Style and Technique
What makes the story effective is a tension between the naturalism of the subject and much of the language, and the artistry that so clearly controls them. Baldwin is hardly prudish about the details or the realities of humanity’s animalism, yet he responds to them with a refined sensibility. The artistic intelligence is evident even in the density of the text. As he explores Jesse’s typical white attitudes, Baldwin is able to include every conceivable motif in the history of racial conflict in the United States: the sexual provocativeness of the black race to the white mind; the instinctive fear of reprisal by the repressed race; the aesthetic provincialism in whites toward black features; typical assumptions about black inferiority; bafflement before the Uncle Tom image; naïve reactions to black music; use of the Bible to sanction prejudice against the accursed race; whites as protectors and guardians not only of these primitive peoples but also of the civilized world. The list could continue. Baldwin makes Jesse’s story a microcosm of the white role in the racial struggle. Jesse’s mental journey, his memory, is not only personal but also racial.
Baldwin’s artistry, however, lies not merely in the density of the text, in its universalizing effect. What is even more fascinating to watch is the multitude of parallels that Baldwin works into the fabric. To emphasize the effect of the pasts, Baldwin presents both Jesse and the civil rights leader as boy and man; he also sets up the little black boy, Otis, against the black “rapist.” He divides the story neatly into halves to show present and past; in both parts the man and the boy begin their experiences in bed. In the past the boy wishes he had held the knife; in the present he actually holds a cattle prod and strikes the black man in the genitals. While in bed, Jesse is touching himself, protecting himself, as he remembers the castration scene. The act of recollection, in fact, is a castration ritual as Jesse deprives himself of his identity as a man. Baldwin carefully works in the sound of...
(The entire section is 845 words.)