Study Guide

Go Tell It on the Mountain Contrasting Regions: North & South

By James Baldwin

Contrasting Regions: North & South

"You going North," her mother said, then. "And when you reckon on coming back?" 

"I don't reckon on coming back," she said. (2.1.49-50)

Florence isn't buying a round-trip ticket. She's gone.  She's never left home, but she's so unhappy there that she's sure she will never come back. And she's true to her word. Even when her mother dies and her brother marries, she remains in the North, living her new life.

"You come crying back soon enough," said Gabriel, with malevolence, "soon as they whip your butt up there four or five times. (2.1.51)

The North, for Gabriel, represents a dangerous, threatening place. While Florence sees it as a chance for freedom, he is sure that she will find violence and difficulties there. It might be his attitude, the certainty that he will be waiting with a told-you-so, that keeps her from ever coming home even when life is hard.

"Girl, where you going? What you doing? You reckon on finding some men up North to dress you in pearls and diamonds?" (2.1.65)

Another idea about the North is that it is a place of riches. While the characters live in very impoverished conditions in the South, some of them dream of a better life in the North. Gabriel is mocking Florence here; he doesn't seem to think she will find the pearls and diamonds he talks about, but he's referring to a common conception.

"I ain't heard from her real lately." She paused. Then: "I don't believe she so happy up there." "And serve her right, too—she ain't had no business going away from here like she did, just like a crazy woman." (2.2.26-27)

Deborah probably misses her friend, Florence, but she isn't very nice about it. Instead of being concerned that her friend and sister-in-law is unhappy, she blames her for it. She relates moving up North to being crazy; only an insane person would leave the safety of home for the unknown.

And he saw, in this wandering, how far his people had wandered from God. They had all turned aside, and gone out into the wilderness, to fall down before idols of gold and silver, and wood and stone, false gods that could not heal them. The music that filled any town or city he entered was not the music of the saints but another music, infernal, which glorified lust and held righteousness up to scorn. (2.2.287)

Gabriel leaves his home in the South to go preaching in the cities, to make some extra money and forget his troubles. What he sees in the urban centers is, for him, shocking. He believes that all black people have left their values behind when they migrated to the city, as evidenced by the newfangled music

And blood, in all the cities through which he passed, ran down. (2.2.288)

For Gabriel, the cities (the North) represent death, violence, and destruction. Surely the blood isn't literally just running through the streets, but that's the metaphorical sense he gets. Of course, it's hard to ignore the fact that black men and women are murdered and raped in his hometown in the South, too.

"His grandmamma, Sister McDonald"—she was writing a letter, and did not look at him as she spoke—"well, she think it must've been one of them boys what's all time passing through here, looking for work, on their way north—you know? them real shiftless n*****s—well, she think it must've been one've them got Esther in trouble. She say Esther wouldn't never've gone North if she hadn't been a-trying to find that boy's daddy. […]" (2.2.297)

Sister McDonald and Deborah have concluded that it must have been a "shiftless" man that got Esther pregnant, and for them, shiftless is synonymous with the black men moving up north to look for work. This attitude towards those who leave the South is one of mistrust and suspicion. The irony, of course, is that that shiftless guy was the preacher himself.

Richard said that he hated the South, and this was perhaps the reason it did not occur to either of them to begin their married life there. (2.3.68)

Richard doesn't talk much about his life, but we do know that he was an orphan who was passed from house to house as people got tired of taking care of him. So his experience of the South is very negative, and he considers the North his big opportunity. Maybe that's why he's so disappointed and depressed by his arrest in the North.

Her pretext for coming to New York was to take advantage of the greater opportunities the North offered colored people; to study in a Northern school, and to find a better job than any she was likely to be offered in the South. (2.3.70)

More conceptions of the North/South divide, courtesy of Miss Elizabeth. She's able to convince her aunt to let her go up North because it's widely agreed that the city has more opportunities for education and professional life than the South. We're not sure that her life turned out all that much better, though.

"Don't know," he persisted, still smiling, and still looking at Elizabeth, "tell me folks do things up North they wouldn't think about doing down home." "Folks got their dirt to do," said Florence. "They going to do it, no matter where they is. Folks do lots of things down home they don't want nobody to know about." (2.3.229-30)

Gabriel insists on the division between the moral people of the South and the immorality of the North, but Florence shuts him down. She reminds him that there are sinners everywhere, not allowing him to accuse her and everyone else who's come North of losing their way.