James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” impresses the reader for the author’s powerful writing, the individual vignettes he includes, and the way he reveals the connections between apparently disparate ideas and events. Two closely related, notable passages explore the young Baldwin’s early experiences of confronting racism, and his subsequent realization of the depth of his anger. Other parts of the essay evoke his relationship with his father. In probing the pain of his father’s death, he shows the conflictual emotions of sorrow, resentment, and forgiveness.
Baldwin shows that racism is learned by both those who perpetrate it and those who are subjected to racial discrimination. He explains his own unwillingness or inability to understand that not getting served in a restaurant he went to was connected to the server’s racism against him as a Black man. Baldwin shows how hurtful it was for him to believe the reasons for such behavior. As he continues to reflect on the experience, he reveals that the confusion and hurt were more easily accessible emotions. Deep inside, he carried anger that had to boil over—leading him to throw a pitcher at a server.
Baldwin’s honesty in addressing his mixed emotions toward his father also provides a moving passage. As his father is near death, he wonders at the vast gulf between them and tries to understand the older man’s difficulties in showing affection to his children—Baldwin was actually his stepson. With his father’s passing, Baldwin must accept that their relationship is past recovering, but he can still change his attitude. Furthermore, doing so is essential to his own healing and growth:
[I]t now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.