Public versus Personal Reference in Notes of a Native Son

Public versus Personal Reference in Notes of a Native Son

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Throwing scalding hot water in someone’s face on a day to day basis will eventually cause a reaction. James Baldwin decided to throw back physically in his life, and with the manner in which he writes. As I'm sure you do not know, James Baldwin was an African-American writer. He is widely thought of as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. He has composed a fascinating account of living as a black man in America, “Notes of a Native Son,” which was first published in 1955. This is not nearly as long ago as you may think and the issues he addresses are still prevalent today. Put yourself in a semi-uncomfortable position, uncover the past and realize this country isn't as full of equality as it likes to seem. As a nation far too many of us don't actively think about or bother to remember the social inequalities that this country had and certainly still has. To create a truly captivating experience Baldwin utilizes a sort of public versus personal reference.

James Baldwin is possibly one of the most inspiring and charismatic writers in our history. I absolutely can't understand how so many of you haven't even heard his name. Don't you think you should know something about someone who is widely renowned as being the greatest?!

James Baldwin is a man who has lived with racial prejudice all his life. In this essay Baldwin focuses on his father and their relationship as well as personal and historic accounts. Early on his father was a keynote in helping him to notice the ways white people treat blacks. Of course he was eager to prove his father wrong, as youth are apt to do. Baldwin did resist these allegations for a while. It is hard to resist passioned hatred when it is surging all around you. Baldwin notices that his father's death has been marked by a terrible riot where the mob “began to swell and to spread in every direction, and Harlem exploded.

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” (81).

Baldwin paints terrible feeling with words in ways you could never imagine, which are expressed by giving accounts of personal events as well as public ones. This manner of intertwining presentation exposes the reader to different sorts of styles. Varying styles and subject help his thought flow and create a sense of balance.

After a few paragraphs of announcing and describing his father's death, Baldwin begins to talk about his father's life. He mentions varying characteristics of his father. Baldwin proceeds to outline his family life and at the end of this refers or 'throws back' to his father's death and how the despised bitterness that his father had would soon be his own. James Baldwin uses personal stories to express his views and opinions of the society he lived in. Just as in any engaging story Baldwin jumps and switches between a few topics. This way when you're reading you don't get bored or too bogged down in one subject for two long. Baldwin sort of heaves you back and forth between the day his father died, his father's life and his own life. When Baldwin first speaks of his own life in the year before his father dies he makes mention of being refused service in a place called the “American Diner.” At the beginning of the very next paragraph Baldwin wittily mentions a public event that both ads atmosphere to his story and is an obvious pun on what has just happened. Baldwin simply states that “[t]his was the time of what was called the “brown-out,” when the lights in all American Cities were very dim” (70). With a simple, matter-of-fact statement Baldwin slams the nation in a way that clearly explains that this type of discrimination happens all over the country.

You see, there was once a time in AMERICA where not everyone was equal. People of African descent weren't even allowed to eat in most restaurants. Baldwin recalls an event where he entered a restaurant where there would be no chance he would receive service. After a long time waiting a waitress appeared and “did not ask [him] what [he] wanted, but repeated, as though she had learned it somewhere, “We don't serve Negroes here.” I know for the majority of you this comes as a great shock, but for once, remember the past. At the end of the first section of “Notes of a Native Son” James Baldwin has thrown a coffee mug half full of water at this white waitress who refused to serve him. Immediately at the beginning of the second section of the essay Baldwin throws the reader back into the story of his father's death and away from the turmoil in his own life. He mentions his father and how his father's final daughter would be born within hours of his father's death. And once again he deviates to speak of the conditions of Harlem at this time. After a page or two he describes his final visit with his father.

All of these sections are connected through their beginnings and endings. The beginning of the second section is probably the most notable and glaring examples of start and finish connection. Baldwin has finished letting us know that as his father was dying the baby was waiting as long as possible to be born. In the following paragraph, where he hurls the reader into the conditions of the city, Baldwin observes that “All of Harlem, indeed seemed to be infected by waiting” (73).

And these connections are not at the end of every paragraph. They are in these blocks of Baldwin versus his father which are interspersed throughout the sections. Within section two there is another where he shifts from talking about how the men were being shipped off to war and would die with honor, to his last encounter with his father. This shift has a more subtle connection but it could be said that it fits due to the way Baldwin viewed his last meeting with his father. He didn't want to “look on him as a ruin” (75). This manner in which his father was dying had no honor in his eyes and Baldwin wanted to remember the father that he hated, not something pitiful. Having this less than honorable encounter placed after the mentioning of the soldiers who would go fight in a war and die with honor allows Baldwin to start talking about his father again and begin to reveal his underlying emotions.

He seems to explain that he merely wants to live his life. Yet, I cannot help but think that if he had been left to exist in his own way that he may have never reached this place in history. If this had happened the public wouldn't have this passionate account.

We live in a place and time where people no longer stand up for what they believe in. There are no more eloquent public figures who have the respect and power to change things or even spread knowledge. We need more people to read this work, become influenced by it and follow in Mr. Baldwin’s footsteps. Not that he could have just been replaced by any like-minded writer. I'm sure he wasn't the only writer of his kind, but he certainly has one of the most powerful ways of making the reader think and question than I have ever found in a writer.

I know you all seem to think that we're living in a nation of peace and tranquility. The war is going on across the globe and rarely does the struggle of regular Americans ever even enter your head as an important issue. But as you can see public events often draw parallels with individual life. The events James Baldwin describes in his home have never happened to you. And if they have, they've been muted and scarce at best in your lifetime. But you will find if you go, put forth some effort, and read good books you will learn that there was once a time when there were captivating individuals who cared about how every day people were treated.

I know you'd all rather sit play video games, smoke your pot and eat Pokey sticks until you're numb, but if from time to time if you don't think about the state of the world: How things are and were, you're going to find positive progress is impossible. I wish this could be a more direct, weighty and stinging reality check, because god knows we need it. If you're one of the majority who do not recognize the name James Baldwin I strongly urge you to take a little time, and read “Notes of a Native Son.” His unique style will only captivate and benefit you.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Notes of a Native Son.” 1955. James Baldwin: Collected Essays. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America, 1998. 63-84.
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