African American Writing: Harlem, New York: James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Please find here the first audio talk on James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. Also find underneath, notes and links to the content mentioned in the talk:

Map of Harlem

Page of Links and Clips on James Baldwin (1924-1987) Please watch the short 3 minute clip on James Baldwin’s life at the start of this article. It gives a central insight into what drives Go Tell It On The Mountain.

The novel is set in 1936, a few years before the start of the Second World War.

A film produced in 1932 “Harlem is Heaven” (57 minutes long) is really worth watching to give you a taste of Harlem at that time:

Lenox Avenue/ Malcolm X Boulevard


This street, one of the most important streets in the world for African American Culture, came to be known as Harlem’s Heartbeat (name given to it by poet Langston Hughes). The street was the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930’s.  Lenox a philanthropist in 1887- 100 years later the street was co-named Malcolm X in honour of this slain Civil Rights leader.

Harlem Renaissance Map:

The Harlem Renaissance, this  “flowering of Negro literature”, as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call it, took place between 1924 (when Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 :the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression).

For one of the most sustained and powerful insights into Baldwin’s work you should watch the unforgettable film I am Not Your Negro. The film is discussed in this link, but is also available for download rental or purchase (Rental is $4.99).

The Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas is a predominantly African-American HolinessPentecostal Christian denomination based in the United States.

Pentecostalism or Classical Pentecostalism is a renewal movement[1] within Protestant[2] Christianity that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Mount Olive Fire Baptized Holiness Church West 122nd Street Harlem

Mt Olive Harlem

The Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas was founded in 1898 in Mountville, South Carolina, by a Methodist preacher, William Edward Fuller, Sr., after he received the “Baptism of the Holy Ghost and Fire” while praying alone in a corn field near his home. Fuller’s congregation began with two members who lived nine miles apart, and grew to more than thousand members by 1908. Since then, the church has vastly increased its membership and geographic presence, and now consists of three dioceses located throughout the United States, Canada, the West Indies, the Virgin Islands, and England. The Mount Olive F.B.H. Church is part of the New York District of the First Episcopal Diocese. The Mount Olive congregation was organized in 1918 from a mission that was established the previous year by Bishop Fuller. Daniel Matthews was appointed the first minister of the church. Mount Olive’s first home was at 6 West 126th Street. In 1932, it moved to 2395 Eighth Avenue, where it remained until it acquired its present home on West 122nd Street under the leadership of Reverend McDonald Brown.


A severe criticism of the Christian religion can be found in Langston Hughes‘ poem “Merry Christmas”, where he exposes the irony of religion as a symbol for good and yet a force for oppression and injustice.[23]



by Langston Hughes

Published In New Masses (Dec. 1930)


Merry Christmas, China

From the gun-boats in the river,

Ten-inch shells for Christmas gifts,

And peace on earth forever.

Merry Christmas, India,

To Gandhi in his cell,

From righteous Christian England,

Ring out, bright Christmas bell!

Ring Merry Christmas, Africa,

From Cairo to the Cape!

Ring Hallehuiah! Praise the Lord!

(For murder and rape.)

Ring Merry Christmas, Haiti!

(And drown the voodoo drums –

We’ll rob you to the Christian hymns

Until the next Christ comes.)

Ring Merry Christmas, Cuba!

(While Yankee domination

Keeps a nice fat president

In a little half-starved nation.)

And to you down-and-outers,

(“Due to economic laws”)

Oh, eat, drink, and be merry

With a bread-line Santa Claus –

While all the world hails Christmas,

While all the church bells sway!

While, better still, the Christian guns

Proclaim this joyous day!

While holy steel that makes us strong

Spits forth a mighty Yuletide song:

SHOOT Merry Christmas everywhere!

Let Merry Christmas GAS the air!


For an excellent plot summary with a diagram of the movement of the plot at:

Here is the summary- if you are unable to access this link.

Go Tell it on the Mountain is the story of John Grimes. All his life John Grimes has been immersed in the Temple of the Fire Baptized in New York City. The oldest child in a family of four children, he feels the weight of high expectations from his family, his church, his teachers, and himself. John learns he must walk a narrow path of righteousness to get to heaven, and his stepfather, Gabriel, demands John be saved to serve God. At the same time, John wants no part of the poverty and guilt that is his stepfather’s legacy. He struggles to resolve his desire for a better life with his desire for his parents’ approval and God’s love. These conflicts come crashing together for John during a tumultuous Saturday night service on his 14th birthday in 1935.

The Saturday that changes John’s life starts out as an ordinary day. He wakes with the guilt of his adolescent sins—sexual thoughts, disrespect for his parents—weighing on his mind, but he has breakfast with his family and commences his chores with his half-brother, Roy. His disappointment that his birthday has been forgotten is assuaged when John’s mother, Elizabeth, gives him some spending money as a birthday treat. Set loose with the possibilities of New York City before him, John wanders from his home in Harlem to Central Park and then down Fifth Avenue to 42nd Street. He admires the glittering wealth around him and indulges his own fantasies of an adulthood spent as a prosperous and respected man, even as he feels mildly intimidated about being the only black person in the stores and landmarks he passes. He goes to a movie, which leaves him feeling both exhilarated about the vision of life it presents and guilty about having been to a movie about wicked people.

When John returns home, he finds his brother injured from a knife fight and his stepfather, Gabriel, raging at everyone, looking for someone to blame. Unable or perhaps unwilling to accept that Roy brought the injury on himself, Gabriel’s rage culminates when he slaps Elizabeth, leading Roy to threaten his father in his mother’s defense. John remains quiet but broods through the chaos, nurturing his own hatred for Gabriel. He then escapes to the church to help prepare for evening services.

At church John bonds and works with his friend and Sunday School teacher, Elisha. Elisha encourages John to take the path of salvation, and his encouragement provides a balance to Gabriel’s threats and fearmongering. Then the congregation, including John’s parents, siblings, and Aunt Florence, arrive and the service begins.

Unbeknownst to John, the adults in his family spend the service grappling with their personal demons. Florence, after learning that she is dying, has come to the church looking for solace. She remembers her childhood, her mother’s history as a former slave, and the favoritism toward Gabriel that sowed the seeds of discord between them. She thinks of her friend Deborah, censured by the town and blamed for her own rape at the hands of violent white men. Florence remembers how her own white employer propositioned her for an affair, spurring her to finally leave the South and move to New York City. In New York Florence marries Frank, a blues singer who leaves her for a younger woman. Through all of this, Florence envies and resents her brother, and that resentment comes to a head as Florence faces her own mortality and wants finally to confront Gabriel about his own sinful past.

Gabriel’s sinful past is on his own mind during the service, as he remembers his drinking and womanizing youth, his spontaneous conversion to follow God, and his marriage to his first wife, Deborah, as he built his reputation as a minister in the South. He also remembers his brief affair with a woman named Esther, whom he paid to leave town when she got pregnant and who died giving birth to their child, Royal. He remembers watching Royal grow up with his grandparents, his fear for the young Royal’s soul and safety, and his despair when Royal died in a bar fight in Chicago. Gabriel moved to New York after Deborah died, but his experiences, his failures and guilt, haunt him and harden him against his family. He clings to his faith in God, and he resents the old sin his wife, Elizabeth, brings into their marriage.

The old sin Elizabeth has brought into her marriage to Gabriel is John, the product of Elizabeth’s relationship with a man named Richard. Raised in Maryland by a strict aunt, Elizabeth moved to New York with Richard after the two of them fell in love. The couple planned to marry, but Richard’s implication in a crime he did not commit left him broken and hopeless, even though he was acquitted. He committed suicide before Elizabeth could tell him she was carrying their baby and left Elizabeth a heartbroken single mother. She met Florence at work, and the two became friends. Elizabeth then met Gabriel, who promised to marry her and raise her son as his own.

All of these elements of family history have shaped John in ways he does not even realize, and they converge in the church during the Saturday service. While Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth muse on their respective pasts, John is overcome with the power of God. He falls to the church floor, plunging into a frightening vision of sin, fear, the history of his family, and his race that bring him through the fire to see the face of God while Elisha talks him through it all. When he emerges from the vision, John declares he has been saved and eagerly awaits his stepfather’s approval at last. The entire congregation, especially Elisha, is eager to congratulate John, but Gabriel’s approval never comes. As he returns to his home, John feels transformed by his experience at church but seems uncertain of what that transformation will mean in the time to come.


Go Tell IT Plot Diagram




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