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Summer 2017 Reads
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

  My fifth Summer 2017 read is the collection of essays by James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son.

Notes of a Native Son

Originally published in 1955, the 1984 edition has a preface which serves to not only reacclimate the reader to the climate of the era of the original publication, but also provides evidence that the wheels of justice grind slowly. Slowly enough that it may seem that no progress has been made at all. In fact, many of Baldwin’s concerns and observations echo sadly true today, such as,

     Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize
     all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to
     transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such
     contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for
     heroism on the field of battle. (31)

  The book itself is divided into three parts: popular culture’s portrayal of Black Americans, racial testimony from within the United States, and life as an expatriate in Europe.

  The nature of Baldwin’s essays make this a valuable resource for historians or those more thoroughly familiar with the larger zeitgeist of the era. That isn’t to say that the essays aren’t approachable or valuable to others, but I feel as though an annotated edition (which I’m not sure exists, but totally should) would be more helpful for providing context that the author assumes his readers already have. Two of the earlier essays in particular (“Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough”) are great critiques of popular culture, but may seem too far removed from contemporary readers’ experience.

  Of course, your mileage may vary.

  Outside of the critiques of literature and film, James Baldwin turns his pen toward discussing various facets of the racial reality of the United States. Of this set of essays, Baldwin’s profundity shows clearest with “The Harlem Ghetto” and “Notes of a Native Son”. “The Harlem Ghetto” discusses the relationship between Jewish and Black Americans. At this moment—the year following Brown v. Board and the beginnings of the traditional Civil Rights Era—this is a truly valuable discussion of two marginalized groups’ relationship within a land dominated by white supremacy. In many ways, between “The Harlem Ghetto” and one moment of “Many Thousands Gone”, Baldwin presages Noel Ignatiev’s argument of how the ‘not-quite-white’ achieve their whiteness and privilege.

  “Notes of a Native Son” probes Baldwin’s relationship with his father. Of all the words written, it feels like these are the rawest. The author’s relationship with his father ranges from aloof to hostile, and that emotional estrangement seeps through every word. As the longest essay in the book, Baldwin’s prose places you in the groundless mindscape that follows the loss of a parent. He works through the stresses and contradictions of his feelings as he struggles to understand the man who the racialized world of the United States and, as he eventually discovers, mental illness had long ago conspired to seal away.

  The final third of the book, where Baldwin reflects on his existence as an expatriate, is interesting, though I feel it is not as hard hitting as “Notes of a Native Son”. These essays seem to be interested in comparing and contrasting the U.S. and Europe, which is certainly a rich field to engage with. The essay “Equal in Paris” is a grim retelling of being arrested for a so-called friend’s theft of a bed sheet, which brings a shocking reminder of ‘justice’ in the U.S.: “This laughter [of the court room] is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of living is not real” (158). To be in a foreign land only to re-discover a familiar animosity is a terrifyingly monstrous absurdity.

  Then there’s “Stranger in the Village”, which sees a transition from curiosity to suspicion and animosity along racial lines. The tragedy of this—a town with minimal contact with the world replicating racist notions of good and evil—is obvious.

  Throughout the book, Baldwin discusses racism, religion, representation, identity, politics, mental illness, and more. Although there are times that he doesn’t quite land the knockout punch you are expecting (“Journey to Atlanta”), his voice is vital and beautiful, truthful and dynamic. Notes of a Native Son is a good introduction to one of the greatest writers the American scene ever had.

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