Background and Composition
GO Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin's first novel, was published in 1953. It had a long and extensive history of composition, extending across two continents and at least three countries. Baldwin had conceived the idea for the novel in the early 1940s, when he was about seventeen. He would write and rewrite it over the next ten years. An autobiographical composition, the novel takes its subject matter from the troubled relationship between Baldwin and his stepfather, David Baldwin. Little Jimmy was almost three years old in 1927 when his mother, Emma Burdis Jones, married David Baldwin, who legitimized his existence by adopting him. But the legal embrace did not mirror an emotional embrace. A history of racism and religion informed David's interactions with his adopted stepson. The elder Baldwin had come to Harlem from Louisiana, where he had been a preacher. Having less status, but being no less devout in Harlem, he held his family to strict interpretations of biblical texts. Wives were to be obedient and children were to be helpful but invisible; neither was to challenge the authority of the father who, following biblical injunction, was head of his household.
David Baldwin frequently took out his frustrations on the young Jimmy. He considered his stepson ugly and remarked that James had the mark of the devil on him. James's successes at school, which earned him the approval and applause of his white teachers, only exacerbated David.