James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son is his first collection of essays. Baldwin, generally acclaimed as twentieth century America’s greatest essayist, helped cement this reputation with this collection. The book discusses many of the central occupations of Baldwin’s career: the search for identity, how African Americans respond to racism, and racism in general. The book is an essential landmark in the thought of James Baldwin.
In examining Notes of a Native Son, the reader first should note the structure of the collection, because the essays are organized thematically. Part 1 deals primarily with Baldwin’s commentaries on literature, with one essay additionally critiquing the film Carmen Jones (1954). Part 2 deals mainly with racial problems in the United States. In part 3, Baldwin examines questions of identity, specifically African Americans’ perceptions of themselves and how they are perceived by others. Baldwin pondered these themes while he traveled in France and Switzerland.
Two of Baldwin’s classic essays are contained in part 1: “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone.” “Everybody’s Protest Novel” has become famous for Baldwin’s criticisms of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). Baldwin finds Stowe’s novel to be ruined by sentimentality, which he feels is a mask for the author’s fear of African Americans, especially assertive African Americans. Baldwin questions whether this novel should be thought to champion African Americans’ freedom. Furthermore, Baldwin questions the validity of the praise of Wright’s Native Son as promoting the African American cause. Baldwin believes that Wright’s novel hinges on the acceptance by the main character, Bigger Thomas, of racists’ view of him as subhuman. Baldwin expresses his concern that this ideology itself is, perhaps, Bigger’s worst enemy, thus undermining the novel’s focus on white racism. Consequently, Baldwin finds fault with two of the novels that had been made into such literary icons that they could have been deemed everybody’s protest novels.
Baldwin’s critique of the character of Bigger continues in “Many Thousands Gone,” with Baldwin again noting Wright’s emphasis on Bigger’s self-hatred. However, in this essay, it is important to note that Baldwin recognizes the sociological significance of Bigger. Baldwin, for instance, claims that most blacks have an anger inside them against racism that is equivalent to Bigger’s rage. Moreover, Baldwin indicts racism for producing black people such as Bigger, whose acquiescence to racism entails their own psychological and physical self-annihilation. This essay, therefore, is important in Baldwin’s analysis of how racism, in its narcissistic arrogance, demands that African Americans submit their very identity and obey the demands of the dominant society.
Another intriguing aspect of part 1 of Notes of a Native Son is that, on the whole, it is a critique of American cultural productions that focus on representations of African Americans. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough,” for example, Baldwin finds great faults in Otto Preminger’s successful film. The film is an all-black production of the 1943 Broadway musical of the same name, and stars Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. Baldwin is concerned that the film avoids anything that would convey reality in its presentation of life among African Americans, relying instead on such things as songs reworked to fit whites’ ideas of black speech and presenting a hero and heroine devoid of real sensuality but who have a dull facade of sanitized sexiness more appropriate to dolls than to people. Baldwin sensed that Hollywood was afraid of presenting African Americans’ sensuality because it is so often a subject of racist mythology. Hence, he argues that by divesting the storyline of Carmen of sensuality, the film reduces the characters to mere hollow shells. Consequently, as in the two previous essays, Baldwin finds that American cultural productions with African Americans as their subject are not only problematic but also indicative of societal problems in the presentation and treatment of blacks.
In part 2, two essays in particular stand out as major essays in Baldwin’s career. “The Harlem Ghetto” and “Notes of a Native Son” examine various aspects of racism and race relations. In “The Harlem Ghetto,” Baldwin analyzes a social problem that remains relevant: tensions between African Americans and Jews. He examines the economic factors at the heart of the maintenance of a racially divided society, and how these economic factors affect relations between the races. The black-Jewish rift, Baldwin feels, has its roots, in part, with the Jewish presence in Harlem as store owners, a position perceived by many blacks as exploitative. Baldwin points out that the hostility some blacks may feel toward Jews is not because Jews are Jewish but because Jews represent, for many blacks in ghettoes, a first contact with white Americans. Jews came to symbolize—rightly or wrongly—the racism of white society. Hence, Baldwin makes a perceptive point: Jews are caught in the American racial crossfire.
Baldwin’s essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” continues the analysis of race relations. The essay is central in showing Baldwin’s own reactions to racism and his ideas on how African Americans should not react to racism. In the essay, Baldwin reminisces about his father, who hated whites and died an embittered man. Baldwin also recounts the racism he faced while working as a young man in New Jersey and how rude treatment, in particular at a racist restaurant,...