Private Insight into Public History
James Baldwin had a talent of being able to tell a personal story and relate it to world events. His analysis is a rare capability that one can only acquire over an extensive lifetime. James Baldwin not only has that ability, but also the ability to write as if he is conversing with the reader. One of his most famous essays, “Notes of a Native Son,” is about his father’s death. It includes the events that happened prior to and following his father’s death. Throughout this essay, he brings his audience into the time in which he wrote and explains what is going on by portraying the senses and emotions of not only himself, but as well as the people involved. This essay has a very personal feeling mixed with public views. Baldwin is able to take one small event or idea and shows its place within the “bigger picture.” Not only does he illustrate public experiences, but he will also give his own personal opinion about those events. Throughout “Notes of a Native Son” Baldwin uses the binary of life versus death to expand on the private versus public binary that he also creates. These two binaries show up several times together showing how much they relate to each other.
Baldwin makes certain readers understand the states of the issue at once; his essay starts by describing his father’s funeral in the aftermath of the Harlem riots of 1943. Baldwin states, “As we drove him to the graveyard, the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discountent, and hatred were all around us. It seemed to me that God himself had devised, to mark my father’s end, the most sustained and brutally dissonant of codas” (63). Yet as Baldwin mourned the death of his father, he celebrated the birth of his youngest sibling.
James Baldwin has the gift to take key events and ideas that were significant in his life and show that they had a much greater significance in the “bigger picture.” One of the first key ideas is on the first page at the bottom where he states, “No one, including my father, seems to have known exactly how old he was, but his mother had been born during slavery” (63). Some people may think that the fact that his father did not even know his own age is an insignificant detail, but in reality, it shows how poorly African-Americans were treated during the time of slavery. The “white” people at that time believed that the slaves were not human beings and therefore did not have the rights to luxuries that the white people had. Since “blacks” were not considered human beings, people thought it was unnecessary to keep a record of births and deaths. Since his father was considered to be the first generation of freed men, Baldwin’s father still revealed the scars of slavery.
Even with slavery gone, however, discrimination persisted. One of the many events that Baldwin uses to show how an event can relate to the “bigger picture” happens in a New Jersey coffeehouse where the waiters refused to...