James Baldwin - Writing Style

Note: this style of writing is called “block writing.” A string of thoughts, analyzing the structure in which authors build their arguments.

I could not tell for sure what ethnicity the mother of Roy and John was within the first page of “The Rockpile,” as it is not stated in Baldwin’s expository sections and it is not apparent in the dialogue. I have become accustomed to ascertaining whether the characters are white or black within the first couple pages, because this is helps me think of where the author might be coming from. Elizabeth just sounds like a mother, “I don’t want you to come home bleeding like a hog every day the Lord sends” (15). Perhaps her use of the word hog may be telling in some way, but it did not stand out to me in particular. The issue with such analysis is that I would not want to seem insensitive or ignorant through my statements, but there are more eloquent ways the mother could have said she didn’t want her child getting hurt on a treacherous structure. Where I first came to realize the characters’ ethnicity was in the mention of their place of living: Harlem. In 1965, when Baldwin wrote this story, Harlem was a predominantly black neighborhood, as was the Bronx, where Roy and John’s Aunt Florence lives. It became ever more apparent when the two boys start speaking to each other on the third page, “You better stay where you is, boy. You know Mama don’t want you going downstairs” (17). The wording Baldwin uses in the John’s speech insinuates that these two boys are products of their situations, in which their way of speaking has been learned from those they spend most of their time with, namely each other and the kids on the rockpile. The use of dialogue and poor grammar previously alluded to can also be seen in “Going to Meet the Man,” where Jesse approaches a young boy on the porch, asking for Old Julia. “Don’t no Old Julia live here” and “I don’t want nothing you got, white man” (235) are some examples I found. The contraction for does not is not “don’t.” If the boy on the porch was well spoken, he would have said “Old Julia does not live here.” The way he speaks, as well as the way he uses double negation shows signs of lack of formal education in the English language. Sister McCandless uses the double negative and incorrect contraction in her sentences, too, “don’t look to me like that’s no right answer” (20). Sonny’s father does it, too, “Safe, hell! Ain’t no place safe for kids, nor nobody” (114). By using contractions, Baldwin makes it easier for the reader to feel a sense of realness in the dialogue, and by misusing these contractions, he puts forth the ethnicity of the character without saying it explicitly. I find myself questioning why the ethnicities of the characters in “The Rockpile” are not more apparent to the reader, and why it is so clearly specified in some of his other stories. In “Previous Condition,” he is very clear about Peter being black, but not until the third page in. “The first time I was ever called a nigger I was seven years old” (85). In “Sonny’s Blues,” it is not as apparent, but also quite clearly stated in the third paragraph, “his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it” (103). I lean towards the notion that, while Baldwin’s main theme in his stories and arguments is the “Black Problem,” he has also written many stories of other nature. In “The Rockpile,” the message has to do with family issues, whereas in “Going to Meet the Man,” “Sonny’s Blues” and “Previous Condition,” Baldwin writes his story about racial problems, all from different perspectives, of course. I think that the ethnicities of the characters in “The Rockpile” are ambiguous because they do not matter; because Baldwin’s intention is to portray a message to his reader that has nothing to do with race. In “Previous Condition,” however, Baldwin’s directness returns, and early on in the story, too. As quoted above, Peter states that he had been called a “nigger” when he was seven. Peter’s speech is eloquent, differently so even from Elizabeth’s speech. He is well spoken and well versed in musical theory, and while much of it shines through in his narration, his intellect and education can be seen in the way he speaks to the audience. Granted, he is 25 years old, and his cognitive skills are naturally more developed than Roy or John. Baldwin makes Peter hate his own race in this story, “I can’t stand niggers” (91), which is perhaps why he speaks better than Baldwin’s other black characters. Perhaps a mixture between that and how Peter attempts to live in the nicer neighborhoods in New York City makes him need to speak more articulately than all of Baldwin’s other black characters I have encountered. I have been in situations like that as well; the need to fit into a certain group that you are not technically part of. I feel this way every time I go home, walk up to my friend’s double brownstone on 13th and 3rd, and ring the doorbell that has a video camera inside. Upon entrance, I always see the four or five hipsters at the end of the wide hallway sitting around the kitchen table discussing the reasons for Nitsche’s philosophy of maternal attraction. I enter feeling small and illiterate but I need to smile and be friendly and want to fit in, although I don’t like many of my friends’ friends. They are so judgmental, and while I always end up getting them to like me, it is always an unpleasant feeling that I could do without. Every character in “The Rockpile” that contributes to the storyline has a name. Baldwin has given all his characters names in “The Rockpile” because they all important to one another and because they all know each other’s names. In “Going to Meet the Man,” there is the “nigger in the cell” and the “black boy on the porch” and the “big man” being burned. The only black character’s name we discover is that of Otis, Jesse’s childhood friend. Baldwin does this on purpose, those who matter to Jesse have names, those who don’t do not. The ones who don’t have names are only used as catalysts to get the message across. This affects the reader in an obvious way. If I don’t know someone personally, I will not care about them as much as someone whose name I do know. I shall refer to my experiences at the opera; I have seen countless operas, and only loved few of them. I see a singer on stage and always evaluate him/her throughout their performance, as I do with Baldwin’s characters. I listen to their pitch, projection, diction, and assess their presence on stage in relation to personal and charismatic power. For some reason, I read Baldwin in a very similar way, attempting to be as meticulous as possible, especially when reading dialogue. It is a completely different experience to the viewer of an opera if he has met the artist beforehand. The night prior to having seen Simon Boccanegra at the Met, I was introduced to one of the lead singers named Barbara Fritolli at a gala on the upper west side. She was very endearing, and gave me a few points of advice for who to contact if I were ever looking to work there. We spoke for the better part of an hour about why opera is so special to us both, and had a few drinks while doing so. The following day, I saw Simon Boccanegra for the second time. The first time I had fallen asleep and was bored to tears of the storyline because it is a story of nobility and I find stories like that uninteresting. The representation with Barbara playing the role of Maria Boccanegra was an entirely different experience. I found myself at the edge of my seat, fully immersed in the plot development and especially in her scenes. I appreciated her role more because it was a friend on stage, not some nameless soprano. If a character is named in Baldwin’s stories, the reader pays more attention to that character. Baldwin has a tendency to use abundant amounts of description in all things violent, too. The scene in “Going to Meet the Man” in which the “big man” is being tortured goes on for far too long for me to endure. Baldwin not only describes the actions being committed, but also the physicalities and psychologies behind those acting and observing. Baldwin is blunt and shameless in his writing, forcing the reader to react a certain way internally during the read. It is strange for me to think about Baldwin’s internal thoughts when having written these grotesque accounts. Through reading, we know every facet of what was going on, and the experience is tactile and real. “This time he saw the kinky, sweating, bloody head…He saw the forehead…and the mangled eyebrows…the glinting eyelashes and the hanging lips, all streaming with blood and sweat” (246). This amount of description means that Baldwin got very intimate with these images. He forced himself to think of every detail happening in his scene and plucked out the strongest pictures to convey to the reader. I call Baldwin shameless because I would never think to describe a man’s scrotum being severed the way he does. I think that saying that it happened is enough reason to make the reader cringe. He carries on, though, and through his persistence, Baldwin makes the described account uncomfortably real to me. He is graphic in the first story as well, “one side of Roy’s face ran with blood, he fell and rolled on his face down the rocks” (18). “At his father’s touch, [he] remembered the height, the sharp, sliding rock beneath his feet, the sun, the explosion of the sun, his plunge into darkness and his salty blood” (23).


Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. Edited by Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America, 1998.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1985

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