Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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Compare Baldwin's prose style to that of Martin Luther King Jr. in "Letter from Birmingham Jail." There are certain obvious similarities. What are they, and what are some differences?

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James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Sonand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" are both comparable and disparate. Notes was published in 1955 and "Letter" was published in 1963.

During both years, the American civil rights movement was ongoing, and the prose styles of both...

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pieces are informed by the personal experiences of the authors, as well as the movement happening in the foreground and background of their respective texts. Both authors are African American, and both were leaders of sorts in this movement. Baldwin was at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance and American literature in general, and Dr. King is renowned for his leadership and tactics of nonviolence in his efforts to organize activists for peace and equality. This is one feature that both share—the influence the civil rights movement had upon their prose styles, both directly and indirectly. Baldwin speaks of the riots that occurred in various places in which he and/or his family were present, such as New Orleans, Harlem, and New Jersey. Dr. King is specifically imprisoned for his involvement in peaceful protests fighting for the rights of Americans victimized by segregation.

Another similarity shared in the prose styles of these texts is the use of the first-person voice and direct conversation to the audience. Dr. King's letter is a direct response to a group of eight religious, conservative white leaders of the southern US. These leaders issued a public statement condemning King and others. His letter is a response, a continuation of a conversation begun by these leaders. Throughout the letter, he refers to "you" and "your statement," such as the following:

In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.

Baldwin speaks directly to the reader as if participating in a private conversation in which he discloses a bittersweet memoir, as when he writes,

It was on the twenty-eighth of July, which I believe was a Wednesday, that I visited my father for the first time during his illness and the last time in his life.

While both authors employ the first-person voice and conversational tones with readers, the styles differ in so far as the degree of specificity of the intended audience. Dr. King has a specific audience in mind as he writes, while Baldwin's audience is broader.

While both texts provide forms of evidence to support their claims and declarative statements, the prose styles differ in tone. Baldwin's prose is far more conversational and relies more heavily on techniques of narrative storytelling. King's prose style is more philosophical, academic, and scientific at times, proposing evidence, theses, and concluding statements. This reflects the differing backgrounds the men come from—Baldwin was more literary and artistic in his life. Dr. King's prose reflected his position as an orator and church official.

While the authors differ in both style and background, they both successfully convey emotion in their writing, as when Baldwin writes,

There is not a Negro alive who does not have rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with consciously or surrendering to it.

—or when King writes,

It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.

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