Author and activist James Baldwin wrote in his autobiographical Notes of Native Son that the year 1942 produced a “great change in my life.”
That change came when he lived in New Jersey and made a visit to Trenton.
The Harlem-born Baldwin had come to central New Jersey to work in the regional defense plant in Belle Mead and was “working and living among southerners, white and black. I knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated Negroes and how they expected them to behave, but it had never entered my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way. I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people.
Stating that he “knew about Jim-Crow but I had never experienced it,” Baldwin then provides two painful accounts of regional racism.
The first was a lunch counter where he “went to the same self-service restaurant three times and stood with all the Princeton boys before the counter, waiting for a hamburger and coffee; it was always an extraordinarily long time before anything was set before me; but it was not until the fourth visit that I learned that, in fact, nothing had ever been set before me: I had simply picked something up. Negroes were not served there, I was told, and they had been waiting for me to realize that I was always the only Negro present. Once I was told this, I determined to go there all the time. But now they were ready for me and, though some dreadful scenes were subsequently enacted in that restaurant, I never ate there again. It was the same story all over New Jersey, in bars, bowling alleys, diners, places to live. I was always being forced to leave, silently, or with mutual imprecations.
“I very shortly became notorious and children giggled behind me when I passed and their elders whispered or shouted — they really believed that I was mad . . . My reputation in town naturally enhanced my reputation at work, and my working day became one long series of acrobatics designed to keep me out of trouble. I cannot say that these acrobatics succeeded.” And he was fired.
The other occasion was in Trenton on what he calls his “last night in New Jersey,” and when a white friend from New York took him to the Capital City to go to the movies and have a few drinks.
“Almost every detail of that night stands out very clearly in my memory,” he writes. “I even remember the name of the movie we saw because its title impressed me as being so patently ironical. It was a movie about the German occupation of France, starring Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton and called ‘This Land Is Mine.’ I remember the name of the diner we walked into when the movie ended: it was the ‘American Diner.’ When we walked in the counterman asked what we wanted and I remember answering with the casual sharpness which had become my habit: ‘We want a hamburger and a cup of coffee, what do you think we want?’ I do not know why, after a year of such rebuffs, I so completely failed to anticipate his answer, which was, of course, ‘We don’t serve Negroes here.’ This reply failed to discompose me, at least for the moment. I made some sardonic comment about the name of the diner and we walked out into the streets.”
Baldwin says that Trenton was experiencing a “brown-out,” a World War II practice to protect cities and conserve energy, and that when he left the restaurant for the crowded street he experience an optical illusion — a type of “nightmare” — that affected him: “People were moving in every direction but it seemed to me, in that instant, that all of the people I could see, and many more than that, were moving toward me, against me, and that everyone was white. I remember how their faces gleamed. And I felt, like a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut.
I began to walk. I heard my friend call after me, but I ignored him. Heaven only knows what was going on in his mind, but he had the good sense not to touch me — I don’t know what would have happened if he had — and to keep me in sight. I don’t know what was going on in my mind, either; I certainly had no conscious plan. I wanted to do something to crush these white faces, which were crushing me. I walked for perhaps a block or two until I came to an enormous, glittering, and fashionable restaurant in which I knew not even the intercession of the Virgin would cause me to be served. I pushed through the doors and took the first vacant seat I saw, at a table for two, and waited. I do not know how long I waited and I rather wonder, until today, what I could possibly have looked like.
Whatever I looked like, I frightened the waitress who shortly appeared, and the moment she appeared all of my fury flowed towards her. I hated her for her white face, and for her great, astounded, frightened eyes. I felt that if she found a black man so frightening I would make her fright worthwhile. She did not ask me what I wanted, but repeated, as though she had learned it somewhere, ‘We don’t serve Negroes here.’ She did not say it with the blunt, derisive hostility to which I had grown so accustomed, but, rather, with a note of apology in her voice, and fear. This made me colder and more murderous than ever. I felt I had to do something with my hands. I wanted her to come close enough for me to get her neck between my hands. So I pretended not to have heard her, hoping to draw her closer. And she did step a very short step closer, with her pencil poised incongruously over her pad, and repeated the formula: ‘. . . don’t serve Negroes here.’
Somehow, with the repetition of that phrase, which was already ringing in my head like a thousand bells of a nightmare, I realized that she would never come any closer and that I would have to strike from a distance. There was nothing on the table but an ordinary water-mug half full of water, and I picked this up and hurled it with all my strength at her. She ducked and it missed her and shattered against the mirror behind the bar.
And, with that sound, my frozen blood abruptly thawed, I returned from wherever I had been, I saw, for the first time, the restaurant, the people with their mouths open, already, as it seemed to me, rising as one man, and I realized what I had done, and where I was, and I was frightened. I rose and began running for the door. A round, potbellied man grabbed me by the nape of the neck just as I reached the doors and began to beat me about the face. I kicked him and got loose and ran into the streets. My friend whispered, ‘Run!’ and I ran.”
Later, Baldwin says, “I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart. . . .”