Many Thousands Gone

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“Many Thousands Gone” Group work Name:

  1. In the introductory paragraphs, note Baldwin’s use of the 3rd person to describe the “Negro” and the collective 1st person to describe Americans. Anything from first three pages of essay are fine. Discuss reasons for this, and then write 1-2 sentences of analysis (which phrases pulled from text).

  1. Page 20: the paradoxes described on this page are interesting; describe them your own words.

  1. Page 21-22: Baldwin employs two fictional characters, Aunt Jemimah and Uncle Tom, as symbols. A bit of background, just in case.

Uncle Tom is the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The phrase "Uncle Tom" has also become an epithet for a person who is slavish and excessively subservient to perceived authority figures, particularly a black person who behaves in a subservient manner to white people; or any person perceived to be a participant in the oppression of their own group. 

At the time of the novel's initial publication in 1851 Uncle Tom was a rejection of the existing stereotypes of minstrel shows; Stowe's melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for White audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two women who escape from slavery. Stowe reversed the gender conventions of slave narratives by juxtaposing Uncle Tom's passivity against the daring of three African American women who escape from slavery. (Wikipedia: “Uncle Tom”)

Aunt Jemima

Aunt Jemimah was a fictional character in minstrel shows in the late 1800s when a pancake company (which later trademarked the character in 1937) began using her likeness to sell pancakes.

She embodied the servile “Mammy” figure, glorifying the antebellum south. Aunt Jemima today: working grandmother

What is Baldwin’s main argument about these two characters? They are different arguments for each, but then he ties them together:

  1. Part I of the essay is on page 23, with the gap between the parts. What is the argument Baldwin makes in this concluding paragraph of this section (22-23)? Describe at least one of the litany of stylistic choices (metaphor, anaphora, allusion, symbol) that Baldwin uses in this paragraph to convey his argument.

  1. Page 23: First/only full paragraph – what word choices and phrase choice suggest the tone here is sardonic? Sardonic means “grimly mocking” or “bitterly sarcastic”.

  1. Page 23: As always, some interesting word choices word choices on this page. Why does he choose these words – “alabaster” and “exorcise”. What do they emphasize in each of those sentences?

Page 24: This begins Baldwin’s controversial opinion about Native Son by Richard Wright, widely (and still) considered one of the greatest African-American novels of all time. Wright was a mentor of Baldwin’s, but, here, and elsewhere, Baldwin critiques the novel.

Description of Native Son by Richard Wright (1937)

Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright's powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.

Bigger is not a traditional hero by any means. However, Wright forces us to enter into Bigger’s mind and to understand the devastating effects of the social conditions in which he was raised. Bigger was not born a violent criminal. He is a “native son”: a product of American culture and the violence and racism that suffuse it.

  1. On p. 24-26, Baldwin begins describing his argument about Native Son. A sentence I found especially interesting is on p. 25, beginning with “The unlucky shepherd…”, which features a metaphor, a Baldwinian em-dash aside, and an intriguing punctuation choice after the word “audience”. What does this sentence seem to suggest about Wright’s status as an artist after writing Native Son?

  1. On page 26, at the end of the second section (noted by the gap in the page), Baldwin writes about the “overwhelming limitation” of the novel, then begins the main thrust of his argument in the next section. Summarize one of the points of his arguments with textual evidence.

  1. What are the implications of the word “disastrous” on p. 27?

  1. At the bottom of 27 and top of 28, Baldwin begins to articulate a difference between Jewish and Black struggle. Summarize his argument.

  1. At the bottom of 28 and top of 29 and then the next paragraph, Baldwin discusses an imaginary (or real) “nigger” that serves as a symbol for America. The first paragraph (28-29) details white Americans’ interpretation of the symbol. The second paragraph (29) details black Americans’ interpretation of the symbol. Summarize this argument with textual evidence.

  1. On p. 32, how does Baldwin use polysyndeton to emphasize that Bigger is not an apt symbol for the Negro in America?

  1. What does the sentence about a “private Bigger Thomas living in the skull” mean?

  1. Summarize the concluding sentences of the essay. Also: why is the essay titled “Many Thousands Gone”?

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