In Go Tell It on the Mountain, author James Baldwin describes the course of the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes in Harlem, 1935. Baldwin also uses extended flashback episodes to recount the lives of John's parents and aunt and to link this urban boy in the North to his slave grandmother in an earlier South. The first section follows John's thoughts, the second mostly his aunt's, the third his father's, the fourth his mother's, and the fifth again mostly John's.

The title Go Tell It on the Mountain comes from a Negro spiritual. The novel is steeped in the language of the King James Bible, and the Bible is a constant presence in the characters' lives; thus, a familiarity with Biblical stories can enhance the reader's understanding of the text. At the heart of the story three main conflicts intertwine: a clash between father and son, a coming-of-age struggle, and a religious crisis. Baldwin deals with issues of race and racism more elliptically in this novel than in his other works, but these issues inform all three of the text's central problems—indeed, according to some critics, these issues take center stage in the book, though subtly.

John doesn't understand why his father hates him, reserving his love for John's younger brother Roy instead. He is torn between his desire to win his father's love and his hatred for his father (and the strict religious world this man represents). The boy believes himself to have committed the first major sin of his life—a belief that helps precipitate a religious crisis. Before the night is over John will undergo a religious transformation, experiencing salvation on the "threshing-floor" of his family's storefront Harlem church. Yet this will not earn him his father's love. What John does not know, but the reader does, is that the man he thinks is his father—Gabriel—is, in fact, his stepfather; unbeknownst to John, Gabriel's resentment of him has nothing to do with himself and everything to do with Gabriel's own concealed past.

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