James Baldwin uses the story of his father’s life and death to examine contemporary social and cultural issues of racial injustice and personal struggles to overcome racism. In visiting his father as his life ends, Baldwin is compelled to question the older man’s legacy to both his son as an individual and to society at large.
Through the setting in World War II, Baldwin shows the irony of American expectations that Black men would serve in the military to defend a country that legally condoned discrimination. He particularly reflects on an incident in Harlem where a white policeman’s shooting of a Black soldier sparked civic unrest. Baldwin further questions how much his own views of race and equality were shaped by his own experience or carry forward the bitterness that permeated his father’s outlook. In acknowledging that bitterness could prove fatal if he held onto hatred, he comes to see his need to feel forgiveness and compassion—feelings that will instrumental in helping him combat racism in all forms, even within himself.