African-American rights were not easily given but rather earned throughout decades of protests. Struggles for race equality in America have gone peaceful and violent. There are numerous African-Americans (blacks) leaders and personalities who stood up to proclaim the world their stories and sentiments. Some of them tried to enter the politics, some excelled in academics and some devoted their time in propagandizing through their literary works. James Baldwin is one of the remarkable black writers whose essays have powerful impact on the civil rights struggle.
This essay aims to provide insight on James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son essay through searching for facts and patterns of African-American history. To begin with establishing the essay let us take a short review about the writer’s biography. James Baldwin was born on Harlem, New York City in August 2, 1924 and an illegitimate son of a domestic worker. He adopted his surname from his stepfather and was raised in great poverty. He began full-time writing on 1943 and produced various novels and essays like Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son, respectively.
The book Notes of a Native Son (1955) is a collection of his Baldwin’s personal essays about the social environment of America during the era of Civil Rights Movement. One chapter of the book is entitled Notes of a Native Son which commenced with the events of August 3, 1943 which is the day we now know as the Harlem Race Riots. The essay Notes of a Native Son was themed and patterned after the life of James Baldwin especially his relationship with his parents. Baldwin has mixed emotions towards his father and he tried to explain the complexity of their relationship in his works.
He provided a creative link of his experiences with his parents with the ongoing public and private happenings in his era. The story was stressed in the historical Harlem Race Riots of 1943, a city-wide riot following the famous Detroit Riot. The Detroit Riot is one of the most violent riots in America which lasted for almost two full days and took out about 34 lives and done casualties of injuries and property damages. What is the cause of such riot? Similar to what Harlem Riot has, the causes are not specific.
Generally, it was considered to be caused by culmination of petite situations such as gossips, hot tempers and neighbour riots. Whites and blacks were pointing their fingers to each other as to who started or provoked the fights (Hughes, et al. 104). Similar to Baldwin’s personal life as metaphorically illustrated in his essay, his relationship with his parents was chaotic and there were several personal issues and causes that triggered every persona to act the way they were in the story.
Baldwin showed his insights into the lives of African-Americans after the World War II. The essay mainly discussed the white versus black riots thus it is crucial to understand the essay using the history and facts. The story employed the history of Harlem Race Riot, a commotion exploded in New York City exactly at the date of his father’s death and days before Baldwin’s nineteenth birthday. It is not far that Harlem became a place of riots because since the turn of twentieth century the place has been a home to many ethnic groups including whites and blacks.
With the diverse people converging in the place, arts and culture has become diverse as well. However, having diverse cultures cause difficulties aside from the beauty diversity has brought unto them. Difficulties such as racism emerge which are expressed n theatre, fiction, music, literature and other art forms (“Harlem History”). Harlem riots have two periods, one in 1935 and one in 1943. Both periods started with a confrontation between blacks and the police. In 1943, the riot began with a clash in a hotel between black soldier Robert Bandy and a policeman.
The story was distorted and versions like Bandy was killed by the police came out in gossips. With the confusion and bursting emotions of the blacks, fires broke out and glasses were shattered while police struggled to maintain control (Gilje 157). If we are to look close, there is a pattern between the riots in Detroit and Harlem. The emotions of Detroit blacks might be shared by Harlem blacks thus made Harlem riot of 1943 more dramatic than the original. The one in Harlem was more physical and emotional than the one in Detroit because of the use of guns.
In relation with the essay Notes of a Native Son, parents of Baldwin and the people at Harlem were treated as parallels. This is the reason why the essay was considered to be an autobiographical piece of Baldwin’s life. Baldwin loved and despised his father at the same time because his father gave him essential lessons in life but demonstrated lack of hope when it comes in blacks struggling for civil rights. Being a wide reader and socially conscious person, Baldwin did not share the same emotions with his father and became a civil rights advocate.
With his wide knowledge on the undergoing of blacks during his time, he came out with insights reflecting the sentiments of blacks, especially Harlem people. Baldwin’s father can be compared with majority of the blacks during his time. Just like the passive blacks, Baldwin’s father needed an event that could awaken and trigger him to stand up against black oppression. For Baldwin, it is not enough to just see what the existing things but rather it is much important for people to act upon calling.
There was already a need for a change in American society and Baldwin was trying to provoke the hearts of blacks to unite through his powerful fiction. The fiction is not actually fiction as it served as a mirror of Harlem society at his time. The public share sentiment but there was a need to unite them because without oneness, the protests will not be seriously taken and the riots will not promote change. The diverse culture gave Harlem problems but Baldwin used its product (powerful literature) as the tool which can help them solve the problem.
Without the literature Baldwin and other black essayists wrote, the public black will not be more vigilant with their surroundings. The blacks will continue resorting with riots which is not the only effective key to cry out for change. Baldwin was successful in showing that his insights were not only due to his personal experiences. His sentiments and insights were product of the root problems of the society. He has the clear picture of the reasons why blacks need change. His personal experiences may be not so similar with all other blacks but the message he wanted them to realize was acceptable.
Although there is no definite or exact truth about the root of Harlem race riots, Baldwin still brought to the public the summary of their problems. With this, aside from the literary expertise he showed, he can be coined as one of the strongest black personalities during his time. He inspired many other writers like Toni Morrison and photo-journalist Kevin Brown who founded the National James Baldwin Literary Society. With the number of existing essayists acknowledging Baldwin, his legacy continues and the struggle of blacks for full civil rights remain alive.