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...
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.