Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746
Racial Prejudice The point of Baldwin’s essays is not so much to make his readers aware of racial prejudice in the States as it is to attempt to look at that prejudice, analyze it, understand where it comes from, and decide how to deal with it. He does this in...
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The point of Baldwin’s essays is not so much to make his readers aware of racial prejudice in the States as it is to attempt to look at that prejudice, analyze it, understand where it comes from, and decide how to deal with it. He does this in a variety of ways. One of these is by relating personal experience. For instance, in the essay ‘‘Notes of a Native Son,’’ he writes about the incident of being told that he could not eat at a restaurant he had chosen. At first, he was somewhat oblivious to this type of prejudice. He had gone to one restaurant several times and did not realize that the lack of service he received was because he was African American. He thought the poor service was a restaurant problem, not a racial declaration. Later, as he noticed people staring at him on the streets of the mostly white town, he became more informed of prejudice. The more aware he became, the angrier he became. When he exploded one night, throwing a water pitcher at a waitress who refused to serve him, he realized the depth of that anger. Shortly afterward, he decided to move away from the States to gain a more objective distance, in order to become better equipped to understand not only the prejudice but also his reactions to it.
Baldwin also hypothesizes about prejudice. He looks at conditions and comes to conclusions, such as in ‘‘Many Thousands Gone,’’ in which he discusses the stereotypical Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom. According to Baldwin, these characters were created by a white population who wanted to believe that all African Americans were trustworthy, devoted servants, who only wanted to serve white people and who held no malice toward their employers. These stereotypical figures are dangerously misleading, Baldwin concludes, because anger and a sense of vengeance lurks deep down in the psyches of African Americans, contrary to the smiling faces that white Americans try to impose on all African Americans by using these stereotypical images.
Another way of discussing racial prejudice is through comparison. In ‘‘Stranger in the Village,’’ Baldwin describes the more or less innocent prejudice of the Swiss people who live in a small town in the mountains and who are so isolated from the rest of the world that they have never seen a black man. Although the children of the village yell out ‘‘Neger!’’ when Baldwin passes by, Baldwin is more willing to forgive them than he would be to forgive someone in the States who might call out that same word. The Swiss children are ignorant and naive. They see a man who has dark skin, something that is very different from their pale complexions. Their reaction is based on visual effects. In the States, however, the word nigger has taken on derogatory connotations. Baldwin believes that this difference is based on the history of the black person in the States, which begins with slavery. The negative aspects of the word nigger in the States is an attempt to keep African Americans oppressed.
Throughout most of the essays in this collection, Baldwin searches for both a personal identity, such as in his reflections in ‘‘Autobiographical Notes’’ and ‘‘Notes of a Native Son,’’ and for a cultural identity, as seen in many of the remaining essays, in which he tries to define what it means to be an African American.
In searching for a personal identity, Baldwin refers to his parents, the physical environment of Harlem, and the social atmosphere of growing up black in the States, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. He struggles to take an objective stance when discussing his father, attempting to separate himself from the image his father tried to force upon him. He wants to make sense of the poverty and crime that molded his youngest years. When he moves to Paris, he makes an effort to define the distant American society that affected his definition of himself.
Baldwin also moves beyond the personal and strives to define a more general identity, that of the whole population of African Americans. In ‘‘The Harlem Ghetto,’’ he looks at the outside forces that characterize the daily lives of a majority of blacks living in the North. In ‘‘Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,’’ he distinguishes the differences between African blacks and American blacks in how they see themselves as well as in how others see them.