On the hot day of August 2, 1943, a racial storm brewed within Harlem, New York. With the Detroit riots in just weeks past, the white and black people of Harlem felt a mutual, chaotic animosity towards each other. As a result, the Harlem race riots of 1943 occurred just before James Baldwin’s 19th birthday, which was also the day of his father’s death. Leaving a devastating gash in the hearts of Harlem natives and the American people, this event not only touched the lives of Harlem’s residents, but also exhibited a picture to the world regarding American race relations.
As the “Official Response to the Detroit Riot,” the Harlem race riots certainly exceeded the physical and emotional destruction the Detroit riot caused. With “six persons [dead], several hundreds injured, and approximately two million dollars’ worth of property [was] damaged,” the riots proved to be an explosion of frustration violence and contradiction (Capeci xi). With an unclear beginning, this event proved to be a culmination of small situations that spawned from hot tempers, gossip, and neighboring race riots.
Even seeming “facts” about the start of the Harlem riot need to be questioned. The alarming part is that they all seem to come from what should be fairly reputable sources. The Facts On File contains numbers quite different than those listed in The Harlem Riot Of 1943. Facts On File states that there were “5 dead, 500 injured and 500 jailed in 12 hours…” (“Facts” 242). The cost of all of the rioting also differs with “Facts” saying the damages were closer to five million dollars. These glaring differences could have occurred for varying reasons from publication dates to possible confused exaggerations.
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... story, instead of a fact. Holding on to these discrepancies made it difficult for the truth to be discovered and publicized. The Harlem riot is a perfect parallel to Baldwin’s independence. The reader can see this reflection through “Notes of a Native Son” and his family situation. In order to understand Baldwin’s life, he compares his family and the riot. Because of the powerful catastrophes of life and death that occur within them, Baldwin has grasped key elements in explaining his life.
Baldwin, James. “Notes of a Native Son.” 1955. James Baldwin: Collected Essays. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America, 1998. 63-84.
Brandt, Nat. Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WWII. New York: Syracuse UP, 1996.
Capeci, Dominic J. Jr. The Harlem Riot of 1943. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1977.
Facts on File 1943. 1943.
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