he had and yet pressed on.

And he moaned again: "Oh, Lord, have mercy. Have mercy, Lord."

There came to him again the communion service at which Elisha had knelt at his father's feet. Now this service was in a great, high room, a room made golden by the light of the sun; and the room was filled with a multitude of people, all in long, white robes, the women with covered heads. They sat at a long, bare, wooden table. They broke at this table flat, unsalted bread, which was the body of the Lord, and drank from a heavy silver cup the scarlet wine of His blood. Then he saw that they were barefoot, and that their feet were stained with this same blood. And a sound of weeping filled the room as they broke the bread and drank the wine.

Then they rose, to come together over a great basin filled with water. And they divided into four groups, two of women and two of men; and they began, woman before woman and man before man, to wash each other's feet. But the blood would not wash off; many washings only turned the crystal water red; and someone cried: "Have you been to the river?"

Then John saw the river, and the multitude was there. And now they had undergone a change; their robes were ragged, and stained with the road they had traveled, and stained with unholy blood; the robes of some barely covered their nakedness; and some indeed were naked. And some stumbled on the smooth stones at the river's edge, for they were blind; and some crawled with a terrible wailing, for they were lame; some did not cease to pluck at their flesh, which was rotten with running sores. All struggled to get to the river, in a dreadful hardness of heart: the strong struck down the weak, the ragged spat on the naked, the naked cursed the blind, the blin crawled over the lame. And someone cried: "Sinner, do you love my Lord?"

Then John saw the Lord--for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, was filled with a light he could not bear. Then, in a moment, he was set free; his tears sprang as from a fountain; his heart, like a fountain of waters, burst. Then he cried: "Oh, blessed Jesus! Oh, Lord Jesus! Take me through!"

Of tears there was, yes, a very fountain--springing from a depth never sounded before, from depths John had not known were in him. And he wanted to rise up, singing, singing in that great morning, the morning of his new life. Ah, how his hears ran down, how they blessed his soul!--as he felt himself, out of the darkness, and the fire, and the terrors of death, rising upward to meet the saints.

pg. 231-232

John is horrified by the vision of the armies of darkness, but knows he has to go through. Paralyzed by fear, he watches them take communion and be washed in the river, a commonly used metaphor for the cleansing power of the Crucifixion. He sees their need for cleansing, and has already been brought to the place where he knows his own need of it too. This is sufficient to break through his fear and to get him to see the Lord, and to be saved. Through Christ's help, he "goes through." He is saved.