Notes of a Native Son Questions and Answers
by James Baldwin

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How does James Baldwin develop the theme of the individual in Notes of a Native Son?

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Baldwin develops the theme of the individual in several ways. First, he uses illustrative characters to reinforce the idea of aloneness. Through a delineation of his father's character (and his own), Baldwin shows how an individual is marginalized by the larger community.

Baldwin distinguishes himself from his father. They are both individuals, but each experiences "aloneness" differently. Ironically, each is also alienated from the other, reinforcing the precarious position of the individual, the maverick. Baldwin also uses details, imagery, symbols, and events to highlight the theme of the individual.

He provides facts about his father, who was said to be the "first generation of free men" who came to the North after 1919. Baldwin describes his father as "handsome, proud, and ingrown." He emphasizes his father's "blackness," which was both immensely beautiful and alienating. This "blackness" is a symbol of aloneness and menace; it disguises the deep bitterness Baldwin's father harbored. Here, the individual is set apart through an overpowering emotion, one that repels others. Baldwin presents the image of his father "sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors; hating and fearing every living soul."

Baldwin realizes that he has inherited his father's "bitterness" and that it could kill him. During his childhood, Baldwin's family moved from church to church because his father's abrasive style failed to endear him to congregations. Here, the individual is set apart, one by choice and the other by compulsion. Baldwin maintains that his father's overpowering intensity kept society at bay. As a result, Baldwin experienced overwhelming loneliness as a child. The only white people that stepped foot in the family home were welfare workers and bill collectors. Baldwin's father treated them with contempt and vindictive indifference.

Baldwin continues to develop the theme of the individual through a recounting of events, replete with colorful details and imagery. He relates his experiences in New Jersey, where he is treated with undisguised resentment.

It was the same story all over New Jersey, in bars, bowling alleys, diners, places to live. I was always being forced to leave, silently, or with mutual imprecations.

In the North, Baldwin is surprised to experience the effects of Jim Crow laws. White waitresses refuse to serve him, and others spit out varied strains of "we don't serve Negroes here." Baldwin details racial tensions in Harlem. The story begins when an African American soldier quarrels with a white policeman over a girl. The conflict eventually leads to widespread riots. Baldwin maintains that the facts tell a different story. In this, he is set apart, an individual who calls no man his master.

The soldier had not been shot in the back, and was not dead, and the girl seems to have been as dubious a symbol of womanhood as her white counterpart in Georgia usually is, but no one was interested in the facts. They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly.

Baldwin ends his book by again reinforcing the theme of the individual. Alone, he must fight to ensure that his heart is untainted by "hatred and despair."

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