Racism and Its Effects in Baldwin Essay

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James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son"

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James Baldwin was an important 20th century writer who moved from novelist to essayist in the latter half of the 20th century. His essays were praised for their "tenderness and ferocity" and the ways in which they explored great themes of human life. Baldwin's main focus was on racism in America and on the effects of pride on the soul. Baldwin himself admittedly suffered from pride, as he states in his essay "Notes of a Native Son." But his fiction and his essays were ways for him to explore both the faults and failings of society and of self while pinpointing the way to a "better" world. Baldwin became not only one of the most important essayists but also a great intellectual and political activist who sought to promote humane ideals such as equality. "Notes of a Native Son" was published in a collection of essays in a book of the same name in 1955. It was notable as being Baldwin's first foray into non-fiction, after launching his career as a writer of fiction in works such as Go Tell It on the Mountain. Notes was a received well by the public and was in the top 20 of the Modern Library's 100 best 20th century nonfiction books (Modern Library). It is particularly revealing of what life was like for a Negro in the first half of the 20th century in America. This paper will discuss some of the themes of Notes of a Native Son, particularly the idea of the "psychological effects of racism" as shown by Baldwin's father, Baldwin himself, and the African-American community in Harlem during WW2 and the Harlem Riots.

Essay on Racism and Its Effects in Baldwin Assignment

Baldwin sets out to show via his father's experience how the psychological effects of racism can be debilitating for a man in America. Baldwin's father was a preacher who was filled with bitterness and paranoia and suspected every white person of wanting to do him or his family harm. For instance, the white teacher who saw James's talent for writing and wanted to take him to the theater: James's father saw only a threat, whereas James's mother saw the white teacher as behaving like a "Christian" (591).

Baldwin speaks of his father in order to show that racism can be deadly to a man's mind, as it was to his father's. Baldwin traces this problem of his father's back to the South, where he grew up in New Orleans, which he saw as bad like Sodom. His father objected to Louis Armstrong, the popular black jazz trumpeter, who appealed to whites as much as he did to blacks. When his sister refused to let him take down a photograph of Armstrong from the wall, he chased his sister away and then refused to have anything to do with her later in life when she was sick. His father held grudges that way after he had grown up and been so damaged in his mind by racism.

His father was also a poor communicator. Whenever he tried to help his children with their homework, his tension would overpower him and make his children unable to speak, which would only make him angrier. He also could not treat anyone well in his neighborhood, but was uncharitable to them and had no friends who would come to see him by the end of his life. It became so bad that he had to be committed in a mental institution. He was suspicious of Baldwin's white teacher because he feared a "white" education would lead him to hell. He was paranoid about people stealing from his home, though Baldwin noted that there was never anything there worth stealing since his father could barely afford to feed his nine children let alone buy anything that anyone else would want. He was suspicious and mean towards the people on the block who had energy to party and fight but not to make their lives better, even though he had energy to be bitter but that not for much else. This was partly because his mind was eaten up with the psychological effects of racism and could not cope but only think that "white people would do anything to keep a Negro down" (591).

Baldwin's father is an important example of the psychological effects of racism because he showed how badly racism can eat a man up inside. His father also served as a model for himself: a warning of what might happen to him if he allowed racism to eat him alive as it did his father. It is a thing which can lead to the most hateful abuses, and that is the reason one has to guard oneself against it. Baldwin never understood or was able to talk to his father because of the way racism had eaten his father's brain. Not until Baldwin experienced his own struggle with this venom did in New Jersey and in Harlem during WW2 did he finally begin to see that all of this around him happening to him was what had been happening in his father's brain for so long -- the ugly effects of Jim Crow laws and inhumanity had fostered an incurable hatred in his being. It gets to a point, as Baldwin admits, that you want to "hold onto the hatred" (597) even though you know that doing so is killing you.

Moreover, it is clear that Baldwin never understood his father until Harlem exploded on the day of his father's layout. The violence that was felt everywhere in Harlem, the rage over the inhumanity that festered between whites and blacks, suddenly appeared in the riot and broken glass and looted stores. That is when Baldwin finally realized that this was what he was feeling in his own mind, this tension between right and wrong, love and hate -- this and his own memories of his father being proud of him, of smiling, of loving his mother, of speaking to him. In his hate, he had forgotten these good points about his father. Now, in Harlem's hate, it was forgetting the value of that which it wanted to smash.

Baldwin's experience in New Jersey is important as showing the psychological effects of racism because it underscores the epiphany that Baldwin had when his father died and Harlem erupted. Had Baldwin not experienced firsthand what it was like to go mad because of the hatred engendered by racism, it is not likely he would have been able to forgive his father or even himself or the whites he despised. Madness caused by hatred caused by racism -- this was the vicious cycle that Baldwin realized had to end. Because he felt it personally and felt himself going mad with hate, he could relate to what his father must have felt and how awful the struggle could be. Seeing his father dead, the effects of that struggle, made him feel pity at last and that pity allowed his mind to open and for the fresh air of love to get in, like sunlight, on the heels of the song that the choir sang in the church that was one his father had always liked. With pity and love came good memories. But none of this would have been possible had the conflict not first been explored through Baldwin's own personal experiences in New Jersey.

The New Jersey experience was pivotal in getting Baldwin to see the actual relationship between blacks and whites and how it was full of tension, hatred and madness. His job at the defense factory was marred by this tension and hatred and madness. He was fired multiple times but kept finding a loop hole to get back in -- until the last time. He was fired because he did not behave like an Uncle Tom Negro. Instead, he behaved like himself, proud of his achievements and determined to be seen.

This determination was evident in his pursuit to keep his job even as he offended everyone there with his attitude and his unwillingness to play the game by the Jim Crow laws of the South. In Harlem he could be himself, so why not in Jersey? This determination was also seen in the way he kept going back to the cafeteria to be served even after they said they did not serve Negroes and that the only reason he had eaten there at all was because he simply picked up food that was not his. This determination led to scenes and more tension, resentment and madness. Baldwin could feel it building up inside him and he could hear it in the way he responded to people who asked what he wanted: he was sharp, insistent, rude, almost menacing. He had a chip on his shoulder and he didn't mind letting everyone see it. He was turning into his father -- becoming the exact same man: bitter, loathing, full of resentment as an effect of racism eating up his brain. The racist actions… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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