Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Notes of a Native Son Analysis

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Notes of a Native Son is best understood as the work of a young writer searching for an identity and struggling to reconcile the contradictory impulses that define his experiences as a black man, as an American, and as a writer. The essays are uneven, largely because Baldwin had not yet found his voice, and, as he himself admitted in his 1984 introduction, there was much that he was “trying to avoid.” The three pieces describing his personal experiences—“Notes of a Native Son,” “Equal in Paris,” and “Stranger in the Village”—have justifiably received the most praise. They have a stylistic clarity, intellectual force, and emotional honesty that some of the earlier essays lack. To some extent, Baldwin resented the way he was expected to explain the black experience to a white audience, and his writing sometimes reflects an incompletely resolved struggle to free himself from the limits of conventional social analysis. For example, the essays in part 1 seem artificially detached and overly intellectualized, as though they were the products of repressed anger and confused emotion. Nevertheless, the essays in Notes of a Native Son constitute one of the most thoughtful explorations of the black experience in American literature.

Throughout his career, Baldwin insisted that writers needed literary traditions that enabled them to probe beneath the surface of life and take the full measure of any individual’s joy or grief. Unfortunately, he found that the only traditions available to black writers falsified reality by reducing blacks to abstractions. Preferring psychological complexity to political propaganda, Baldwin clearly rejected the social protest novel as an inadequate literary form.

That in turn led to his harsh rejection of the work of Richard Wright in “Many Thousands Gone,” which has provoked more controversy than any other essay in the book. It is important to realize that Wright was not only the most celebrated black American novelist but also a kind of literary father figure for Baldwin. Wright had encouraged Baldwin, had helped him to win fellowships, and was the inspiration behind Baldwin’s move to Paris. Baldwin’s attack on Wright put a permanent end to their friendship. As he later admitted in several interviews, Baldwin was engaged in a symbolic act of rebellion akin to the psychological process in which the growing child frees himself from his father’s control in order to establish his own identity.

Many critics have complained that Baldwin’s attack on Wright was unfair, and a few have even defended Stowe from the charges leveled in “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” The essays in part 1 are vulnerable as analyses of specific works, but they achieve more validity when regarded as the literary manifestos of a young writer attempting to pinpoint the pitfalls and obstacles blocking the roads of all aspiring black authors. Baldwin warns that a political agenda can undermine the artistic integrity of a literary work and deprive it of psychological complexity. In this respect, Baldwin’s most important insight is that American culture insidiously finds means to avoid or distort the reality of race and racism. Even a work that appears to protest social injustice can be tainted by an underlying “theology” in which “black is the color of damnation.”

Although he engages in social analysis, Baldwin expresses a clear distrust of all political and sociological solutions. Instead, his primary concern is with the black man’s need to achieve some kind of personal moral triumph that enables him to accept a brutal reality without being brutalized or dehumanized by that act of acceptance. The essays in part 2 provide a compelling portrait of the frustrations of black life, but they are less...

(This entire section contains 1181 words.)

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specific and perhaps less helpful in defining the means by which blacks are to purge themselves of despair and hatred. Although he repeatedly asserts that the black man must never acquiesce to the forces that would debase and dehumanize him, Baldwin’s apparent emphasis on symbolic vision rather than political change has irritated some readers. Furthermore, a few critics have also been annoyed by Baldwin’s authoritative tone, which sometimes leads him into sweeping generalizations about American society and black life. Moreover, he sometimes uses an editorial “we” that appears to link him with white American society and separate him from the typical black man (the “he” of the essays).

Perhaps the greatest strength of the essays stems from Baldwin’s awareness that the black experience usually provides an ironic mirror of the larger American experience. In his “Autobiographical Notes,” Baldwin declares, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Many of his remarks are critical. He acutely delineates the failure of his country to live up to its own ideals of justice, freedom, and equality. Baldwin not only denounces all forms of overt racism but also shows a perceptive awareness of the more subtle means by which Americans deny the humanity of black people. In particular, he emphasizes a dangerous type of naivete that leads Americans to evade reality, especially the reality of racism. If the essays about life abroad reveal that the black man must accept his American heritage, they also declare that his country’s only hope lies in recognizing the humanity of black people.

In the essays about Europe in part 3, Baldwin repeatedly turns to the qualities that the black American traveler shares with his white countryman. Foremost in Baldwin’s analysis of qualities uniting white and black Americans is blacks’ deeply rooted sense of alienation from the past, which cuts them off from the monuments of European culture and makes them equally reluctant to explore the turmoil of American history. The distinguishing fact of American social history thus becomes the overwhelming burden of slavery and racism. The distinguishing fact of American cultural history thus becomes the overwhelming burden left by slavery and racism, but it is a burden that Baldwin requires blacks and whites to share.

Baldwin’s essays are usually most effective when they rely heavily on his personal experience. It is in these essays that black life becomes a painful reality, not a mere abstraction. The reader shares Baldwin’s anger when he is denied service in a New Jersey restaurant in “Notes of a Native Son” and his agonizing uncertainties as he faces the apparent cruelties of the French legal system in “Equal in Paris.” “Stranger in the Village,” probably the most widely praised of the essays in the book, offers a cogent analysis of the black man’s intricate and difficult relationship to Western culture, but its effectiveness stems largely from Baldwin’s skill at making the reader understand the wide range of uncomfortable feelings that emerge when Swiss children point at him and shout “Neger!”

At their best, Baldwin’s essays reveal his courageous determination to face the world honestly, to acknowledge the bitter reality of black life without losing sight of hope or giving in to hatred, and to affirm his own identity as a black American artist who is true to his experience and his craft.


Masterplots II: African American Literature Notes of a Native Son Analysis


Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)