Baldwin’s Better Argument

In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin and makes a compelling argument for why it is a protest novel. He explains the dangers of its sentimentality and unrealistic characterization, and because of his strong rhetoric, I agree with his position. Baldwin outlines how Uncle Tom’s Cabin denies the complexity of the truth by focusing solely on convincing the reader that slavery is wrong. He details how the book fails to explain what motivated white people to commit such atrocities. In doing so, Baldwin provides strong evidence for his contention that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a protest novel and thus, is “forgiven, on the strength of [its] good intentions, whatever violence [it does] to language, whatever excessive demands [it makes] of credibility” (18). 

Baldwin’s essay only ever addresses Native Son in its final two pages. He gives himself very little room to support his claims with examples and to elaborate upon his comparisons, as he does with Stowe’s book. As a result, his assessment of Wright’s work as a protest novel is less persuasive than it could be, diminishing the strength of his argument. Baldwin alleges that Native Son is “a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy” (22). However, he does not show us why that is. The only support he offers this comparison is his assertion that Bigger must “battle for his humanity” (23). In his view, this battle defines Native Son as a protest novel, since such works deny the humanity of its characters by adhering to the importance of their categorization instead. At that point, Baldwin ends his essay. He does not support his claim that Bigger is battling for his humanity, but rather assumes that point, and he fails to provide a reason why the existence of that supposed battle renders Native Son a protest novel. He writes that “we need not battle for [our humanity]; we need only… to accept it” (23). If Baldwin explained the difference between battling for humanity and learning to accept it; if he showed how Wright’s work is the former and not the latter; and if he clarified why the battle itself constitutes a rejection of humanity, then his argument would be improved. Instead, he leaves the reader with every opportunity to question it.