James Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, with the individual essays having been originally written during the 1940s and 1950s, gives readers a thoughtful commentary on the social environment in the United States in the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Through the eyes and mind of one of America’s most effective essayists, the conditions of being an African American living in a society that is grappling with the consequences of racial discrimination are witnessed firsthand. The subjects of his essays vary as Baldwin ponders his own reactions to the significance of the so-called protest novel to the circumstances that led many African-American writers of his time to become expatriates.
According to Baldwin’s biographer, David Leeming, the idea for Baldwin’s collection came from an old school friend, Sol Stein, who had become an editor at Beacon Press. Baldwin’s first response to the suggestion of publishing his essays, which were largely autobiographical, was that he was ‘‘too young’’ to publish his ‘‘memoirs.’’ Baldwin had, after all, only published one other book prior to Notes, and on top of this he was only thirty years old, which meant that he was in his twenties when he wrote the essays. Despite his lack of a long professional career, however, Baldwin would be surprised at the reaction he would receive upon publication. The collection significantly marked him as a writer that it became his signature work. It was through Notes that he would gain the massive audience he would enjoy throughout most of his writing career. Notes established Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes that would soon erupt in the United States in the critical years ahead.
Leeming refers to the voice that Baldwin created in his essays as one that ‘‘seduces the reader.’’ Baldwin invites the reader inside his mind, Leeming contends, as he observes the problems that exist in the society, problems that were borne of racial discrimination. However, in his observations, Baldwin does not make any of his readers feel guilty about the social conditions. Unlike some of his contemporary authors, Baldwin believed that he did not write through anger. In Leeming’s evaluation of Baldwin’s essays, he contends, ‘‘Baldwin’s method is to reach consciences by way of minds.’’