Racism is an ugly word that churns up strong emotions whenever it is mentioned. Shocking images of lynchings, church bombings and race riots creep into the mind, and cause an almost physical reaction of repulsion and disgust. History books and old television clips do a good job of telling the story of racial hatred in America, but not what it actually felt like to be an African American during those times. James Baldwin, a noted African American author from New York in the 1950s and 1960s, knew what it was like to experience years of unrelenting, dehumanizing racial injustice. In his essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin uses his literary skills to tell about his family’s painful history under racism and also to analyze the effects of racial hatred on society – hatred that he compares to a disease of the human spirit.
Baldwin uses the language of despair in his essay from the very start. In the opening paragraph, he sets the scene for everything that follows with five short, non-descriptive sentences that state the events going on around him at the time of his father’s death. The atmosphere is tense and solemn as the funeral procession moves through a barren wasteland of destruction on the way to the cemetery. Only the bare facts are written and Baldwin deliberately avoids using any colorful descriptions or interesting phrases in order to recreate the mood at this particular moment in his life. With this stripped down narrative passage, Baldwin sets an overall tone of bleakness, harshness and helplessness that he carries on throughout the essay. The audience is bombarded with a list of facts ¾ his father is dead, his mother just gave birt...
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...n in the 1950s, its message is still an important one for our society today. By sharing his personal life experiences, Baldwin provides readers with a snapshot of what life was like for a young African American man growing up in Harlem and how he was able to deal with racism on a personal level. By providing a running commentary and analysis of how his own situation relates to the African American community as a whole, Baldwin provides readers with an invaluable insight to the plight of people of color in the United States. In “Notes,” Baldwin uses his unique writing style to both inform and instruct readers about the dangers of allowing the divisions in our society based on race to continue unresolved.
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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