Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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Notes of a Native Son is a collection of ten essays that James Baldwin published in magazines such as Commentary, Harper’s, and The Partisan Review between 1948 and 1955. It also includes “Autobiographical Notes,” written for this volume. Taken together, the essays reveal self-knowledge, cultural understanding, and articulateness that are astonishing when one considers that Baldwin wrote these essays without the benefit of a formal college education and before he was thirty years old. Baldwin makes clear in “Autobiographical Notes” that he was driven to be a writer, to use his imagination on his own experience, and thereby to create order out of chaos by facing his past and America’s past fearlessly and honestly. To make himself into a writer, he had to become articulate, to understand and come to terms with his culture, and to know himself. The essays of Notes of a Native Son present the outlines of his quests and show what he had learned by 1955.

The book is divided into three sections. The three essays of the first section are cultural commentaries on representations of the African American in the arts. They show Baldwin’s mature assessment of the complexity of his position as an African American intellectual. The three essays of the second part examine aspects of African American life during and shortly after World War II. These essays show Baldwin’s origins, the home and the culture that he had to understand in order to become himself. The four essays of the third part discuss Baldwin’s experiences living in Europe. These pieces reveal the crucial process by which Baldwin gained—through expatriation—the distance from his cultural history that allowed him to know and accept the identity from which he speaks in all the essays.

Although the outlines of Baldwin’s quest to become a writer are apparent in this collection, and although certain concerns—such as identity and culture—pervade the essays, the topics are various. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” the opening piece, Baldwin notes that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) seem both to accept the American theology of white supremacy. This essay alienated Wright, who had befriended the younger man. The much more detailed discussion of Native Son in “Many Thousands Gone,” the second piece, widened this rift rather than healing it. Baldwin did not change his thesis about Native Son, even though he was careful to discuss the importance of Wright’s novel to African American writers. Critic Horace Porter believes that this essay, somewhat oddly written in the voice of a white liberal, was in part Baldwin’s attempt to declare artistic independence from Wright, his literary father. Baldwin’s title essay suggests that he is offering himself as a substitute for Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, as the native son of the next generation of African American writers. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” Baldwin reviews Carmen Jones (1954), an Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Preminger film updating Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen (1875), with a black cast and dubbed voices. Although the film was a popular success, Baldwin saw clear evidence of the pretense of acknowledging African Americans while remaining utterly ignorant about the reality of African American life and consciousness.

“The Harlem Ghetto,” the first piece of the second set, offers a portrait of urban African American life and consciousness after World War II. The Harlem described is little different from the Depression era Harlem in which Baldwin grew up; therefore, the piece tells both about current conditions and about his background, with special attention to politics, media, religion, and especially...

(This entire section contains 925 words.)

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anti-Semitism in Harlem. “Journey to Atlanta” discusses African American attitudes toward politics, using the story of his brother’s exploitation by the Progressive Party during the 1948 election campaign. In the autobiographical “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin tells mainly about his relationship with his stepfather, though he never in this piece explains that David Baldwin was his stepfather, that his own birth was illegitimate, and that he never knew his biological father’s identity. Knowing this information, however, only increases the essay’s power. In telling of David Baldwin’s funeral on James Baldwin’s nineteenth birthday, James acknowledges his deep ambivalence toward the man who seemed to show him so little love.

The four essays on Baldwin’s early years in Europe return repeatedly to the theme of identity. “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” discusses the associations of African Americans with one another and with African colonials in the postwar climate of Paris. “A Question of Identity” examines American students in Paris after the war and how they deal with the pressure that being in a foreign culture exerts on them to examine their own personal and cultural identities. “Equal in Paris” tells the story of Baldwin’s mistaken arrest for the theft of a bedsheet, an incident that taught him that the protective laughter of whites that he so hated in the United States was, in fact, a universal phenomenon. Realization that his race was not uniquely the victim of such laughter began a phase of his liberating understanding of his native culture. “Stranger in the Village” relates Baldwin’s experience of being the first black person ever seen in the remote Swiss village to which he retired to finish Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). This visit gave him insight into how the American experience has changed African American and white identities since the first slaves were brought to America.

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Notes of a Native Son established James Baldwin as one of the most important black essayists in the United States. Yet, as he explained in the introduction added to the 1984 edition, Baldwin had not originally intended to produce a book of essays. His need to understand himself and his place in American culture led him to write a series of magazine articles grappling with the special problems facing black Americans. The success of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and of his first play, The Amen Corner (1954), had aroused interest in his work, but Baldwin found publishers reluctant to accept his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), because of its frank treatment of homosexuality. In order to earn enough money to go on writing fiction, Baldwin agreed to gather together nine of his previously published articles and write the title essay as well as a brief preface.

Although it originated as a series of separate magazine pieces, Notes of a Native Son is unified by recurring themes and by the arrangement of the essays. The book is divided into three parts and a preface, “Autobiographical Notes,” which introduces Baldwin’s determination to be “an honest man and a good writer.” The preface’s brief account of his childhood and emerging literary aspirations not only provides background for the essays that follow but also establishes the book’s dominant underlying theme: a black artist’s search for his identity. Baldwin explicitly recognizes that “the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality.” He goes on to argue that the black writer must find a way to overcome hatred and fear in order to provide an honest assessment of both his own personal experience and his complex, often painful relationship to American society and Western culture.

The three essays in part 1 attack the inadequate or dishonest treatment of the black experience in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and the film Carmen Jones (1955). Baldwin’s central point is that the traditions in which the black artist is expected to work provide false, sentimental, and dehumanizing portraits of black life. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” begins with an analysis of Stowe’s famous antislavery novel, condemning the bad writing and sentimental self-righteousness, which, according to Baldwin, masks the author’s underlying racism, the author’s “secret and violent inhumanity.” The essay goes on to assail the oversimplification of life inherent in novels of social protest, even those by black writers, such as Wright’s Native Son.

Wright’s novel receives more detailed and more critical attention in the second essay, “Many Thousands Gone.” Baldwin insists that the United States has been afraid to face racial issues honestly and has therefore sought escape in the reductive nature of sociological analysis. This attempt to treat the black man as a social cipher instead of a complex human being is illustrated by Wright’s portrayal of Bigger Thomas as a subhuman brute in Native Son. The novel’s sensationalism and stereotyping express the nation’s guilt and fear but prevent a deeper confrontation with the real problems. The desire to evade the realities of black life is also the dominant theme of “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” a brief critique of a film remake of the opera Carmen that used an all-black cast.

The second part of Notes of a Native Son consists of three essays exploring the grim realities of the black experience. In “The Harlem Ghetto,” Baldwin touches on a wide range of subjects—including black leaders, the press, religion, and the relationship between Jews and blacks—but his underlying concern is with the sense of bitter desperation that he finds in almost every phase of black life. “Journey to Atlanta” explains how black Americans have been trained to distrust politicians and to despair of political change. “Notes of a Native Son,” the longest essay in the book and the only one written specifically for it, marks a shift from detached analysis to the moving presentation of personal experience. By describing his reaction to his father’s death and funeral, Baldwin comes to terms with his own heritage and provides his most powerful account of the corrosive effects of racism.

The third section contains four essays based on Baldwin’s experiences in Paris and Switzerland. Although the ostensible subject is the black American in Europe, Baldwin’s central concern in this section is with American culture, especially the complex racial heritage that distinguishes Americans from Europeans. In these essays, Europe forces the sensitive black traveler to confront his alienation from his past, his people, and himself.

The two final essays in this section rely more vividly on Baldwin’s personal experience. “Equal in Paris” describes the eight days he spent in a French jail as the result of a misunderstanding involving a bed sheet a friend had taken from a hotel. Ironically, for the first time in his life, Baldwin found that he was free of racial prejudice, that he was being judged solely as an American and not as a black man. “Stranger in the Village” offers the clearest exposition of the lessons Baldwin learned from his travels in Europe. Staying in an isolated Swiss village whose inhabitants had never before seen a black man, Baldwin realized that he was irretrievably cut off from European culture and that he needed to accept and affirm his identity as a black American.

Historical Context

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Baldwin wrote and published most of the essays in this collection during the late 1940s and early 1950s, decades during which the Civil Rights Movement was slowly gaining strength. The Communist Party, which had given many African Americans hope for gaining civil rights, was waning, mostly due to the political power and censorship of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un- American Activities. To be a member of the Communist Party meant to be under the constant scrutiny of the FBI, something that the generation of writers before Baldwin had learned about the hard way.

In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Smith v. Allwright, that it was unconstitutional to have an all-white Democratic primary. With this ruling, the NAACP began its massive voter registration drive in the South, with members rounding up eligible voters, educating them on the issues, and making sure that they had completed all the necessary forms to vote in the next elections. Three years later, W. E. B. Du Bois sought unsuccessfully to enlist the United Nations in an international investigation of racial discrimination in the United States.

Harry Truman, faced with a close presidential race in 1948, in part due to the popularity among African Americans of the Progressive Party’s candidate Henry A. Wallace, went after the black vote with a civil rights platform that he set forth at the Democratic National Convention. Angered by this move, southern Democrats left the convention and started their own party, the States Rights Party. Upon being elected, Truman desegregated the armed forces.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was still in graduate school at Boston University in 1950. In the next few years, however, he would become a leader in the push for civil rights and would eventually be deemed the most dangerous man in America by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

In the early 1950s two murders brought the full impact of racism to the nation’s attention. First there was the assassination of Harry T. Moore, a leading NAACP organizer in Florida, and then the murder of Emmett Till, killed for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, and pictures of his badly beaten face were shown in many newspapers. Despite the attention to the need for civil rights, victories for the movement were still not forthcoming. In 1956, Alabama passed a state law that banned any faction of the NAACP from operating in that state, and South Carolina banned any member of the NAACP from holding a state job.

The literary scene of the 1940s witnessed great change, beginning with Richard Wright’s move away from the somewhat romanticized literature of the Harlem Renaissance Movement, with his angryvoiced Native Son (1940). Then, Ralph Ellison, in disagreement with Wright’s rather stiff, social protest writing, produced a more poetic Invisible Man in 1952. Shortly thereafter, Baldwin wrote his semiautobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a coming of age story about a young man’s dissolution with the broken promises of the American democratic process.

Other works written by African Americans at this time included the 1946 novel The Street by Ann Petry; A Street in Bronzeville (1953), a collection of poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks; and the 1959 play by Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, which went on to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

By the 1930s, over 300,000 African Americans lived in New York City, with two-thirds of them living in Harlem. In the 1940s, rents soared in Harlem even as the apartments began to crumble. Overcrowding and underemployment raised tension, and in 1943, when soldier Robert Bandy interrupted two white policemen as they attempted to arrest an African-American woman, Bandy was shot. Rumors spread that Bandy was dead, shot in the back in front of his mother. It did not take long for angry protestors to appear in the streets, and soon storefront windows were broken and merchandise looted. By morning, six people had died and an estimated two hundred people had been injured. Among the injured was Bandy, who had been shot in the arm.

There were also many positive outcomes in Harlem as witnessed by the talent that developed in that part of New York City. Many famous AfricanN American artists started out in Harlem. There were music greats such as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis. In the literary field, there were figures such as Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, and, later, Maya Angelou.

Literary Style

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Baldwin uses a variety of narrators in his essays. Sometimes he prefers to use the first person singular, such as in ‘‘Autobiographical Notes’’ and ‘‘Notes of a Native Son,’’ the use of which fits the personal topics of these essays. Baldwin changes to a first person plural narrator in ‘‘Many Thousands Gone,’’ using the pronoun we in a somewhat unusual manner. For instance, he writes: ‘‘Today, to be sure, we know that the Negro is not biologically or mentally inferior.’’ In this way, Baldwin removes his personal investment in the ‘‘Negro’’ referred to and either joins himself to those who are not ‘‘Negro’’ or in some abstract way bridges the gap between black and white populations, encouraging a psychological blending of the races.

In some of the other essays in this collection, Baldwin takes on a more journalistic third-person tone, such as in ‘‘Carmen Jones’’ and ‘‘Encounter on the Seine,’’ although the first person narrator does, on occasion, slip in.

Baldwin traveled back and forth between Europe and the States, and these settings are reflected in his essays. He was born in Harlem, and he uses that setting, as well as a broader scope of New York City, in several of his essays. Some essays are devoid of setting, however, such as ‘‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’’ and ‘‘Many Thousands Gone.’’ The essays that have no visible setting tend to read more like a lecture, whereas those with specific settings read more like short stories. ‘‘Journey to Atlanta’’ of course takes place in Atlanta, Georgia, and the section referred to as ‘‘Part Three’’ contains essays written about Paris and a small village in Switzerland.

Baldwin’s fiction-writing skills are displayed in his ability to create almost cinematic imagery in some of his essays. The most cinematic is ‘‘Notes of a Native Son,’’ which is also the most personal essay in the collection.

Two of the more dramatic scenes that Baldwin paints are the scene of his father dying in a hospital room and the water-pitcher-throwing episode, both of them appearing in ‘‘Notes of a Native Son.’’ Another essay that contains vivid scenes is ‘‘Equal in Paris,’’ especially the jail sequences. An example of the type of scene that Baldwin creates for his readers in this collection is taken from his ‘‘Stranger in the Village’’:

If I sat in the sun for more than five minutes some daring creature was certain to come along and gingerly put his fingers on my hair, as though he were afraid of an electric shock, or put his hand on my hand, astonished that the color did not rub off.

Compare and Contrast

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1900s: Several newspapers with a focus on African- American issues are in circulation. Two of these publications are Samuel E. Cornish’s Freedom’s Journal and Frederick Douglass’s North Star, which are established as venues in which to discuss slavery.

1950s: By this time, almost every major city in the United States has its own newspaper with a focus on African-American news. Two of the oldest are the Philadelphia Tribune and the Chicago Defender.

Today: As newsrooms at formerly all-white newspapers are integrated, many of the most talented African-American journalists join major newspapers, thus leaving the traditional allblack newspapers drained of talent. Many of the African-American newspapers disappear. However, magazines published with an African-American audience in mind flourish.

1900s: Migration of large numbers of people from the South fill Harlem with a huge population of a full range of low-, middle-, and upperclass African-American families. The atmosphere in Harlem nurtures pioneering intellectual thought, and the arts prosper.

1950s: After World War II, the economic status of Harlem begins to plummet as middle-class residents begin a new migration to other integrated sections of New York City. Harlem, although it remains a haven for black artists, suffers from an infant mortality rate that is double that of the rest of the city.

Today: Harlem experiences a slow economic renaissance as rental rates in the rest of the city soar and the white population moves into the area and begins to renovate the old buildings. The presence of former President Bill Clinton’s office in Harlem stimulates the increased interest.

1900s: In the films of the early 1900s, many of the roles of African Americans are played by white people in blackface. The few parts that African Americans do fill are written to reflect simplemindedness, providing the movie with comic relief.

1950s to 1970s: Around the middle of the century, there are more roles for African Americans. Sidney Poitier receives the Academy Award for best actor (Lilies of the Field, 1963). African- American producers such as Gordon Parks (Shaft, 1971) and Ossie Davis (Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1970) enjoy financial success.

Today: Spike Lee, an African American who writes, directs, and acts in his movies, gains a wide audience appeal despite the themes of his movies, which often reflect the harsh realities of racial prejudice that still exist in the United States. His films include Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), and Bamboozled (2000).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Campbell, James, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, Viking, 1991.

Dupee, F. W., ‘‘James Baldwin and the ‘Man,’’’ Review of The Fire Next Time, in New York Review of Books, February 1, 1963.

Ford, Nick Aaron, ‘‘The Evolution of James Baldwin as Essayist,’’ in James Baldwin, A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O’Daniel, Howard University Press, 1977, pp. 85–98.

Hughes, Langston, Review of Notes of a Native Son, in the New York Times, February 26, 1958.

Jarrett, Hobart, ‘‘From a Region in My Mind: The Essays of James Baldwin,’’ in James Baldwin, A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O’Daniel, Howard University Press, 1977, pp. 120–25.

Kinnamon, Keneth, James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.

Leeming, David, James Baldwin: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

———, ‘‘Notes of a Native Son,’’ in Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Edition 1, Vol. 1, HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, p. 783.

Further Reading
Fabre, Michel, From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840–1980, University of Illinois Press, 1993. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were not the only expatriate American writers who lived in France. Many African-American intellectuals, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois also sought out the freedom of Paris in order to write. This book chronicles the history of the African-American writer in France, including authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

Polsgrove, Carol, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement, W. W. Norton and Company, 2001. Polsgrove had gathered interviews and archival materials to research this book that demonstrates the lack of support by many white intellectuals during the drive for civil rights. She does praise a few brave African-American authors, however, most specifi- cally James Baldwin.

Standley, Fred L., and Louis H. Pratt, Conversations with James Baldwin, University Press of Mississippi, 1989. This collection of interviews, from 1963 up to the last interview that Baldwin gave in 1988, gives the reader an insider’s view of Baldwin thoughts. Baldwin discusses such topics as apartheid, religion, the Civil Rights Movement, sexuality, and the process of writing.

Weatherby, William J., James Baldwin: An Artist on Fire: A Portrait, Donald I. Find, 1989. This biography was written by a friend of Baldwin’s and offers readers a better understanding of Baldwin’s literary works and the circumstances of his life. Weatherby also offers literary criticism of some of Baldwin’s works.

Willis-Thomas, Deborah, and Jane Lusaka, eds., Visual Journey: Harlem and D.C. in the Thirties and Forties, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. This book captures the work of five African-American photographers who documented segregated black communities in Washington, D.C., rural Virginia, and New York City in the 1930s and 1940s. The over one hundred photographs give the reader a visual understanding of the living conditions during those times.


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Baldwin, James and Sol Stein. Native Sons: A Friendshipo that Created One of the Greatest Works of the Twentieth Century. New York: One World, 2004. A collection of letters and other documentation exchanged between Baldwin and Stein concerning the creation of Notes of a Native Son.

Bigsby, C. W. E. “The Divided Mind of James Baldwin.” In James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Therman B. O’Daniel. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977. A lucid discussion of the major themes of some of the essays in Notes of a Native Son, including the centrality of love and suffering, and Baldwin’s resistance to the protest novel.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991. This full biography, by a man who knew Baldwin personally, is especially interesting because it draws on the Federal Bureau of Investigation files kept on Baldwin. Campbell deals frankly with Baldwin’s bisexuality. Included are sixteen pages of photographs.

Collier, Eugenia W. “Thematic Patterns in Baldwin’s Essays.” In James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Therman B. O’Daniel. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977. A perceptive discussion of Baldwin’s concerns with freedom in American life, with problems in relationships, and with the growth of identity.

Hughes, Langston. “From Harlem to Paris.” In James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Views. Edited by Kenneth Kinnamon. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. A short and pungent review of Notes of a Native Son by one of the most important African American writers. Interesting for Hughes’s resistance to some of Baldwin’s stinging commentary on racism.

Jarrett, Hobart. “From a Region in My Mind: The Essays of James Baldwin.” In James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Therman B. O’Daniel. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977. An insightful thematic discussion of Notes of a Native Son in the context of Baldwin’s later essays. Creative analysis of Baldwin’s rhetoric in “Stranger in the Village.”

Kinnamon, Kenneth, ed. James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. In this selection of twelve essays and Kinnamon’s introduction are discussions of several of Baldwin’s major works. Langston Hughes’s review of Notes of a Native Son praises and criticizes the book. F. W. Dupee’s essay looks at Baldwin’s development from Notes of a Native Son through The Fire Next Time. Also included is Eldridge Cleaver’s discussion of Baldwin’s essays from Soul on Ice (1968).

O’Daniel, Therman B. James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977. This volume contains essays on Baldwin as novelist, as essayist, as short-story writer, as playwright, and as scenarist, as well as a section on his raps and dialogues and a bibliography. The secondary bibliography is extensive. There are four pieces on Baldwin’s essays.

Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Porter gives considerable attention to Baldwin’s essays in order to study the development of his ideas about relating art and social protest. He devotes one chapter to Baldwin’s relationship with Richard Wright.

Pratt, Louis H. James Baldwin. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A useful introduction to Baldwin’s life and works. Chapters 1, 5, and 6 deal in various ways with Baldwin’s essays, including an examination of their artistry. Contains a chronology and an annotated bibliography. Pratt believes that the essays are Baldwin’s major contribution to American letters.

Standley, Fred L. “James Baldwin.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1987. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. This obituary article provides an excellent introduction to Baldwin’s career and writings, laying out concisely his major ideas and achievements and summarizing contemporary opinion about Baldwin’s contributions to American literature.

Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. This volume is divided into sections including ones on fiction, nonfiction, and drama. The introduction surveys Baldwin’s literary reputation, and the collection opens with a 1979 interview with Baldwin. There are ten essays in the nonfiction section, including pieces by Langston Hughes, Stephen Spender, and Julius Lester. In the general section appear several more essays on Baldwin’s nonfiction work.


Critical Essays


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