James Baldwin’s father’s funeral in Notes of a Native Son is a pivotal moment within the narrative and within Baldwin’s life. Baldwin’s father’s funeral happens on Baldwin’s birthday and several hours before the birth of Baldwin’s father’s last child. Moreover, a massive riot breaks out in Harlem due to...
James Baldwin’s father’s funeral in Notes of a Native Son is a pivotal moment within the narrative and within Baldwin’s life. Baldwin’s father’s funeral happens on Baldwin’s birthday and several hours before the birth of Baldwin’s father’s last child. Moreover, a massive riot breaks out in Harlem due to a rumor circulating that a white police officer shot a black man in the back.
All of these things set up an almost "apocalyptic" atmosphere, as Baldwin writes, and are symbolic of the catastrophic changes that are occurring in James Baldwin’s own life and mentality. It is symbolic of the mix of rage and pain that Baldwin began feeling at a young age. However, it is his father’s funeral that helps quell the anger he feels, and instead, he begins to confront the pain in the loss of his father—and the loss of a relationship never had.
In Baldwin talking about his father’s pain and rage and instability against his children, Baldwin is forced to understand how the racial disparities of the time influenced his father’s life. This all culminates on the day of his father’s funeral in the riot happening in Harlem. Baldwin writes, “To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need.”
The quote is important because it is a symbol. Baldwin is essentially arguing that it is too difficult to truly rail against the pain one feels; those in pain often act out in anger. To smash things and to riot is far easier than to acknowledge how deep pain truly runs. This is symbolic of Baldwin’s own father. Baldwin’s father is never able to truly confront the pain he feels having grown up as an African American in the United States, so instead he acts out in anger: anger is easier to reconcile than pain.
With all of this occurring, James Baldwin is able to clarify, in a sense, the relationship he had with his father. Baldwin comes to recognize that his father was destroyed by the circumstances surrounding what he was born into and the life he would be forced to lead as an African American male in the United States. Moreover, he sees that his father’s own “bitterness” and anger ultimately destroyed him, as they destroy any person that carries such deeply rooted tumultuous emotion. The conclusion that Baldwin comes to on the day of his father’s funeral is that one must be able to survive, accept life as it is, and not let it destroy them. One must also fight against inequality if they are forced to do so.
However, no matter the clarity that Baldwin gains at his father’s funeral, he longs for his father to be there and to provide a father’s clarity.