Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Notes of a Native Son is a collection of essays published previously in various periodicals. Though not originally written to be published together, they share Baldwin’s concerns over the resolution of the United States’ racial dilemma and the question of American identity.
The first group of essays focuses on the black person as artist and on his or her image within the cultural canon. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin, once an enthusiastic fan of Harriet Beecher Stowe, labels her an “impassioned pamphleteer” and criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other “protest novels,” including Richard Wright’s Native Son, for falling short of their lofty aims, abusing language, and overtaxing credibility. Baldwin goes on in the second essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” to recognize Native Son as a literary landmark but questions its actual power, given the depersonalization and mythification of blacks as Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima. In essence, the “native son” is a monster created by American history, and it is American history that must confront and re-create him. The third essay in the group, “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” criticizes an all-black production of a theatrical standard for perpetuating racial stereotypes.
The second group focuses on the sociopolitical scene. “The Harlem Ghetto,” the earliest of the essays, documents the congestion and claustrophobia of 1948 Harlem. Baldwin considers token civic improvements—playgrounds and housing projects—to be at best superficial and at worst injurious. The position of black leaders is impossible, the black press merely models itself on downtown counterparts, and the popularity of churches only reflects the pervasive hopelessness.
This hopelessness is evidenced in “Journey to Atlanta,” which recounts the experiences of a group of black singers, including Baldwin’s brother David, as guests of the Progressive Party in Atlanta. The Melodeers, anticipating a week of open...
(The entire section is 831 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
James Baldwin is a fine novelist, as such works as Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni’s Room (1956) prove. Many readers consider his nonfiction to be even finer than his fiction. His essays, which may be found in collections such as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1852), which Baldwin considers self-righteous and so sentimental as to be dishonest. “Many Thousands Gone” examines Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), which Baldwin describes as badly flawed. “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough” is another biting review, of the Hollywood motion picture musical Carmen Jones (1955). Baldwin says that the film lacks imagination and is condescending to blacks. Part 2 contains three essays. “The Harlem Ghetto” is one of the most powerful, digging into the physical and emotional turmoil of Harlem, including problems between blacks and Jews. “Journey to Atlanta” looks at an African American singing group’s first trip to the South. It is a humorous, cynical, look at the treatment that the group, which included two of Baldwin’s brothers, received. “Notes of a Native Son” examines Baldwin’s anger and despair after his father’s death.
Part 3 contains four essays. “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” and “A Question of Identity” are about the feelings and attitudes of Americans in Paris in the 1940’s and 1950’s. “Equal in Paris” is Baldwin’s account of being arrested and jailed, temporarily, in a case involving some stolen sheets that he did not steal. Baldwin describes the insight he had while in the hands of the French police: that they, in dealing with him, were not engaging in the racist cat-and-mouse game used by police in the United States. Finally, “Stranger in the Village” discusses Baldwin’s time in a Swiss village and the astonished curiosity of people who had never seen a black person before. In all these essays, Baldwin explores his world and himself.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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,...
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