“Notes of a Native Son” Essay
James Baldwin uses a variety of rhetorical strategies to convey his attitude toward American race relations in the mid-1950s. Baldwin discusses his personal struggles with racism in the 1950s in the town of Trenton, New Jersey. The strategies Baldwin employees to direct his audience to these struggles with racism is done with a sense of urgency. He prompts the audience with an intense emotion by using words that express his realizations that racism is real and can affect him in a fatal way. He suggests this by making many statements. In one statement Baldwin makes, he warns that his friend saved him from a violent whipping. He relays that every detail of that night stands out very clearly in his memory. This tells the audience that the event was traumatic and revealing. He continues with imagery as the story progresses. It takes place in a time of night where “a brown out” is occurring.
This shows the setting to be unpleasant, hot and where the masses are most likely already on edge due to the diminished lighting. Again the narrative continues to relay this event as a nightmare symbolizing not a dream which would be pleasant but a horrible, scary, fearful event that could potentially end in tragedy. As he describes the event unraveling, what began as a normal evening, devolved into a nightmare. Although he ultimately knew that entering the “American Diner” would trigger a negative response, he unconsciously failed to foresee the negative impact that response would have on him. Through the strategy of imagery, Baldwin sees the masses of humanity moving against him—and they were all white. This then leads the audience to assume that he is at the height of frustration and will retaliate in some fashion. The use of suspense focuses the audience on actions that have not yet unfolded. With the use of cause and effect, knowing that his reception will be the same as at the diner, he is compelled to enter the fancy restaurant anyway. He was intent on forcing a confrontation. However, to his surprise, the response or the delivery of the response was not as “blunt” or as “hostile” as he had been accustom to – but he needed to vent his frustration anyway. He needed to justify his feelings of outrage and moral indignation.
The response was more apologetic than he had anticipated. Still he felt cold and murderous toward the waitress. He hated her. He hated everything that she represented. She was white, and represented the historical injustice he had always experienced as a black man. With that as a driving force, he hurled a full glass at her with intent to cause harm to what she represented. With the sound of the shattering glass, he awakened from his state of irrationality. He realizes the danger his actions had put him in. Through imagery the audience becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of being black and acting out. The final rhetorical strategy used by Baldwin is irony. It brings the event to a close when he realizes that he is also a contributor to the day’s problems. That he is not a just a victim but part of the challenges all of us face as Americans. He too is a racist in some form.