Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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Notes of a Native Son is a collection of essays published previously in various periodicals. Though not originally written to be published together, they share Baldwin’s concerns over the resolution of the United States’ racial dilemma and the question of American identity.

The first group of essays focuses on the black person as artist and on his or her image within the cultural canon. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin, once an enthusiastic fan of Harriet Beecher Stowe, labels her an “impassioned pamphleteer” and criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other “protest novels,” including Richard Wright’s Native Son, for falling short of their lofty aims, abusing language, and overtaxing credibility. Baldwin goes on in the second essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” to recognize Native Son as a literary landmark but questions its actual power, given the depersonalization and mythification of blacks as Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima. In essence, the “native son” is a monster created by American history, and it is American history that must confront and re-create him. The third essay in the group, “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” criticizes an all-black production of a theatrical standard for perpetuating racial stereotypes.

The second group focuses on the sociopolitical scene. “The Harlem Ghetto,” the earliest of the essays, documents the congestion and claustrophobia of 1948 Harlem. Baldwin considers token civic improvements—playgrounds and housing projects—to be at best superficial and at worst injurious. The position of black leaders is impossible, the black press merely models itself on downtown counterparts, and the popularity of churches only reflects the pervasive hopelessness.

This hopelessness is evidenced in “Journey to Atlanta,” which recounts the experiences of a group of black singers, including Baldwin’s brother David, as guests of the Progressive Party in Atlanta. The Melodeers, anticipating a week of open artistic exchange in the Deep South, encounter only disappointment and failed promises. They are coerced into canvassing for the party, have little opportunity to rehearse or perform, and are finally abandoned without support or return bus fare.

In the title essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin juxtaposes his feelings upon his father’s death—the end of a lifetime of racial bitterness—with images of Harlem in August, 1943, despoiled from widespread rioting after the controversial shooting of a black soldier. The private and public worlds merge to reflect the cycles of life in a tormented community. As Baldwin’s father lay on his deathbed, Baldwin’s mother lay waiting to give birth to her last child. Before the rioting, Harlem also lay in wait—tense, sweltering, and crowded with white policemen ready to strike and uniformed black soldiers heading off to war in Europe. With the passage of time, death, life, and rage came to fruition, and Baldwin surveys the results. He recalls first becoming aware of his violent feelings against whites, and he knows that with his father’s death he must confront his filial hatred, just as Americans, black and white, must confront their shameful history.

The last group draws on Baldwin’s experiences in exile. “Encounters on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” depicts the relations between American blacks and Africans—relations that are not automatically warm and fraternal—and the simplistic and pitiful attitude Baldwin met among the French. In “A Question of Identity,” he analyzes what Americans such as himself seek in voluntary exile—an anonymity that expresses a longing for identity. Baldwin says that only by rejecting American values can one eventually affirm them, that the self-alienated discovers America by going to Europe.

The collection ends with two anecdotal essays. “Equal in Paris” relates Baldwin’s false arrest for the theft of hotel bedsheets and his comic but demoralizing...

(This entire section contains 831 words.)

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adventures in Parisian prisons and courts. Finally, “Stranger in the Village” tells of the summer Baldwin spent in his friend Lucien’s Swiss village, a community that had never before seen a black person. The villagers approached him with curiosity and a bit of fear; he felt no malice, but he detected in their ignorance traces of the imperial and missionary traditions. Baldwin compares his experience there with the larger experience of blacks as supposed “strangers” in the “village” of the United States.

Notes of a Native Son demonstrates Baldwin’s ability to connect disparate experiences and images—emotional and political, abstract and concrete, past and present—into persuasive arguments. His prose is full and textured, and ideas have the force of weight. At times, Baldwin speaks though the first-person singular voice of African American history, an “I” that endured displacement, slavery, and all that followed. The tone becomes bitter, stubborn, and accusing. At other times, he adopts an empowered first-person plural voice, a “we” that assumes a white audience and refers to blacks from a distance. Yet Baldwin’s characteristic objectivity, a more precise and color-free voice, is always available, and in these essays he acknowledges the complexity of these issues, the partial truth of cultural assumptions, and the shared responsibility for social transformation.