Form and Content
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 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...
(The entire section is 4,595 words.)