Baldwin begins the title essay in Notes of a Native Son with a statement of death and birth. He mentions that his father died on the same day that his father’s last child was born. This theme of death and birth also works itself out on a larger scale, eventually encompassing the entire essay. By the end, while sitting at his father’s funeral, Baldwin is able to see his father in a different light, one that includes both his negative and positive characteristics. In doing so, Baldwin is also able to see himself more clearly. By examining his relationship with his father, Baldwin experiences several revelations, which culminate in a type of symbolic death and spiritual rebirth by the end of the essay.
In laying out the details of his relationship with his father, Baldwin presents many examples of how he is both similar to his father and different from him. Sometimes Baldwin is very conscious of the differences. At other times, he seems oblivious to the differences, or maybe he just does not want to see them. For instance, at one stage in the essay, he points out that he had not gotten along very well with his father because they shared ‘‘the vice of stubborn pride.’’ With this statement, Baldwin clearly sees the link between himself and his father. He also admits that his father’s ‘‘intolerable bitterness of spirit’’ had unfortunately been handed down to him. However, there are other moments when Baldwin’s rage and even a kind of paranoid madness descend upon him, possibly blinding him to the personal characteristics that he and his father share. He moves back and forth, throughout most of the essay, at times freely drawing parallels, at other times trying desperately to gain distance. The strength of the piece, however, is in his final resolution in which he comes to grips with his father’s emotions as well as his own. In the end, he is able to separate himself from his father and yet still cherish in a place in his heart the fact that he and his father will be forever joined.
Sometimes Baldwin’s connection to his father comes to him slowly. At first, he might not relate to some of his father’s traits, such as when he flashes back to memories of his childhood; but then, after Baldwin has a later experience that sheds light on his father’s beliefs, Baldwin gains a better understanding. For instance, he writes about his father’s dislike of, and impatience with, white people. ‘‘It was clear,’’ Baldwin relates, ‘‘that he felt their very presence in his home to be a violation.’’ Baldwin then tells the story about when he was in elementary school and a white teacher took an interest in his writing abilities. She builds a relationship with Baldwin and his family, nurturing his talents and encouraging him to write. His father has trouble accepting this white woman in his home. He is suspicious of her. Baldwin, at that time, understood the power this teacher had. She could open up the world a little wider for him. He used her power to help him get out from under the oppressive nature of his father. At the time, he felt that his father was completely off-base in his fear of white people.
Throughout high school, Baldwin makes friends with white students. He is able to accept them in spite of his father’s warnings that they are not to be trusted. Much later, however, after Baldwin has spent years dismissing his father’s warnings about white people and how they will ‘‘do anything to keep a Negro down,’’ Baldwin leaves home. He had spent his earlier years in Harlem, where the population was mostly black. When he leaves home, he lands a job in a defense factory in New Jersey, where black people were, at that time, in a small minority. Not only are the people with whom he works white, they are southern whites, people who are used to demanding very specific behaviors from black people. Baldwin has already admitted that he has a stubborn pride, so he is not one to humble himself easily simply because of the color of his skin. ‘‘I acted in New Jersey as I had always acted, that is as though I thought a great deal of myself.’’
Slowly but surely, the racist attitude of this white population wears away Baldwin’s confidence. At first, he tries to ignore it, but in a fit of rage one night, he becomes so blinded with hate that he believes he could have killed someone. He never mentions that his father ever had such thoughts, but he does portray his father as someone who was ‘‘locked up in his terrors; hating and fearing every living soul.’’ It is through this experience in New Jersey that Baldwin begins to understand his father’s dislike of white people. It is as if, through their now mutual distrust of white people, Baldwin has discovered a common language. If his father was right about white people, maybe he was right about other things, too. This marks the beginning of Baldwin’s revelation.
It is during this time that Baldwin’s father is diagnosed as suffering from paranoia. Baldwin does not ever mention this mental illness on a personal basis; that is to say, he never implies that he ever feels paranoid, but he does describe some of his thoughts that could possibly be interpreted as paranoid. For instance, he writes that during that year when he lived in New Jersey, he felt as if he had ‘‘contracted some dread, chronic disease.’’ He then relates how he had been fired from his job several times, but through some undefined circumstances, he won his job back. Instead of seeing the positive implications in this, he describes the situation thus: ‘‘It began to seem that the machinery of the organization I worked for was turning over, day and night, with but one aim: to eject me.’’ He also mentions that when he walked down the streets, the people who passed him ‘‘whispered or shouted—they really believed that I was mad.’’ One further example of a possible paranoia that was brewing inside of him happens again when he is walking down the streets. He writes: ‘‘People were moving in every direction but it seemed to...
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