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James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” is a recollection of experiences throughout his life that show the difficult circumstances he faced with his father and the effects of racism on his mindset. Baldwin’s father was stern and often was unrelenting, which scared his children at times. However, in time Baldwin has come to realize his father’s outlook and confidence was able to develop him into who he is today. We can imply from his words that Baldwin did not truly understand the extent of his father’s influence on him until his passing.
Baldwin is able to move us by using various rhetorical devices to explore his identity while realizing that anger can motivate people to seek justice.
The middle of the 20th century struck momentum for civil rights activists and their associations. Originally published in 1955, almost a year after the Brown v. Board of Education case and a month before the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Many had known that civil rights had a long way to go, a lot more to achieve.
Fear and alienation made the American Dream intangible for most African Americans. The death of Baldwin’s father made him realize a lot of things he was reluctant to understand before.
This story is told from the perspective of Baldwin, who maintains ethos through giving vivid details from his memory. One passage he talks about a time he and his friend went out together. This was after the death of his father, having moved to New Jersey.
This night was full of obstacles for Baldwin, who only was looking for a place to eat with his friend. “Almost every detail of that night stands out very clearly in my memory.” This gives us a sense of connectedness to what he is going through. After getting denied service at the diner, he recalls what it felt like walking down the street. Everyone felt as if they were moving “toward” and “against” him. “I wanted to do something to crush these white faces, which were crushing me.” We can understand the anger accumulated in him from the uncontrollable thoughts he is experiencing. The pressure and rage inside him for not being able to do the same things as other people.
A lot of emotion can be seen in this story. From the feelings he had when his father died, to the alienation and fury he had from experiencing racism while in New Jersey. The night he went from place to place, continuously being discriminated against until the anger finally took control over him. “There was nothing on the table but an ordinary watermug half full of water, and I picked this up and hurled it with all my strength at her.” (594) After running out of the diner, he feels guilt for his white friend he left behind. He got so furious that it overrode his process of thought, and is fearful of the rage he has succumb to. This conflict highlights the emotional turmoil he felt along with other blacks at the time. It also allows us to see the effect that racism had on Baldwin, the feeling of not being able to control oneself, the feeling of being a hazard to yourself and those around you.
The book may not be riddled with logical implications, however there are instances in which Baldwin expresses reasoning behind what he is getting at. His father was the way he was because of the years of paranoia he faced. When invited to see a play with his white teacher, Baldwin knew his father would be unappeased to the thought of a white woman taking interest in his son. Despite this being an opportunity for his child to experience something valuable, the grudge he holds on all white people makes him see this as only bad news for his family. The final paragraph states that it seemed one must “hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition.” The first idea is to “accept life as it is” and the second idea is that “one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace.”
This summarizes Baldwin’s message on hatred’s problems. He presents hatred as destructive to the man that hates but that hatred also is able to fuel the man’s desire for justice. Baldwin is able to use this story as a means to confess his feelings during this point of his life. His profound use of pathos helps to make us understand the obstacles faced by him and his father, and the reasoning behind why this hatred has become prominent in many African Americans. Using a balance of the rhetorical appeals, Baldwin is able to deliver this message to anyone who reads this story.
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