Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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How does Baldwin structure "Notes of a Native Son"?

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Baldwin's famous collection of essays has a tripartite structure. In part 1, the three essays deal with depictions of the African American experience in books and in film. Part 2 contains essays that detail Baldwin's own personal experiences in the United States and his relationship to his family; part 3's essays deal with his time as an expatriate in France and present his observations on how black people are treated in Europe, in juxtaposition to their experience in America.

The reason for this structure is that it corresponds in part to the chronology of Baldwin's life, prefaced with the essays of part 1 that give a kind of theoretical underpinning to the overall themes of the book. The first three essays also establish what would have been considered, at the time, unorthodox thinking on Baldwin's part by many readers. For different reasons, he rejects literature that has been thought representative of or sympathetic to African Americans, in particular Richard Wright's Native Son. In his analysis of the film Carmen Jones, a version of Bizet's opera sung in English by an all-black cast, Baldwin points out that the film conveys a subtle (and not so subtle) racism of which most white people at the time were oblivious. The film was thought liberal and progressive by the establishment, which did not even recognize that the Hollywood all-black cast genre was almost by definition racist in a lurid way.

Part 2 deals with Baldwin's perception of, and reaction to, both the inner and outer manifestations of his upbringing, dealing with inconvenient truths such as his own father's lack of understanding and his antagonism toward him. He also analyzes the relationship, as he sees it, between the residents of Harlem and the (at the time) mostly Jewish merchants there. A complex series of interrelated themes are developed between Baldwin's family life, the dynamic of the ghetto, and the large-scale migration of African Americans from south to north in the first half of the twentieth century.

The next phase of his own life, in which he expatriated himself to Europe, is in some ways a summary and amplification of the themes developed in parts 1 and 2. A recurring theme in Baldwin's oeuvre is the specifically American nature of the prejudice and oppression leveled at people of color. "The French left me alone," Baldwin wrote. Altogether, Notes of a Native Son was a pathbreaking book which, in its close-knit and purposeful organization, as well as its stark honesty, established Baldwin as a major voice in American literature.

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Notes of a Native Son is one of Baldwin's most famous works. It is structured as a series of essays. Prior to the essays being combined into a singular work, they appeared in various magazines, such as Harper's Magazine and The Partisan Review.

The essays open with an autobiographical note from Baldwin himself. He speaks of becoming a writer and the decision to pursue this as his life's vocation. In the notes, he describes how his father wanted him to be a preacher. This opening introduction to his father is important, because this father becomes a central figure in the compiled essays.

Part 1 is essentially a series of critiques of other African American literature and art. Uncle Tom's Cabin, Native Son, and Carmen Jones are all cuttingly evaluated.

Part 2 deals with issues that are more culturally and societally related. "The Harlem Ghetto" opens with how expensive rent is in Harlem, and goes on to talk about other issues that face the African American community and America at large. "Notes of a Native Son" talks about Baldwin's father's death and his initial encounters with segregation in the United States. Baldwin then talks about his father's funeral on Baldwin's own nineteenth birthday—the same day as the Harlem riot of 1943.

Therein lies the theme to the structure of this book. There is a seeming randomness to the structure, but it is actually very deliberate. Baldwin deals with American portrayal of African American life in part 1. In part 2, Baldwin shows the realities of that African American life. In part 3, he speaks of leaving the United States.

In part 3, the sections are broken down to talk about Baldwin's time in both France and Switzerland. He realizes there that African Americans are still forming their own identity and history in the United States, whereas black people France have a history and identity to hold.

Notes of a Native Son is considered one of the greatest pieces of African American literature. In its structure, Baldwin weaves a thread of ideas of what it means, and what it will mean, to be an African American.

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"Notes of a Native Son" is a narrative essay that utilizes storytelling to convey the importance of maintaining happiness with one's life while also refusing to accept racial injustices. Baldwin structures the essay around a pivotal point in his life, his father's death. Baldwin was both in awe of his father and afraid of his bitterness. The essay jumps between stories of the past and present as Baldwin navigates this internal conflict. He starts by describing his father's death and then dives into stories from the past. These stories are used to build and expand upon Baldwin's internal conflict. For example, he explains how he sympathized with his father because of all the overt racism he experienced. However, he was also deeply afraid of his father's distrust of white people. The essay ends with his father's funeral, which coincidentally and importantly takes place on Baldwin's birthday. To summarize the conflict, Baldwin is forced to accept the life and death of his father on the day of his birth. Rather than resolve the internal conflict, Baldwin chooses to embrace it. He accepts that both he and his father have lived lives filled with both racism and joy. He determines that it is his duty to find personal peace in the chaos of living between worlds.

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James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son” is one of his most anthologized nonfiction texts.

Structure is defined as the organizational features of a work of literature. Common structures include cause and effect, problem-solution, and narrative.

This particular essay is most closely defined as having a narrative sequential structure. Baldwin divides the essay into three separate sections, all dealing with his relationship to his father.

The three sections present different memories and anecdotes that Baldwin has of his father, predicated upon Baldwin attending his father’s funeral in section 1. The non-chronological structure within a narrative context establishes the essay as a type of memoir to fatherhood.

This essay was later included in the collection of the same name that included several other non-fiction texts Baldwin published over the course of his career. Similarly, the volume is organized into three separate sections containing thematically linked essays.

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