Baldwin’s father died in 1943, a few hours before his last child was born. After his father’s funeral, which took place on Baldwin’s birthday, a race riot broke out in Harlem. This series of events seemed to have been designed to mock Baldwin’s lack of belief in the apocalypse, a distinct contrast to the beliefs of his father. Baldwin and his father had a difficult relationship. His father did not know exactly when he was born, but he knew that his mother was alive during slavery. He was born in New Orleans—which Baldwin thinks of as “one of the most wicked of cities”—and moved North after 1919. Baldwin’s father was handsome and proud. He was severely cruel and bitter, yet also charming. When he attempted to show his children affection, the children would inevitably freeze up in fright, only to be furiously punished. Baldwin’s father found it difficult to connect with people, and although he wanted to impress others, he was never successful.
Baldwin’s assessment of his father is unflinchingly honest, thereby conveying both the hatred and love he feels for him. While Baldwin’s view of his father’s personality may seem unkind, it also demonstrates the extent to which he knew and understood his father. Although Baldwin does not explicitly relate his father’s behavior back to his experience of racial oppression, there is a clear connection between Baldwin’s exploration of the inner turmoil and bitterness that afflicts all black Americans and his father’s anger, cruelty, and alienation from those around him.
Baldwin was frightened by his father’s bitterness and frightened of inheriting it. When his father died, Baldwin had newly discovered the full weight of the burden of white people, and he became convinced that “the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.” It wasn’t until Baldwin’s father became fatally ill that his family realized that he suffered from mental health problems, which caused him to experience paranoia and behave cruelly to the children. Baldwin’s father eventually came to believe that his family was poisoning him and refused to eat. He was committed to a mental hospital, where it was discovered that he had tuberculosis.
Baldwin’s father’s mental health problems cast a shadow over Baldwin’s life, as Baldwin lives with the awareness that he may inherit them. Just as Baldwin’s father himself suffered from paranoid delusions, Baldwin becomes paranoid about inheriting this paranoia. Baldwin thus conveys the way in which trauma is passed through generations, even between people who—like Baldwin and his father—have very different experiences and dispositions.
Baldwin’s father had nine children, and the family lived in terrible poverty. When white welfare workers and bill collectors would come to the house, Baldwin’s mother would speak to them, as Baldwin’s father’s temper was too unpredictable. When Baldwin was 9 or 10, a young white teacher “took an interest” in him and offered to bring him to the theatre to see plays. Baldwin’s father was highly suspicious of the arrangement and only agreed with great reluctance. Although the teacher continued to support Baldwin and the family, Baldwin’s father never trusted her, and he later advised his son to stay away from white people as much as possible.
This passage contains a perfect example of the way in which racism can cause people to develop a self-destructive relationship to the world. The special attention of the white teacher is a positive opportunity for the young Baldwin to get ahead—yet his father is so distrustful of white people that he cannot imagine the situation as anything other than a threat. Given the scale and intensity of racist oppression, it’s difficult to blame him for this paranoia.
The year before his father’s death, Baldwin had been living in New Jersey, where he had been living among both black and white people. He acted, as he always did, in a confident and self-assured manner, which caused his coworkers to treat him with intense hostility. Baldwin went to a self-service restaurant four times before being informed that black people were not served there, and that the wait staff had been waiting for him to realize this. The same thing happened to him at establishments all over the state, and he began to fear going outside. He also began to be overcome with a “blind fever,” an overwhelming rage he believes all black people at times feel toward white society.
Here Baldwin describes two parallel examples of the way in which racist societies force people to suppress their emotions. At the diner, the white wait staff are not forthcoming about the fact that they do not serve black people, suggesting that they are embarrassed and perhaps even sympathetic to Baldwin, but do not feel able to express this. Meanwhile, Baldwin and other black people harbor a destructive rage that they must suppress in order to function and survive.
On his last night in New Jersey, Baldwin’s white friend took him to Trenton to see a movie. After, they went to a diner called “American Diner,” where a waitress told them they didn’t serve black people. Baldwin left and suddenly felt compelled to “do something to crush these white faces.” He walked into a large, glamorous restaurant and waited a long time before the frightened-looking white waitress approached him. Apologetically, she told him that they didn’t serve black people, and when Baldwin did nothing, repeated her statement. Baldwin grabbed a nearby water mug and threw it in her face, before immediately running out of the restaurant. His friend lingered outside the restaurant to send the police in the wrong direction. Afterward, Baldwin felt a sense of guilt toward his friend, as well as a shock at the realization that he could have been murdered and that he was prepared to murder someone himself.
Baldwin’s conflicting emotions in this scene highlight the extent of the emotional turmoil caused by living as a black person in a racist society. He experiences a sense of fury so powerful that it overwhelms practical considerations of his own safety—yet at the same time, he feels guilt toward his white friend and fear at the murderous rage living inside his own heart. These conflicts of emotion illustrate the extent to which racism alienates Baldwin from himself and causes him to lose control of his actions.
Baldwin rushed home, not wanting to miss the birth of his sibling or his father’s death. He felt that all of Harlem was “infected by waiting.” During this time, the country was plagued by racial tensions, and Baldwin was acutely aware of the presence of police everywhere he went. He also noticed unusual combinations of people grouped together on stoops who seemed to share a “common vision” and who were each living under the same “bitter shadow.” Meanwhile, the war was creating a widespread feeling of powerlessness and unhappiness.
Baldwin’s statement that Harlem is “infected by waiting” carries multiple meanings. As racial tensions rise, the residents of Harlem wait for a climactic event to take place; at the same time they are also waiting for the end of the war, and—in a broader sense—the progress toward racial equality for which black people have been waiting since their abduction to the United States.
Baldwin visited his father only once during his illness. He had avoided seeing his father because he wanted to cling to the hatred he felt for him during his life. Baldwin observes: “One of the reasons people cling to hate so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” Baldwin traveled to see his father with his aunt, who criticized Baldwin in order to distract herself from the reality that her younger brother was dying. When they arrived at the hospital, Baldwin’s aunt cried at the sight of her brother looking so weak and small. There was a whistling sound coming from Baldwin’s father’s throat. The next morning, he was pronounced dead, and his baby was born shortly after.
Baldwin’s honest articulation of the reason he avoided seeing his father is an example of one of the major themes of the book—the way in which people avoid the truth in favor of a harmful delusion that they believe is preferable. Clinging to his hatred of his father helps Baldwin avoid the pain of losing him, yet it prevents him from establishing a meaningful relationship with his father. Furthermore, Baldwin emphasizes that hatred is always self-destructive for the person who hates.
The funeral was held on Baldwin’s birthday, and he spent the day drinking whisky with a female friend and wondering what to wear because he did not own any black clothes. His friend eventually found him a black shirt. At the church, Baldwin reflected that his aunt, who fought with his father throughout his life, was one of the only people who had a real connection with him. During the eulogy, Baldwin notes that the preacher was not describing his father as he really was, but rather inviting the congregation to forgive his father, reminding them that they did not know the full truth of what he suffered. Someone began singing one of Baldwin’s father’s favorite songs, and suddenly Baldwin was transported to a memory of sitting on his father’s lap in church. He recalls that his father used to show off Baldwin’s singing voice to others when he was young. He remembers their fights, and the only time in which they “had really spoken to each other.” Just before Baldwin left home, his father asked him if he’d “rather write than preach,” and Baldwin replied, simply, “Yes.” Baldwin did not want to see his father’s body in the casket, but had no choice but to go and look. Baldwin felt that his father looked like any “old man dead,” and notes the strange proximity of the body to his newborn child.
This passage is a cathartic and redemptive moment in an otherwise bleak essay. Baldwin’s inability to find suitable clothes, his sense that the preacher is not being honest, and his reluctance to see his father’s body all create the impression that he is alienated from his father and from the process of mourning him. However, at the same time he experiences a sudden sense of connection to his father through the experience of hearing the song. This in turn leads him to remember their only moment of true communication. Although it is tragic that this moment was so fleeting, there is also beauty in the fact that Baldwin recalls it at all, alongside other happy memories of his father’s life. The presence of his father’s youngest child, a newborn baby, creates a sense of hope. Although Baldwin’s father is gone, part of him lives on through his children, who may experience some of the joy and freedom that he was denied.
After the funeral, while Baldwin was downtown celebrating his birthday, a black man and a white policeman got into a fight in Harlem. A rumor circulated that the black man was shot in the back while defending the honor of a black woman, although Baldwin is not certain that this is actually what happened. Regardless, this story sparked a riot, and white businesses in Harlem were damaged. Baldwin laments the fact that the riot destroyed much of the little wealth that Harlem had, although he understands why the riot happened: “To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need.” If this violence was ever redirected away from the ghetto and aimed at white people, Baldwin has no doubt that the rioters would be massacred instantly. However, it is unlikely that white people would ever be the target, in part because African Americans’ relationship to white people is not entirely defined by hatred but rather something far more complex.
Baldwin’s description of the riot highlights his sympathy for the rioters while also making clear his belief in the ultimate inefficacy of riots. He frames the riot as an expression of the rage that he describes as living in the hearts of all black people. Simply because this rage exists, it is necessary that it has some kind of outlet. However, the riot is also a perfect example of the way in which rage is generally a self-destructive force, rather than a way of making actual change in the world. The rioters aim their attacks on Harlem businesses because to do otherwise would risk fatal retaliation—however, this means that the only people affected by the riot are black people, rather than white oppressors.
Baldwin’s father used to preach: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” As the funeral-goers drove to the cemetery, Baldwin wondered what his father meant by this. He had decided that all his father’s religious lines were meaningless, yet in this moment he could hear his father claiming that “bitterness was folly,” and knew that he was right. Hatred always destroys the person who hates. Baldwin concludes that it is vital to hold two opposing ideas in one’s head: acceptance of “life as it is,” mixed with fierce opposition to all injustice. As this became clear to him on the day of the funeral, he wished his father was there to help him find answers.
This final passage draws together the ideas about hatred Baldwin conveys in this essay and offers a forward-looking (if not necessarily optimistic) response to the problem of hatred. Overall, Baldwin characterizes hatred as a negative, destructive (and particularly self-destructive) force. However, anger can be useful if it motivates people to oppose injustice.