Baldwin And The Harlem Race Riots Of 1943

1074 words - 4 pages

Mouth To Mouth

On the hot day of August 2, 1943, a racial storm brewed within Harlem, New York. With the Detroit riots in just weeks past, the white and black people of Harlem felt a mutual, chaotic animosity towards each other. As a result, the Harlem race riots of 1943 occurred just before James Baldwin’s 19th birthday, which was also the day of his father’s death. Leaving a devastating gash in the hearts of Harlem natives and the American people, this event not only touched the lives of Harlem’s residents, but also exhibited a picture to the world regarding American race relations.

As the “Official Response to the Detroit Riot,” the Harlem race riots certainly exceeded the physical and emotional destruction the Detroit riot caused. With “six persons [dead], several hundreds injured, and approximately two million dollars’ worth of property [was] damaged,” the riots proved to be an explosion of frustration violence and contradiction (Capeci xi). With an unclear beginning, this event proved to be a culmination of small situations that spawned from hot tempers, gossip, and neighboring race riots.

Even seeming “facts” about the start of the Harlem riot need to be questioned. The alarming part is that they all seem to come from what should be fairly reputable sources. The Facts On File contains numbers quite different than those listed in The Harlem Riot Of 1943. Facts On File states that there were “5 dead, 500 injured and 500 jailed in 12 hours…” (“Facts” 242). The cost of all of the rioting also differs with “Facts” saying the damages were closer to five million dollars. These glaring differences could have occurred for varying reasons from publication dates to possible confused exaggerations.

Tying into “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin specifically cites the Harlem race riots when he references his father’s death and mother’s expectancy. In the essay, Baldwin uses his parents and the people of Harlem as parallels. Regarding his parents, Baldwin states that his father was holding back death, while his mother awaits her newborn. As a parallel, in “Notes” the population of Harlem proved to be waiting as well. “All of Harlem, indeed seemed to be infected by waiting. I had never before known it to be so violently still” (Baldwin 73). The riot can be thought of as a sort of birth as well. When there is such a violent upheaval as this, there is bound to be a new beginning. Even Baldwin’s wording of what happened, that “Harlem exploded[,]” can also be a symbol of what happens when a baby is born (Baldwin 81).

Similarly, in the book Harlem At War, it explains how citizens of Harlem awaited a perfect reason to trigger their emotions in order to rebel. For example, a black soldier and his mother entered a hotel in Harlem. With unclear versions of the truth, an argument sparked between an African American female hotel guest and a Caucasian police officer. With profanities thrown everywhere, the soldier felt his...

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