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Having read and really enjoyed a couple of James Baldwin’s novels I was really looking forward to this book. I think Baldwin is both a great writer and thinker and as a result I’m inclined to suggest that this is not a book to like or dislike, but rather, it is a book to agree or disagree with. So, what is it about? Well, within the subjects such as the portrayal of the Negro in art (e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin), his relationship with his father and his experiences of living in Paris, I think the overarching subject is the alienation felt by the American Negro. This alienation has two key elements; the power of the white man over the black man throughout society, and more interestingly to me, the loss of ancestral heritage through being the children of slaves taken from Africa (at the point of being sold their personal history was lost/discarded). I did sometimes have an issue with his tendency to make (unsubstantiated?) sweeping generalisations to make his point. In fairness this may be due to his relatively young age (low thirties), but I did find his position was rather let down with claims such as: “the French are the earth’s least sentimental people and must also be numbered among the most proud …” (from Equal in Paris) and “the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or neighbours”.
I also found the book to be unremittingly bleak. If you accept the role of a writer like Baldwin is to provide insights into society, then, when this reflection is so awful I think he also needs to suggest ways of improvement or to offer reasons for hope. On finishing this book, I was left somewhat deflated. However, setting aside these reservations, Baldwin is undoubtedly a powerfully provocative writer who everyone ought to read if they have any interest in todays' multi-cultural society. I suspect a number of his observations on the Negro in the 1950’s can be applied to today’s disadvantaged minorities in general.
Fantastic collection of essays and articles by one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Baldwin’s prose stares frankly into the violence and racism that make up his world and the potential for violence that this creates in himself and his fellow citizens. Baldly, Baldwin reflects not only on the heritage of racism but also on the effects this has on the psychology of anyone growing up in such a society. Sadly, the subject of racism and the battle against violence is as important today as it was when Baldwin wrote these essays.