James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel”

1949

The contemporary novel of Negro experience only repeats what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did – a moral rectitude that says “This is terrible! You should be ashamed of yourselves!” The novels of oppression, on the other hand [probably Native Son?] have a raging paranoiac quality that only reinforces the stereotypes they protest. Sentimentality is the enemy of real lived experience. All of Stowe’s black characters are but lovable types – only George, Eliza, and Tom are real people to us, and the first two are “as white as she can make them.” This is only a sort of fear of damnation on the part of the author. But do we really want a novel so didactic, filled with “hardworking ciphers,” rather than real people? In Bigger Thomas’ murder and rape, in his death that is a sort of life because a reclamation of manhood, Baldwin finds the evil twin of the sentimental novel. If Stowe is scolding and exhorting us, Wright is cursing and damning us. The protest novel puts too much on the categories imposed on us – we need not battle for our humanity with the bestial qualities we are told we have (Bigger) – we have only to accept our humanity, and to move towards transcendence.

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