What literary techniques does Baldwin use in Notes of a Native Son?

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In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin published a volume with includes ten of his non-fiction essays. These essays focus generally on the theme of race in America and Europe and specifically on what it means to be black. The title is a reference to Richard Wright’s ...

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In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin published a volume with includes ten of his non-fiction essays. These essays focus generally on the theme of race in America and Europe and specifically on what it means to be black. The title is a reference to Richard Wright’s Native Son, which Baldwin detested for his perception that the novel’s main character, Bigger Thomas, played into racist stereotypes.

Baldwin uses a number of literary techniques and devices in this collection. In the “Notes of a Native Son” essay, Baldwin uses juxtaposition as he examines his father’s death from tuberculosis. First, while his father lies on his deathbed, “life stirred” within his mother as she prepared to give birth to Baldwin’s sister. Later, his father’s funeral occurs on Baldwin’s nineteenth birthday and on the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943. This juxtaposition helps show the reader that even joyful occasions in the black community are marred by profound depression and sadness, which are all interconnected and related.

Baldwin deftly uses metaphors, similes, and personification as well. He describes that African Americans have “rage in their blood,” and he personally has a “blind fever.” These literary devices are used in an attempt to describe the psyche and anger inside African Americans who live in a society that is de jure equal but de facto unequal.

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In the essay "The Harlem Ghetto," Baldwin uses amplification and personification to describe life in Harlem.

He applies amplification particularly in the opening paragraph. His sentences are not short and declarative, they are, instead, piled with information and detail. For example, to describe how Harlem has changed little from his parents' time, he does not merely write that the community is old and crowded, but describes it as follows:

Now as then the buildings are old and in desperate need of repair, the streets are crowded and dirty, there are too many human beings per square block.

He overwhelms the reader with imagery and does not break apart independent clauses. The continuity conveys the endlessness of a desperate situation. Here, he applies another technique—asyndeton, a technique in which an author leaves out conjunctions while maintaining grammatical accuracy. Writers do this to aid in creating a strong impact on the reader.

He uses personification when he writes that "Harlem wears to the casual observer a casual face . . . the face is, indeed, somewhat excessively casual and may not be as open or as careless as it seems." He humanizes Harlem, a place that white people often ignored, by giving it a human face, but a face that does not convey what it is truly feeling.

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One of the literary devices that Baldwin uses is situational irony, in which events turn out in the opposite way of what is expected. He starts the book with the death of his father in 1943, a few hours before his father's last child is born. In another example of situational irony, his father's funeral takes place on Baldwin's nineteenth birthday.

He later uses personification to describe this situation and writes, "Death, however, sat as purposefully at my father's bedside as life stirred within my mother's womb." In this excerpt, Baldwin writes of death as a human-like character who is juxtaposed with the force of life, which is about to cause his mother to give birth. 

Baldwin also uses powerful metaphors. He refers to his having a "blind fever" and writes that "once this disease is contracted, one can never really be carefree again." He also writes that every African-American person has this "rage in his blood." In these examples, Baldwin compares the rage that African Americans feel about racism and their treatment by whites to a kind of fever or disease that is never cured.

The author also uses similes. For example, he writes of the rage in his head, "there was another me trapped in my skull like a jack-in-the-box who might escape my control at any moment and fill the air with screaming." In this simile, he compares his anger to a jack-in-the box that might explode at any moment. 

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Baldwin uses a variety of literary and rhetorical techniques in Notes of a Native Son.  He uses direct address and shifting narrative points of view to name a couple.  His use of imagery stands out in the essays, most notably in the last essay of the collection, "Stranger in the Village."  Baldwin describes a trip that he made to Switzerland where he stayed in a small village.  He paints a vivid picture of the village and the peculiarities that mark its character:

[While discussing the high number of people who visit the local hot spring) There is often something beautiful, there is always something awful, in the spectacle of a person who has lost one of his faculties, a faculty he never questioned until it was gone, and who struggles to recover it.

So, Baldwin not only details the images in the essay, he also reflects on what he has seen and experienced.

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