Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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Baldwin's Process of Revelation

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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...

(This entire section contains 2475 words.)

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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 me, in that instant, that all of the people I could see . . . were moving toward me, against me.’’

On the same night that Baldwin suffered the mental anguish of feeling that everyone was turning on him—a night of his most intense anger and mental disorientation—he has another revelation. At the height of his rage and disorientation—the same night that he threw a glass water pitcher at a white waitress who refused to serve him in a fancy restaurant—he realizes that his life is in danger. He had allowed his anger to blind him to the point that he could have killed someone. If he had committed that murder, he too would have been killed. This danger to his life, he realizes, did not exist outside of him. It was not ‘‘from anything other people might do,’’ he writes, ‘‘but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.’’ Shortly after this revelation, Baldwin is told that his father is dying and that his mother is about to give birth; and he decides to move back home.

Like the prodigal son, Baldwin returns. There is tension all around him. It is the tension of waiting, of anticipating. He feels it in the unwillingness of the baby to be born. Her birth is well overdue. He feels it in his father’s reluctance to die and wonders why he is hanging on to life. He also senses tension from people standing in the street in Harlem. Everything is poised for some inevitable action, just as Baldwin is poised for the final meeting with his father.

Before he goes to visit his father for the last time, Baldwin theorizes about what might be causing the anxiety that he senses in the people gathering on every corner in his neighborhood. In his description of that tension, he unwittingly draws attention to some of his own hidden emotions. For example, he mentions that almost everyone in his community was either related to or knew a young man who was a soldier. These people often gather together to share comments they have received in letters from the young ‘‘Negro boys in uniform,’’ who have complained of the ‘‘indignities and dangers’’ they suffered, not in the war but in the boot camps where they trained in the South. The parents and relatives of these soldiers actually feel relief, Baldwin believes, when their sons are able to leave the South and go oversees to the war. ‘‘It was, perhaps, like feeling that the most dangerous part of a dangerous journey had been passed,’’ Baldwin writes, and then he adds, ‘‘Such a death would be, in short, a fact with which one could hope to live.’’

Baldwin’s reference to a dangerous journey encapsulates, on a symbolic level, his own journey away from his father, one in which he is consumed by rage and paranoia. In addition, his mention of a death that one could hope to live with, might also symbolize, or foreshadow, his own spiritual death and rebirth that he will experience at his father’s funeral. It is interesting to note that in the beginning of the essay, Baldwin mentions his father’s death before he writes about his baby sister’s impending birth. The placement of death before birth connotes the concept of rebirth. In this way, Baldwin, right from the first few sentences, suggests the events that will occur in the final passages of his essay in which he will experience his own spiritual rebirth.

Baldwin completes another segment of his journey as he travels with his aunt to Long Island to visit Baldwin’s father for the last time. When he sees his father, Baldwin realizes that the reasons he had used to stay away from his father had merely been excuses. Once again, Baldwin is hit with another revelation. He thought he had stayed away from his father because he hated him, but he realizes that, in fact, the reason he had stayed away was that he wanted to hate him. He did not want to feel anything else but hate for him. He had learned to live with the hate. If it had not healed his wounds, it had helped him to forget about them. Seeing his father in the hospital, a withered old man breathing his last breaths, Baldwin was unable to hate him. ‘‘I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.’’ At this moment, Baldwin begins to open up to his father. He is letting down his shields. He is looking at his father as a fellow human being, not as the tyrant who ruled his youth.

Later, after his father dies, Baldwin writes that he cannot find anything black to wear to his father’s funeral. This could be a symbolic statement that he is not yet ready to mourn for his father. Not only is he unable to find the proper clothes, but neither can he face his father’s death completely sober, so he borrows a black shirt and gets drunk before walking into the chapel. At this point, when he first arrives at the funeral, he is both there and not there. He is physically attending, but his emotions are numbed by the alcohol. At the funeral, he listens to the minister eulogize his father. At first, Baldwin does not recognize the man that the minister is describing. The minister is using words such as ‘‘thoughtful, patient, and forbearing.’’ This is not the man that Baldwin knew as his father. Yet, Baldwin suddenly suspects that maybe the man he ‘‘had not known may have been the real one.’’

As these suspicions work their way through his mind, Baldwin hears someone singing one of his father’s favorites songs, and childhood memories rush in on him. In a flash of recognition, Baldwin now remembers how proud his father used to be of him. He recollects his father beaming at him when he used to sing: ‘‘I had forgotten what he had looked like when he was pleased but now I remembered.’’ From this memory, he jumps to another, seeing through his mind’s eye how his father used to tease his mother. Baldwin then questions his own reflections: ‘‘Had he loved her?’’ One question leads to another, and soon Baldwin is unsure of all his early impressions of his father. He now remembers a more loving father, one who took his hand, one who wiped away his tears.

At this point in the essay, Baldwin leaves the funeral and writes about the Harlem riots. All the glass windows in the storefronts are broken. Merchandise is lying all over the street. ‘‘I truly had not realized that Harlem had so many stores until I saw them all smashed open,’’ he writes. Similarly, one might reflect that Baldwin had not realized all his father’s emotions, nor all of his own, until his father’s death pulled them out of him. Baldwin then writes about a metaphor concerning people’s reactions to life’s challenges. ‘‘One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene,’’ he writes. If a person chooses amputation, the reaction is swift, but later he or she may discover that amputation was not necessary. Could he be referring here to his having closed himself off from his father?

Baldwin closes his essay, by returning to one of his earlier revelations, the one in which he told himself that he must ‘‘hold onto the things that mattered.’’ Then he confesses, mostly to himself, that ‘‘the dead man mattered.’’ He also realizes that bitterness and hatred only destroy the person who holds on to them. He now understands that he must learn to accept, but not complacently, for he must also, simultaneously, find some way to fight injustice. These revelations come to him from his father’s death, which opened his eyes and ears and cleared his memories. All the sermons his father had delivered, all the songs that his father had sung in church, whose meaning Baldwin had previously ignored, were now, in Baldwin’s words, ‘‘arranged before me . . . like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me.’’

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Notes of a Native Son, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

The Theme of Societal Constraint

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James Baldwin’s collection of essays, titled Notes of a Native Son, examines the African-American man’s experience in terms that are brutally honest. Whether Baldwin is dealing with his experience as an African-American man in America or Europe, the reader is given a first hand view of the ingrained, societal obstacles that a minority faces. Baldwin examines these barriers in the context of African- American literature, experiences in Harlem and in the South, family death, and finally, his experiences as an African-American man outside of America. The common theme that unites these different slants is a pronounced fatalism—an African-American person can never escape the constraints and the expectations that society puts upon him.

Beginning with his ‘‘Autobiographical Notes,’’ which serve as an introduction, Baldwin makes it clear that society is something to be struggled with. As a writer, he claims that ‘‘Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it.’’ But Baldwin goes further, stating that the African-American writer faces an additional obstacle—the fact that ‘‘the Negro problem . . . is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly.’’ He also admits that he is a good target for the fatalism that is such a central theme of this book: ‘‘I hated and feared the world . . . I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me.’’

But the barriers that Baldwin describes in Notes of a Native Son go beyond those that are selfinduced. In ‘‘Everybody’s Protest Novel,’’ the author questions whether a novel that attempts to raise awareness of a societal problem (such as the ‘‘Negro problem’’ ) actually misses its mark. According to Baldwin, these novels run the risk of being read for the ‘‘very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. . . . As long as such books are being published, an American liberal once said to me, everything will be all right.’’ For Baldwin, this represents another inescapable societal barrier—the rest of the populace’s inability or unwillingness to face the state of race relations in America.

According to Baldwin, American society’s reactions to certain African-American art forms demonstrate the same unwillingness to accept the true nature of race relations. African Americans have finally been able to tell their story through their music, according to Baldwin. However, ‘‘a protective sentimentality limits their (Whites, other Americans) understanding of it. . . . No American is prepared to hear.’’ In a way, society has ‘‘dehumanized’’ the African-American person by refusing to accept the deeper and darker overtones of race interaction in America. But Baldwin warns that as society dehumanizes the African-American person, it also dehumanizes itself. Critic David Leeming, in Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, describes Baldwin’s journey as ‘‘a lonely search for identity in a world blinded by its own myths.’’ Baldwin gives us plenty of examples of the world’s blindness.

‘‘We cannot escape our origins, no matter how hard we try,’’ says Baldwin. The author sees this as an inherent problem in being an American, let alone an African American. Americans ‘‘reject all other ties, any other history, and . . . adopt the vesture of [their] adopted land.’’ Yet the African-American person is unable to divest of his pre-American history, since ‘‘his shameful history was carried, quite literally, on his brow.’’

But if African Americans cannot escape the pre-conclusions and expectations that society lays upon them, neither can the rest of society, according to Baldwin. If the rest of society would choose to deny or soften racial tensions, Baldwin claims that it is not possible.

The ‘nigger,’ black, benighted, brutal, consumed with hatred as we are consumed with guilt, cannot be blotted out . . . let us refrain from inquiring at the moment whether or not he actually exists; for we believe he exists. Whenever we encounter him amongst us in the flesh, our faith is made perfect and his necessary and bloody end is executed with a mystical ferocity of joy.

Baldwin uses the African-American novel Native Son (by Richard Wright) as a telling example of ingrained societal constraints: ‘‘Native Son finds itself at length so trapped by the American image of Negro life and by the American necessity to find the ray of hope that it cannot pursue its own implications.’’

Even the African-American press is not immune to the constraints of society, according to Baldwin.

It is the terrible dilemma of the Negro press that, having no other model, it models itself on the white press, attempting to emulate the same effortless, sophisticated tone—a tone that its subject matter renders utterly unconvincing.’’

Thus, Ebony runs an editorial admonishing African Americans to be more patriotic and stop bemoaning their lot in life. Only in the letters-tothe- editor section can ‘‘life among the rejected be seen in print.’’ The African-American press suffers, in Baldwin’s words, by ‘‘straining for recognition and a foothold in the white man’s world.’’ But Americans, to the author, wish to make ‘‘everyone . . . as much alike as possible.’’ If the African- American press were truly representative of African Americans, according to Baldwin, the publications would include more violence, since ‘‘Negros live violent lives.’’ As it stands, repressed African- American frustration and violence simmer to an emotional surface in African-American churches, since societal constraints block more direct avenues of expression.

It may be no accident that the essay ‘‘Notes of a Native Son’’ separates the previous essays about African-American life in America from the following essays, which detail Baldwin’s experience as an African American abroad. Baldwin seems to change course in this essay, slowing down to examine his life from a more personal view that incorporates the death of his father. But the author still cannot escape the constraints of his life, even as he comes to realize—in this essay—that some are self-imposed. Says Baldwin, after telling of an incident of discrimination in a restaurant:

I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.

When Baldwin lives overseas in France, he comes to realize that societal expectations have followed him across the ocean. These differ from those of American society; but their presence rises up at inopportune moments. Leeming points out that Baldwin ‘‘use[s] incidents from [his] expatriate life in Europe as metaphors for the overall dilemma facing African Americans and other oppressed people.’’ When Baldwin is arrested for possessing a sheet that has been stolen from a hotel (by an American acquaintance), he is frightened by the condition of the French prisons. He also realizes that the context of dealing with Caucasians is different in this country, and he feels helpless.

I had become very accomplished in New York [at] guessing and, therefore, to a limited extent manipulating to my advantage the reactions of the white world. But this was not New York. None of my old weapons could serve me here. I did not know what they saw when they looked at me.

In the last essay, titled ‘‘Stranger in the Village,’’ Baldwin describes his residence in a remote Swiss village. Here, the people have never seen a person with Baldwin’s skin color, and the children innocently cry ‘‘Neger! Neger!’’ whenever they see him. Though he knows the children are fascinated and well-intentioned, the cry can’t help but raise dark, bitter memories in his mind. Claims Baldwin, ‘‘[history] may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.’’ It is perhaps the best explanation for the thread of fatalism that runs throughout this book.

Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on Notes of a Native Son, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Dybiec Holm is a published writer and editor with a master’s degree in Natural Resources.

Baldwin's Thoughts About African-American Identity

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The essays that comprise Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son were initially published in numerous magazines over a period of seven years. Despite the different places and periods in which Baldwin wrote these ten essays, they are remarkably of a piece, in fact, so much so that when African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., first read the collection as a teenager in 1965, he recalls that ‘‘It was the first time I had heard a voice capturing the terrible exhilaration and anxiety of being a person of African descent in this country.’’ From its publication to the present day, Notes of a Native Son has stood as a definitive text on African American identity. F. W. Dupee wrote in 1963, ‘‘As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question James Baldwin has no equals.’’ Many contemporary critics and readers would agree with this statement.

In Part I of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin turns his attention to the common media to examine the portrayal and perception of African Americans. He uses the method of analyzing social issues through popular media effectively. As F. W. Dupee wrote in the New York Review of Books on Baldwin’s reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, such an effort ‘‘illuminates[ s] not only a book, an author, an age, but a whole strain in a country’s culture.’’ In all three essays, Baldwin draws upon specific examples from literature and cinema to demonstrate white America’s fear of the black man and to prove his assertion that in this society, ‘‘black equates with evil and white with grace.’’

He begins his investigation with ‘‘Everybody’s Protest Novel,’’ a discussion of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work that vastly encouraged the abolitionist movement but which Baldwin dubs a ‘‘very bad novel’’ and one representative of the work of an ‘‘impassioned pamphleteer.’’ The black-white dichotomy explored in this novel continued to pervade the American psyche for the next hundred years. By 1940, when Richard Wright published Native Son, which Baldwin calls ‘‘the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America,’’ the black man is still constrained by the image that the white man holds of him as less than human, as a being primarily motivated by anger and little other emotion. By contrast, the all-black movie Carmen Jones, produced in 1955, presented a sanitized version of a black community and its problems. These characters, Baldwin contends, demonstrate a ‘‘total divorce from anything suggestive of Negro life.’’

For Baldwin, such unrealistic portrayals of black America leads to an acceptance of these restrictive roles, and thus a negation of a person’s essential humanity. Uncle Tom, the only truly black character in the novel that bears his name, must undergo ‘‘humility, the incessant mortification of the flesh’’ in order to eventually ‘‘enter into communion with God or man.’’ This despite the fact that this God and this morality has been imposed on the ‘‘African exile’’ and celebrates a deity ‘‘who had made him, but not in His image.’’ The opposite of Uncle Tom is Wright’s Bigger Thomas, a man whose self-perception is intrinsically linked to how whites view him, for the ‘‘American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart.’’ Bigger fulfills the white man’s prophecy of himself as subhuman when he allows rage to become his primary motivating factor. ‘‘[H]is fear drives him to murder and his hatred to rape,’’ writes Baldwin, ‘‘he dies, having come through this violence, we are told, for the first time, to a kind of life, having for the first time redeemed his manhood.’’ According to Baldwin, such a narrow characterization is the book’s ‘‘overwhelming limitation,’’ and one that will negatively influence whites’ perceptions of blacks: ‘‘Recording his [Wright’s] days of anger he has also nevertheless recorded, as no Negro before him had ever done, that fantasy Americans hold in their minds when they speak of the Negro.’’ Thus, in the case of Wright, both white America and black America that feeds this image.

In Part II of the essay collection, Baldwin examines the role of African Americans with regard to typical segments of society such as institutions and groups. In so doing, Baldwin is able to demonstrate, through specific incidents and events, the extent to which African Americans exist according to the perception and whimsy of whites. Because whites create the prevailing social milieu and morality that govern the United States, African Americans must structure their own lives within the con- fines of others, thus rendering themselves isolated.

In ‘‘The Harlem Ghetto,’’ Baldwin discusses the relationship between African Americans and Jews. Though both are historically oppressed groups, they are unable to form a common bond against white Protestant America because they see the other in relation to the majority population. ‘‘When the Negro hates the Jews as a Jew he does so partly because the nation does and in much the same painful fashion that he hates himself,’’ Baldwin writes. Similarly, the Jew has taken on a ‘‘frenzied adoption of the customs of the country,’’ that is, the nation’s poor treatment of African Americans. White America ‘‘has divided these minorities,’’ thus ensuring a continuing rule of the country. In ‘‘Journey to Atlanta,’’ Baldwin investigates another relationship that should be beneficial to African Americans but is not: that between African Americans and the Progressive Party. Despite its claims of fellowship with the black man, members of the Progressive Party, as seen through their actions, do not have fidelity to equality and betterment for all. Baldwin chronicles the experiences of a Harlem singing quartet, the Melodeers, who travel south to sing on tour with the Progressive Party. However, their presence in the South is circumscribed by a wealthy white woman, the region’s party director. After they incur her rage, by the simple act of refusing to continue singing at her party, they find themselves to be cut off without funds, far away from home.

Part II closes with the essay ‘‘Notes of a Native Son,’’ which is widely viewed as a masterpiece. Michael Anderson wrote in the New York Times Book Review that this piece ‘‘remains profoundly moving in its emotionally charged conflation of the funeral of Baldwin’s stepfather, the young Baldwin’s harsh introduction to bigotry and a race riot in Harlem.’’ In ‘‘Notes of a Native Son,’’ Baldwin explores white-black racial relations from a more personal point of view—through his own relationship with his father, an embittered, isolated black man. When Baldwin leaves his native Harlem and moves to New Jersey to work in the wartime defense plants, he experiences the damaging forms of racism that shaped his father. After being refused service at a restaurant, Baldwin throws a pitcher of water at the waitress, then flees the white mob and the police. He sees for perhaps the first time ‘‘that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred in my own heart.’’ This rage is further fueled upon his return to Harlem for his father’s funeral, which takes place on the day that racially provoked riots erupt. Wendy Brandmark wrote in the New Internationalist:

Within the limits of one essay Baldwin shows us how the events of his life form part of a larger pattern: as he drives the hearse bearing his father’s coffin through the rubble of ‘those unquiet, ruined streets’ he realizes how ‘powerful and overflowing’ his father’s bitterness of spirit could be.

In Part III, Baldwin turns his essayist’s pen to more universal issues of identity, oppression, and justice. These three essays are written from the point of view of the expatriate, after Baldwin relocated to France. In Paris, Baldwin is able to observe the relations that black Americans have with others— white Americans, Africans, and Europeans—without the pervasive backdrop of a racially charged society. His newfound ability to funnel his experiences through a lens not focused solely on race as a motivating factor allows him to widen his viewpoint and ponder greater issues of the American experience overall, not just the African American experience.

According to Baldwin, African Americans in France develop relationships with other people that are unique from those they develop in the United States. With regard to black and white Americans, when the two groups meet in France, they talk about anything but the racial matters that typically define their relationship. However, while African Americans in Europe are thus able to transcend racial status—perhaps for the first time—to white Europeans, they will always be black Americans, never simply Americans. The meeting between black Africans and African American is equally constrained, for Africans are still colonials while African Americans are, ostensibly, at liberty. At the same time, however, the two groups are markedly different; Africans have not been forced, through centuries of enforced migration and slavery, to become estranged from their own culture and history, while African Americans have more concrete ties to the United States than to Africa. Thus, it is in the relationship to America, from which African Americans are nevertheless excluded, that the African ‘‘American experience’’—‘‘ depthless alienation from oneself and one’s people’’—is found.

Baldwin also turns his attention to issues and incidents not characterized by race. In his essay ‘‘Equal in Paris,’’ which describes the slow, yet brutal turning of the French wheels of justice, Baldwin puts forth ideas about the universality of oppression. At times, this ‘‘standard’’ is applied equally to people of any color or nationality. Baldwin’s musings on American students living in Paris lead to his conclusion that the American identity is intrinsically and irrevocably linked with Europe. The final essay of the collection, ‘‘Stranger in the Village,’’ describes Americans’ longing for the socalled innocence of their European past, most de- finitively characterized as a return to ‘‘a state in which black men do not exist.’’

Baldwin’s individual essays uphold the most important conclusion of Notes of a Native Son: African Americans do live, and their presence as free people on American soil has led to the separation of black and white in as many ways as possible, a social structure that continues to define America. To expect this division to exist, however, is not only disingenuous, but it also leads adherents of the policy of separation to overlook what Baldwin calls the ‘‘interracial drama acted out on the American continent [that] has not only created a new black man, [but] . . . a new white man, too.’’ This fact is so crucial that until it is commonly accepted, no one— white or black—will be able to face the world clearly and honestly.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Notes of a Native Son, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Critical Overview