Notes of a Native Son
Notes of a Native Son
James Baldwin 1955Introduction
James Baldwin's collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, with the individual essays having been originally written during the 1940s and 1950s, gives readers a thoughtful commentary on the social environment in the United States in the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Through the eyes and mind of one of America's most effective essayists, the conditions of being an African American living in a society that is grappling with the consequences of racial discrimination are witnessed firsthand. The subjects of his essays vary as Baldwin ponders his own reactions to the significance of the so-called protest novel to the circumstances that led many African-American writers of his time to become expatriates.
According to Baldwin's biographer, David Leeming, the idea for Baldwin's collection came from an old school friend, Sol Stein, who had become an editor at Beacon Press. Baldwin's first response to the suggestion of publishing his essays, which were largely autobiographical, was that he was "too young" to publish his "memoirs." Baldwin had, after all, only published one other book prior to Notes, and on top of this he was only thirty years old, which meant that he was in his twenties when he wrote the essays. Despite his lack of a long professional career, however, Baldwin would be surprised at the reaction he would receive upon publication. The collection significantly marked him as a writer that it became his signature work. It was through Notes that he would gain the massive audience he would enjoy throughout most of his writing career. Notes established Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes that would soon erupt in the United States in the critical years ahead.
Leeming refers to the voice that Baldwin created in his essays as one that "seduces the reader." Baldwin invites the reader inside his mind, Leeming contends, as he observes the problems that exist in the society, problems that were borne of racial discrimination. However, in his observations, Baldwin does not make any of his readers feel guilty about the social conditions. Unlike some of his contemporary authors, Baldwin believed that he did not write through anger. In Leeming's evaluation of Baldwin's essays, he contends, "Baldwin's method is to reach consciences by way of minds."
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in New York City on August 2, 1924. In his "Autobiographical Notes" in Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin refers to his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, as "given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies," for whom Baldwin, as the oldest child, was often called upon to be their main caretaker. Baldwin critiques his role as babysitter, stating that his siblings "probably suffered" due to the fact that he cared for them with "one hand and held a book with the other." Baldwin's stepfather, David, was a preacher and encouraged Baldwin to read the Bible, the one book that, for a long time in his youth, Baldwin refused to read. Instead, he read books like Uncle Tom's Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities, books whose style he tried to imitate in his own early attempts at writing, one of which won him recognition from the mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia (1933-1945).
Baldwin's professional career as a writer began at age twenty-one, with a fellowship he won due to the influence he had gained through author Richard Wright, whom Baldwin considered, for a time, his mentor. After the fellowship money ran out and Baldwin was unable to get his first novel published, he turned to writing book reviews, which he ironically describes as "mostly … about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert."
Frustrated not only with his inability to become published but also with the social environment at the time, Baldwin left the United States and settled in Paris. Living in France gave Baldwin the necessary distance that he required from the racial conflicts that were brewing in his homeland, and he was finally successful in completing his first published novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). Two years later, his book Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of essays, was also published, marking the beginning of a long career that would eventually lead to his being referred to as one of the most influential authors of his time.
Baldwin would go on to write Giovanni's Room (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), Another Country (1962), and The Fire Next Time (1963) before Time magazine (May 17, 1963) placed a photograph of Baldwin on its cover, thus honoring his personal involvement in and the influence of his writing on the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin eventually experimented with several genres, including writing a few somewhat successful plays. However, many critics believe that Baldwin's most powerful voice was expressed in his essays.
Baldwin continued to write throughout his sixty-three years, although his influence waned toward the end of his life. Baldwin concludes his "Autobiographical Notes" with a summation of what he considered his responsibilities as a writer. "I consider that I have many responsibilities," he wrote, "but none greater than this: to last … and get my work done." He then adds: "I want to be an honest man and a good writer." Baldwin died, in France, of stomach cancer on December 1, 1987. He was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Ardsley, New York.
Baldwin begins his Notes of a Native Son with a brief description of his childhood and the beginning of his professional career as a writer. He also introduces some of the themes that will be expanded upon in the essays contained in this volume. Some of these themes include the role of the African-American writer, self-identity of African Americans, and an observation and analysis of American society.
Everybody's Protest Novel
In this first essay, Baldwin launches into literary criticism, specifically focusing on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Richard Wright's Native Son. Baldwin finds both works too political and, to his mind, thinly disguised political propaganda as a novel is not a serious literary activity. He also believes that, as literary works, both Stowe's and Wright's work lack merit. They are "both badly written and wildly improbable." As analyses of social problems, they lack strength. "Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent … remote, for this has nothing to do with us."
Baldwin likens the protest novel to zealous missionaries who travel to Africa "to cover the nakedness of the natives" in an attempt to save them. He concludes his assessment of these two works by binding them together, writing that they resemble one another, with Bigger, the protagonist in Wright's novel, becoming the descendant of Stowe's Uncle Tom. "It seems that the contemporary Negro novelist [Wright] and the dead New England woman [Stowe] are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses."
Many Thousands Gone
Baldwin begins this essay with the statement about the difficulty the "Negro in America" has in telling his/her story. "It is not a very pretty story," Baldwin writes and has best been told through music. The African-American story is covered in shadow and darkness. The African American is not known personally but rather through "statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence." The presence of African Americans in the predominantly white American society Baldwin likens to a "disease—cancer, perhaps, or tuberculosis—which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured."
The face of the African American has changed with time, Baldwin continues, but it has not changed enough. "The general desire seems to be to make it blank if one cannot make it white." Baldwin then mentions the use of the stereotypical images of Aunt Jemima, a heavyset black woman, usually shown in the kitchen, cooking for white people. Her counterpart is Uncle Tom. There was, Baldwin writes, "no one stronger or more pious or more loyal or more wise" than Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Tom was "trustworthy and sexless." However, Baldwin states that these descriptions of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom are only the surface realities of these two people. Underneath, Aunt Jemima is faithless, vicious, and immoral; Uncle Tom is "violent, crafty, and sullen, a menace to any white woman who passed by." It is their surface identity that most white people want to believe, Baldwin states. Their pleasant demeanor is an artificial creation, something that white people wanted to believe in because white people wanted peace.
In the second half of this essay, Baldwin continues his criticism of Richard Wright's Native Son. He refers to it as "the most powerful and celebrated statement … of what it means to be a Negro in America." However, he also states that Wright's novel does not work as Wright had intended it to.
Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough
In 1955, Otto Preminger produced the movie Carmen Jones, a modernization of George Bizet's opera Carmen. Preminger put together an all-black cast for the film, and in this essay, Baldwin analyzes that production.
Baldwin was not impressed with the film. One of the first things he complains about is the dialogue, which he says sounds "ludicrously false and affected, like ante-bellum Negroes imitating their masters." Baldwin then goes on to suggest that everything about this movie is improbable, a "total divorce from anything suggestive of the realities of Negro life."
Baldwin also sees a color consciousness in the casting that he does not fail to point out. For instance, there is Dorothy Dandridge, "a sort of taffy-colored girl," who is supposed to signify a " very nice girl." Pearl Bailey, in contrast, is "quite dark" and is cast as a "floozie." Likewise, the man who has evil designs on Carmen is also very dark-skinned, whereas Harry Belafonte, also light-skinned, comes across as safe and sexless. The light-skinned actors seek love, whereas the dark-skinned actors live in some other world, Baldwin writes.
The Harlem Ghetto
In this essay, Baldwin shares his observations of life in Harlem during the 1940s. The picture that he paints is not very attractive. Most of the residents are poor, living in apartments that cost more than they can afford. In frustration, riots occasionally break out, and officials come around and suggest building new playgrounds to ease the social problems, a solution Baldwin compares to putting "makeup on a leper."
Baldwin writes about the black leaders of Harlem. The good ones eventually resign from their posts with broken hearts, and the not-so-good ones "are far more concerned with their careers than with the welfare of Negroes."
The next topic that Baldwin covers is the black press, which he likens to the worst of the white press, selling papers with stories of "murders, rapes, raids on love-nests, interracial wars." From the press, Baldwin then moves on to religion and to African Americans' relationship with their neighbors, the Jews.
Baldwin concludes this essay with the observation, "All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity, trying desperately to find a place to stand; and the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive."
Journey to Atlanta
"Journey to Atlanta" is about politics and the broken promises that Baldwin believes have disenfranchised African Americans. Baldwin uses phrases such as "the Negro is the pawn" and "bones thrown to a pack of dogs" when referring to the statements of politicians.
Baldwin wrote this essay when Henry A. Wallace was the presidential candidate for the Progressive Party. The party's platform included a statement about civil rights, thus influencing the African-American voters. The Party was hiring black entertainers to help their cause of getting out the vote, and Baldwin's brother David was a member of a musical quartet called the Melodeers, enlisted to perform at a rally in Atlanta. The essay follows the details of David's trip and the prejudice that he and his fellow musicians experienced.
At one point, the Melodeers were asked to perform outside in the cool night air. After singing four songs, they walked off the stage. Their voices were hoarse, and they knew that if they sang another song, they would not be able to sing the next day. One of their sponsors, a white woman, took their refusal to sing personally and threatened to have them arrested. The woman withdrew her sponsorship, and David and his friends had to struggle to find enough money to buy food and train tickets to take them back to Harlem.
Notes of a Native Son
This essay is one of the most personal of all the essays in this collection. In it, Baldwin talks about his relationship with his father. The essay begins on the day of his father's death, which also happens to be the day of his sister's birth and the day of a massive Harlem riot.
Baldwin had a very bitter relationship with his father, a man he describes as, "Handsome, proud, and ingrown, 'like a toe-nail."' His father died of tuberculosis and also suffered from a mental illness that caused him to be paranoid. His father scared people, kept friends away from the house, and had little patience with the nine children he sired. He had warned his son about the white world outside of Harlem, but Baldwin had learned not to trust his father.
However, when Baldwin moved away from home, he found that some of his father's beliefs were true. For a time, Baldwin worked at a defense plant located in a small town in New Jersey. For the first time in his life, Baldwin had to deal with prejudice and the effects of Jim Crow laws, which demanded a certain behavior from African Americans when dealing with white people, something that Baldwin had never learned. He was not used to being told that he could not eat in certain restaurants. He did not know that he was supposed to humiliate himself in front of white people. At one point, so angered and frustrated by not being able to do what he wanted to do, Baldwin throws a water pitcher at a waitress after she tells him that they do not serve Negroes there.
Baldwin ends this essay with the thought that he must learn to balance acceptance of life with the idea of equal power. "One must never … accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength."
Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown
Baldwin discusses, in this essay, various encounters with different types of people that he finds in Paris. First, he goes into the reasons why over five hundred African Americans living in Paris tend to avoid one another, feeling uncomfortable about being reminded of the conditions of living their previous lives in the States. Likewise, when a white American and a black American meet one another in Paris, they too suffer an uneasiness, unable to navigate between their relationship as it might be defined in the States and their relationship as it is characterized under European terms.
The third type of encounter that Baldwin describes is that between a black person from America and an African. On one hand, the African person has the benefit of a legitimate homeland, but his country has been colonized. Because of this, the African has lost his language and culture. The African American, however, has memories of slavery and can claim no allegiance to a homeland.
A Question of Identity
It could be argued that all of the essays in this collection deal with some aspect of Baldwin's search for identity. This specific essay, however, focuses most directly on the issue. Here he examines American soldiers living in Paris, studying at the universities on the G. I. Bill offered to them after the war. He studies the question of why some of the soldiers are successful in adapting to their lives in France and why some are not.
Baldwin concludes that the conflict that the soldiers must deal with is based on the clash between reality and fantasy. Some soldiers, he claims, have an imaginary, or ideal, concept of Paris in their minds. They have little real knowledge of the history of France, the sociology of its people, or an understanding of the language. When the reality of Paris hits them, Baldwin believes, it is then that they buy their tickets to go back home.
The more successful soldier, on the other hand, takes the time to study the history and culture of France. This soldier might even live with a French family, thus encouraging a deeper enculturation. However, even this soldier might encounter problems, because the French people might also maintain a fantasy of Americans. They might, for instance, view all Americans by what they see in the movies, what they read about the government, what they dream about in connection to the idealism and individualism of the relatively new country of the United States. In the end, Baldwin suggests that an American living in Paris should use the "vantage point of Europe" to discover "his own country."
Equal in Paris
Baldwin was once given a bed sheet from an American visitor to France. The bed sheet had been taken from a Paris hotel, where the American visitor had been previously staying. Several days later, police show up at the American visitor's hotel room, and shortly thereafter they are searching Baldwin's room. Upon discovering the bed sheet with the hotel's name clearly printed on it, the police arrest Baldwin for theft.
This essay is devoted to this ordeal, Baldwin's fears, and his frustrations of being held prisoner in a legal system that he does not understand. After several days of humiliation and hunger, Baldwin's case is dismissed.
Stranger in the Village
Baldwin visits a small, isolated village in Switzerland. He stays with a friend. The friend forewarns him that the villagers have never seen a black man. The implications of this statement do not hit Baldwin until he steps foot into the village and sees the reactions on the faces of the villagers and hears the children call him " Neger !"
Baldwin returns to this same village many times over the next few years. Although the villagers become used to his presence, he does not feel that they ever really get to know him. They never are able to see beyond his skin color, his curly hair. However, he does come to realize that these people look at him in a different way than white people in the States and that the difference is due to the fact that in America the black man is always seen as a former slave.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993), a famous operatic singer during the first half of the twentieth century, enjoyed the notoriety of being the United States' third highest concert box office draw.
Anderson's popularity came to her in spite of the racial discrimination of her times. She was often refused hotel accommodations and service at restaurants while on tour. One of her most famous racist experiences gained national attention. In 1939, when managers at Howard University tried to arrange a concert for her in Constitution Hall, the largest and most appropriate indoor location in Washington, D.C., the organization called the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who owned Constitution Hall, refused to allow Anderson to sing there. In response, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to schedule Anderson's concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which drew a crowd of over 70,000 people. The story of Anderson's confrontation with the Daughters of the American Revolution became the topic of many news stories, thus bringing attention to other issues of racial discrimination that existed in the United States.
In 1954, Anderson was given the chance to sing in the role of Ulrica in the Metropolitan Opera of New York's production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, thus becoming the first African American to sing on the Met stage.
Some people believe that trumpeter/singer Louis Armstrong was responsible for bringing the concept of jazz to white audiences throughout the United States. He began his musical career during the 1920s and was known for his creative improvisations. Over the years, however, he gradually combined jazz elements with popular music until, at the height of the swing era in the 1930s, he was playing strictly conventional pieces. Armstrong possessed, however, a very appealing stage personality, upon which his popularity soared. Although he would return to a more traditional jazz repertoire in the late 1940s, it was through his renditions of popular music that he would gather his wealth.
Pearl Bailey was a singer and popular entertainer. She sang with the big bands in the 1930s and 1940s and played various acting roles in film and on stage. She appeared in the movie Carmen Jones (1954) with Dorothy Dandridge, although the all-black stage version of Hello, Dolly (1967-1969) would become her most famous role. In the early 1970s, Bailey also starred in her own television show.
When she was sixty-seven years old, Bailey graduated from Georgetown University. She went on to publish several books about her life. In 1975, she served as a special ambassador to the United Nations and later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1975).
Harry Belafonte was born in 1927 to West Indian parents and would eventually spend some of his youth in Jamaica, although he was a U.S. citizen. As a young adult, he would return to his birthplace in New York City and begin his acting career, first on stage and later in film. In 1953, he won a Tony Award for his performance in Almanac. The following year, he would co-star with Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. In 1960, Belafonte became the first African American to receive an Emmy for the television program Tonight with Belafonte.
Acting was not the only talent that Belafonte possessed. In 1956, after having entered an amateur talent show, Belafonte recorded a collection of tunes with a West Indian bent, and his album Calypso became the first record to sell more than a million copies.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Belafonte developed a relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was he who put up the money for bail when King was sent to Birmingham City Jail, he who financed the Freedom Rides, and he who raised thousands of dollars to gain the release of other jailed civil rights protestors. He also was one of the principal organizers for the March on Washington in 1963. Belafonte was also involved in organizing the joint effort of producing the song "We Are the World," which generated millions of dollars in the fight against famine in Ethiopia.
Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965) began her acting career as a child, appearing on screen for the first time with the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races. Many of the roles that she played in movies were bit parts, as the Hollywood film industry, during the early part of the twentieth century, offered very little opportunity for African-American actresses. Dandridge's most significant roles were in two of Otto Preminger's films: Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1957).
Carmen Jones, a modernization of George Bizet's opera (first staged in Paris in 1875) tells the tragic story of a young, sensual gypsy woman. Preminger's movie featured an all-black cast with Bizet's music and lyrics arranged by Oscar Hammerstein II. Other African-American performers in Carmen Jones included Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey. Dandridge played the starring role of Carmen, for which she was nominated for best actress by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first African-American actress to be so honored.
In 1999, a movie about Dandridge, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, aired on HBO. The movie covers the struggle Dandridge endured in combating racial prejudice in the movie industry as well as some of the abusive details of her personal life. In 1965, Dandridge was found dead, the apparent victim of an overdose of sleeping pills.
Chester Bomar Himes
Chester Himes was born on July 29, 1909. An author and expatriate living in Paris, he published a series of black detective novels. The voice of his writing is often described as more angry than the voices of his contemporaries, who included Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison.
Himes's writing reflects a strong awareness of racism, which he was not afraid to depict in very specific terms. Personal details about his life are often used to explain the source of his anger. Although raised in a comfortable and well-educated, middle-class environment, Himes's life took a turn for the worse when he first was physically impaired after suffering an accidental fall down an elevator shaft and later was expelled from Ohio State for what Himes claimed was a prank. Shortly afterward, at age nineteen, Himes received a twenty-five-year jail sentence for armed robbery. It was in prison, however, that Himes turned to writing.
Himes's first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945), tells the story of a black man who works in a defense plant during World War II. The novel details the suffering that the man endures in a racist environment. His second novel, Cast the First Stone (1952), is about prison life.
Himes lived in Paris at the same time as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison and often met with these other writers. Although not as well known in the States as he was in Europe, Himes, especially after he began his nine-book detective series, was able to make a comfortable living off his writing. In 1965, Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem was published. Five years later, this book was made into a popular movie with the same title.
Lena Horne is an African-American singer and actress. One of her first roles on Broadway was in the play Blackbirds of 1939. Eventually, she made her way to Hollywood where she signed a movie contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, insisting that the movie studio never cast her in a stereotypical black role. In 1942, she got her first big break, playing the leading role in Cabin in the Sky. The following year, she was cast in Stormy Weather, for which she also sang the title song, a song that would become her trademark.
Horne won a Grammy for the album based on her award-winning Broadway show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history. In 1984, she was honored with the Kennedy Center Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.
Joe Louis was the first African American to attain hero status both with the African-American community and the white community in the United States. Louis was a boxer, one of the first African-American athletes to enjoy a prominent role in the cultural history of the States. His career began in the 1930s, and he would go on to become the heavyweight champion of the world at a time when boxing was at its apex, thus giving Louis his prominent status. Known as the Brown Bomber, Louis first lost and then later won back his title from Germany's Max Schmeling, who was viewed as a symbol of Hitler's regime. The year was 1938, right before the beginning of World War II, which made Louis's triumph that much more celebrated. Louis died in 1981 in Las Vegas. President Reagan made arrangements for him to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., thus honoring him as a hero.
Otto Preminger originally entered the world of stage and screen as an actor but made his fame as a director of plays and film. He worked for various studios in the first half of the twentieth century, but in the early 1950s he became an independent producer and director. It was at this time that Preminger gained a reputation for taking on controversial subjects. His movie The Moon Is Blue (1953) dealt with the topic of virginity and pregnancy, taboo subjects at that time, and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was one of the first films to deal with drug addiction. Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) not only were successful musical movies but also involved all-black casts.
George S. Schuyler
George S. Schuyler (1895-1977), a journalist and columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation's premiere weekly newspapers written mostly for a black audience, has often been compared to H. L. Mencken for his style of writing and his crusade against hypocrisy. He wrote a novel called Black No More (1931), a satirical story about what would happen if African-American people could change the color of their skin whenever they found it more convenient to do so. The novel did not find a broad audience but has been recently reprinted.
Although his name has been all but forgotten and his works seldom studied, Schuyler is recognized as having been one of the first black journalists to gain prominence in the United States. He was also one of the first black foreign correspondents for a major metropolitan newspaper, the New York Evening Post. Schuyler, whose conservative rhetoric ran contrary to the popular image of African-American thought during the Civil Rights Movement, eventually was unable to find outlets for his writing. In 1964, Schuyler was fired from the Courier for his opposition to Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1977. His autobiography, Black and Conservative, was published in 1966.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in 1811, wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), which relates a somewhat romanticized story of the cruelty of slavery and the challenge of escape. Although the book was well received in her time, due mostly to the topic and the Christian sensibility of her themes, modern critics tend to focus on the lack of literary merit of Stowe's writing.
Stowe lived in Cincinnati at the time she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin and thus witnessed first-hand the slave trading that occurred along the Ohio River. Her family, which included her father, Lyman Beecher, a Congregational minister and president of Lane Theological seminary, and her husband, Calvin Stowe, a professor of biblical literature at the seminary, shared her abolitionist sentiment and were often involved in hiding runaway slaves.
Although Stowe published many other works (writing a book a year across an almost eighteen-year span), she is best known for Uncle Tom's Cabin. Having been published in a popular weekly newspaper in forty separate installments and having been written in an episodic and suspenseful form, the reading of Stowe's novel became something of a habit for a large portion of the U.S. population. When the episodes were finally collected and published in book form, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold a half million copies, breaking sales records at that time. Although Stowe's writing style and form do not fair well under close literary scrutiny and her characters come across as stereotypical representations rather than fully fleshed out people, Uncle Tom's Cabin is considered a classic of its time and remains required reading on many college campuses.
Henry A. Wallace
Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965), vice president under F. D. Roosevelt and a prominent leader of the Progressive Party, was criticized for his social idealism and lax attitude toward communism. For these reasons, he lost favor with the Democratic Party and joined the Progressives. In general, the Progressive Party was against international military activity but supported peace discussions with the Soviet Union, the development of a strong United Nations organization, and civil rights. Wallace also spoke out against Senator Joseph McCarthy, the leading voice in the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Wallace was often accused of being a communist, which in the late 1940s had taken on very negative connotations. When the Communist Party of America decided to endorse Wallace's candidacy, Wallace found himself in a very difficult position. He was often banned from speaking in certain areas of the United States and denied interviews by many members of the press. Wallace did not fare well in the presidential election of 1948, left the party, and retired from politics. After Wallace's resignation, the Progressive Party fell apart.
Richard Wright was born in the deep South, the grandchild of former slaves. He was a contemporary of James Baldwin and helped launch Baldwin's writing career. Wright became famous after the publication of his novel Native Son (1940), a book that was so popular that it went into a second printing before the first printing hit the book stores.
Wright was one of the first African-American writers to move away from a style of writing that was heavily influenced by white audiences. His works are filled with anger and are often criticized for their overtly political stances. He is, however, credited with creating a new movement in African-American writing, one which promoted more realistic black characters in more significant, and socially relevant, life situations. Wright is also known to have had a heavy influence on Baldwin, despite the fact that Baldwin would later criticize Wright's work.
Like Baldwin, Wright became very frustrated with the social and political environment in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s and moved to Paris. His autobiographical work, Black Boy (1945), also became a bestseller, but his later works received little popular attention. Wright died in France in 1960.
The point of Baldwin's essays is not so much to make his readers aware of racial prejudice in the States as it is to attempt to look at that prejudice, analyze it, understand where it comes from, and decide how to deal with it. He does this in a variety of ways. One of these is by relating personal experience. For instance, in the essay "Notes of a Native Son," he writes about the incident of being told that he could not eat at a restaurant he had chosen. At first, he was somewhat oblivious to this type of prejudice. He had gone to one restaurant several times and did not realize that the lack of service he received was because he was African American. He thought the poor service was a restaurant problem, not a racial declaration. Later, as he noticed people staring at him on the streets of the mostly white town, he became more informed of prejudice. The more aware he became, the angrier he became. When he exploded one night, throwing a water pitcher at a waitress who refused to serve him, he realized the depth of that anger. Shortly afterward, he decided to move away from the States to gain a more objective distance, in order to become better equipped to understand not only the prejudice but also his reactions to it.
Baldwin also hypothesizes about prejudice. He looks at conditions and comes to conclusions, such as in "Many Thousands Gone," in which he discusses the stereotypical Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom. According to Baldwin, these characters were created by a white population who wanted to believe that all African Americans were trustworthy, devoted servants, who only wanted to serve white people and who held no malice toward their employers. These stereotypical figures are dangerously misleading, Baldwin concludes, because anger and a sense of vengeance lurks deep down in the psyches of African Americans, contrary to the smiling faces that white Americans try to impose on all African Americans by using these stereotypical images.
Another way of discussing racial prejudice is through comparison. In "Stranger in the Village," Baldwin describes the more or less innocent prejudice of the Swiss people who live in a small town in the mountains and who are so isolated from the rest of the world that they have never seen a black man. Although the children of the village yell out "Neger!" when Baldwin passes by, Baldwin is more willing to forgive them than he would be to forgive someone in the States who might call out that same word. The Swiss children are ignorant and naive. They see a man who has dark skin, something that is very different from their pale complexions. Their reaction is based on visual effects. In the States, however, the word nigger has taken on derogatory connotations. Baldwin believes that this difference is based on the history of the black person in the States, which begins with slavery. The negative aspects of the word nigger in the States is an attempt to keep African Americans oppressed.
Throughout most of the essays in this collection, Baldwin searches for both a personal identity, such as in his reflections in "Autobiographical Notes" and "Notes of a Native Son," and for a cultural identity, as seen in many of the remaining essays, in which he tries to define what it means to be an African American.
In searching for a personal identity, Baldwin refers to his parents, the physical environment of Harlem, and the social atmosphere of growing up black in the States, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. He struggles to take an objective stance when discussing his father, attempting to separate himself from the image his father tried to force upon him. He wants to make sense of the poverty and crime that molded his youngest years. When he moves to Paris, he makes an effort to define the distant American society that affected his definition of himself.
Baldwin also moves beyond the personal and strives to define a more general identity, that of the whole population of African Americans. In "The Harlem Ghetto," he looks at the outside forces that characterize the daily lives of a majority of blacks living in the North. In "Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown," he distinguishes the differences between African blacks and American blacks in how they see themselves as well as in how others see them.
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.
Topics for Further Study
- Baldwin mentions the Progressive Party of the United States in his essay "Journey to Atlanta." Research the history of this political party. Who were its candidates? What were its prominent platform issues? Was the party ever successful in getting one of its candidates elected? What was the time period in which the Party was active? Which contemporary party most resembles it, if any.
- Read Richard Wright's novel Native Son, keeping Baldwin's essays "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone" in mind. Do you agree with Baldwin's assessment of Wright's work? Write a short paper that contains your conclusions and arguments.
- Research the history of Harlem. Who were its earliest inhabitants? Describe the major population changes over the years. When did the riots occur? What is Harlem like today?
- Baldwin wrote Notes of a Native Son during his twenties. He wrote The Fire Next Time more than a decade later. Choose one of the essays in his second collection of essays that best demonstrates a change in voice or attitude. Compare it to one specific essay in Notes of A Native Son. Is his later writing clearer? More accessible? Have his beliefs changed?
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.
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 angry-voiced 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.
Compare & Contrast
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 all-black 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 upper-class 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).
There were also many positive outcomes in Harlem as witnessed by the talent that developed in that part of New York City. Many famous African-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.
Notes of a Native Son, when first published in 1955, did not sell well. However, when it was reissued in paperback form in 1957, after the publication of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, it received outstanding reviews and brisk sales and would go on to become one of the most popular of all Baldwin's works.
An example of the praise that Baldwin received for Notes of a Native Son comes from Baldwin's biographer Leeming, who writes, "With the publication of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin staked a large claim in an area of American literary territory inhabited by such masters of the essay and autobiography as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass." Leeming would add that Baldwin "leads the white consciousness through the horrors of the black dilemma, not without passion, but with the subtlety and elegance of a Henry James."
In Nick Aaron Ford's essay "The Evolution of James Baldwin as Essayist," Ford states, "James Baldwin is one of the most talented American essayists since Ralph Waldo Emerson." Ford continues:
Like Emerson … his major thrust is not to impart abstract or concrete knowledge, but to provoke humane thought and announce eternal truths intended to elevate the consciousness of the reader from animal passion to spiritual or philosophical contemplation.
Another noted African-American author, also a contemporary of Baldwin's, was Langston Hughes, who wrote a review of Notes of a Native Son for the New York Times in which he describes Baldwin:
James Baldwin writes down to nobody, and he is trying very hard to write up to himself. As an essayist he is thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing and amusing. And he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing.
Hughes believed that there were few writers in America who could "handle words more effectively in the essay" than Baldwin. Hughes adds: "In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought."
James Campbell wrote Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, in which he praises Baldwin's gift as essayist, a type of writing in which Baldwin was best able to display his intellect. "The essay form enabled Baldwin to write as he spoke, to unfold his experience by discursive methods, until he came upon the meaning at the core." In a more specific analysis of Notes of a Native Son, Campbell writes:
Notes of a Native Son unharnesses his gift for autobiographical rumination, his willingness to force his way into new and awkward challenges. The greatest challenge of all was to be free to set his own terms for the course of his life.… In order to achieve this, to slough off the old 'nigger' identity he had inherited, he had to invent another way of thinking about himself. The essay was the place to do it, and the didactic process is laid out in the pages of Notes of a Native Son.
In his "From a Region in My Mind, The Essays of James Baldwin," Hobart Jarrett declares that Baldwin is "a writer by choice, by talent, by calling." Jarrett does not temper his admiration of Baldwin and goes on to state that from the first time he read Baldwin, he has been "stimulated, exhilarated, and amazed by his essays ever since."
Hart is a published writer and freelance editor. In this essay, Hart examines the process of revelation that Baldwin experiences in his titled essay.
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 mutual rage, they are drawn together; 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.
What Do I Read Next?
- Native Son (1940) is Richard Wright's first published novel. The main character, Bigger Thomas, a young man living in Chicago during the 1930s, tries to rise above poverty and racism but becomes entrapped in a sequence of horrific events. It is a book about the effects of poverty and what it means to be black in America. Although Baldwin criticized Wright for his portrayal of such an angry character, most critics believe that this is Wright's most powerful work.
- Collected Essays (1998) includes Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, and The Devil Finds Work. Many critics believe that Baldwin's writing was strongest when he wrote in the essay form. This book offers the full range of his nonfiction work.
- W. E. B. Du Bois wrote essays almost fifty years before Baldwin was published. However, their topics run along very similar lines. W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings (1986) includes most of his collections of essays, such as The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, Souls of Black Folk, and Dusk at Dawn.
- Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance Movement of the 1920s, is most famous for her fiction. However, she was a prolific writer of essays, which can be found in her Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings (1995).
- Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), although criticized by Baldwin, remains a classic. Stowe wrote the book to publicize the need to end slavery.
- Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy (2000) tells the rags-to-riches story of this African-American movie actress, who rose from humble beginnings, won an Academy Award, and died under very suspicious circumstances.
- Langston Hughes, a contemporary of Baldwin's, was both a poet and a fiction writer. His The Ways of White Folks (1969) is a collection of stories about the clashes between white and black people in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s.
- If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1968) was written by another contemporary of Baldwin's, Chester Himes. The story takes place in southern California in the 1940s and relates the plight of the only black foreman in a shipyard during World War II.
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.
"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."
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."
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Notes of a Native Son, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Catherine Dybiec Holm
Dybiec Holm is a published writer and editor with a master's degree in Natural Resources. In this essay, Dybiec Holm discusses the theme of societal constraint that links the essays in Baldwin's work.
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 self-induced. 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."
"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."
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.
Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on Notes of a Native Son, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In this essay, Korb discusses Baldwin's thoughts about African-American identity in Baldwin's work.
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 sub-human 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 confines 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 so-called innocence of their European past, most definitively characterized as a return to "a state in which black men do not exist."
"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."
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.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Notes of a Native Son, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
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.
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 specifically 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.
"Notes of a Native Son." Nonfiction Classics for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/notes-native-son
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