Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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According to Notes of a Native Son, did Baldwin become like his father?

Quick answer:

According to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin doesn’t become like his father. Baldwin doesn’t preach like his father, nor does he want to hold on to harmful bitterness as his father did.

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In Notes of a Native Son, the first essay, “Autobiographical Notes,” mentions James Baldwin’s father. Growing up in Harlem, Baldwin was creative. He wrote plays and songs. One of his works even earned acclaim for the mayor of New York City. Baldwin’s mom was “delighted” with his son’s talent, but his dad was not thrilled. Baldwin's dad wanted him to be a preacher like him. At 14, Baldwin became a preacher. Three years later, at 17, his preaching activities stopped, and he concentrated his efforts on becoming a writer. In this respect, Baldwin did not become like his father since he did not grow up to be a preacher.

Later on, in the title essay, Baldwin explores his father’s character in greater detail. He discusses his upbringing in New Orleans, his various setbacks, his relationship with his family and with white people. Here, Baldwin discerns how he could become like his father. Baldwin states he had “discovered the weight of white people in the world.” This revelation filled Baldwin with the same harmful “bitterness” that had helped kill his dad.

Baldwin’s dangerous bitterness is spotlighted when he depicts his violent reaction to a white waitress who tells him, “[We] don’t serve negroes here.” By the end of the essay, Baldwin acknowledges that this bitterness is “folly.” He’s determined not to let it destroy him like it destroyed his dad. In this context, Baldwin doesn’t want to become like his father; he doesn’t want to foster lethal, foolish bitterness.

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