Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Notes of a Native Son is a collection of essays published previously in various periodicals. Though not originally written to be published together, they share Baldwin’s concerns over the resolution of the United States’ racial dilemma and the question of American identity.

The first group of essays focuses on the black person as artist and on his or her image within the cultural canon. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin, once an enthusiastic fan of Harriet Beecher Stowe, labels her an “impassioned pamphleteer” and criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other “protest novels,” including Richard Wright’s Native Son, for falling short of their lofty aims, abusing language, and overtaxing credibility. Baldwin goes on in the second essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” to recognize Native Son as a literary landmark but questions its actual power, given the depersonalization and mythification of blacks as Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima. In essence, the “native son” is a monster created by American history, and it is American history that must confront and re-create him. The third essay in the group, “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” criticizes an all-black production of a theatrical standard for perpetuating racial stereotypes.

The second group focuses on the sociopolitical scene. “The Harlem Ghetto,” the earliest of the essays, documents the congestion and claustrophobia of 1948 Harlem. Baldwin considers token civic improvements—playgrounds and housing projects—to be at best superficial and at worst injurious. The position of black leaders is impossible, the black press merely models itself on downtown counterparts, and the popularity of churches only reflects the pervasive hopelessness.

This hopelessness is evidenced in “Journey to Atlanta,” which recounts the experiences of a group of black singers, including Baldwin’s brother David, as guests of the Progressive Party in Atlanta. The Melodeers, anticipating a week of open...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

James Baldwin is a fine novelist, as such works as Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni’s Room (1956) prove. Many readers consider his nonfiction to be even finer than his fiction. His essays, which may be found in collections such as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1852), which Baldwin considers self-righteous and so sentimental as to be dishonest. “Many Thousands Gone” examines Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), which Baldwin describes as badly flawed. “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough” is another biting review, of the Hollywood motion picture musical Carmen Jones (1955). Baldwin says that the film lacks imagination and is condescending to blacks. Part 2 contains three essays. “The Harlem Ghetto” is one of the most powerful, digging into the physical and emotional turmoil of Harlem, including problems between blacks and Jews. “Journey to Atlanta” looks at an African American singing group’s first trip to the South. It is a humorous, cynical, look at the treatment that the group, which included two of Baldwin’s brothers, received. “Notes of a Native Son” examines Baldwin’s anger and despair after his father’s death.

Part 3 contains four essays. “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” and “A Question of Identity” are about the feelings and attitudes of Americans in Paris in the 1940’s and 1950’s. “Equal in Paris” is Baldwin’s account of being arrested and jailed, temporarily, in a case involving some stolen sheets that he did not steal. Baldwin describes the insight he had while in the hands of the French police: that they, in dealing with him, were not engaging in the racist cat-and-mouse game used by police in the United States. Finally, “Stranger in the Village” discusses Baldwin’s time in a Swiss village and the astonished curiosity of people who had never seen a black person before. In all these essays, Baldwin explores his world and himself.