I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all. James Baldwin, ‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son (1984)
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He was a novelist, essayist, playwright and a social critic who was active in the civil rights movement. He spent many years of his life in France where he went to escape the racism and homophobia he had experienced in the United States. Notes of a Native Son was his first book of non-fiction. It was published in 1955 when Baldwin was just thirty one, two years after his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.
The essays in Notes of a Native Son are grouped into three parts. The first considers representations of African American people in literature and film. The second is based on Baldwin’s experiences of life and politics in the US. The third is made up of reflections from his early years in France. It feels like this structure is quite deliberate and is intended to take the reader on a journey with Baldwin.
The book’s ‘Preface,’ written thirty years later in 1984, is fascinating. Here James Baldwin reflects on what he was trying to achieve when he wrote Notes of a Native Son. He discusses how the essays reflect his struggle to locate himself within his inheritance because, ‘one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance’. It’s unsettling to see that some of his observations in the Preface (itself now over thirty years old), could easily still be applied today. Baldwin talks about the way African American people are always told to wait for things to change and to be patient. He speaks of the ‘panic stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned’, something I think we have seen recently in the ‘debate’ over removing the statues of slave traders from public spaces.
For, if trouble don’t last always, as the Preacher tells us, neither does Power, and it is on the fact or the hope or the myth of Power that that identity which calls itself White has always seemed to depend‘Preface’ to Notes of a Native Son
As a white, British reader, one thing that feels a little strange to read is Baldwin’s use of the word ‘negro’ to refer specfically to African American people. It isn’t language we would use now, but it is important. Baldwin doesn’t use it as a neutral term to refer to black people; it seems intended to convey something uniquely American and highly symbolic, an identify, or perhaps a figure, that has been created through an immense weight of history and cultural meaning (Black people as seen by the white culture), meaning that Baldwin wants to engage with in these essays.
Quite a lot of the content in the first three essays went rather over my head because I haven’t actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Native Son by Richard Wright. Nor have I seen the film Carmen Jones. It’s still comprehensible, though, because Baldwin is discussing what these texts tell us about beliefs that underlie the representation of African American people. The essays in this section remind me a little of Roland Barthes’s book, Mythologies, which was published a couple of years later in 1957. Here Baldwin was already talking about the way certain ‘signs’ and ‘mythologies’ are created and imposed upon people. He is critical of all three texts and wrestles most, I think, with Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son. It’s clearly an important work, which on one level Baldwin identifies with, but he argues that it turns its subject into a monster and leaves him nowhere else to go. Baldwin’s friendship with Richard Wright did not survive the essay.
The next section is based on aspects of Baldwin’s life in America. ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ is about ‘the rage of people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet’. It considers the role of black leaders, newspapers and religion in the struggle for civil rights, including the difficult subject of anti-semitism in the culture of Harlem at the time. ‘Journey to Atlanta’ is about Baldwin’s younger brother’s experiences of working for (and being exploited by) the Progressive Party. Again, as a white British woman, a lot of this went over my head! But it was an interesting read which uses humour to tackle the way Black people were being used by the party at the time.
The middle section contains one of the most powerful essays in the book, ‘Notes of a Native Son’. This is an incredble, searing piece of writing about Baldwin’s father who died when his son was nineteen, on the same day as his youngest sister was born. His father’s funeral took place on the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943. The essay’s place at the centre of the book, its doubling with the title, and the dedication of the work to Baldwin’s youngest sister, Paula Maria, indicates its power and central importance.
I’ve read Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on The Mountain, which fictionalises his experiences as a child preacher and his difficult relationship with his father, so I knew something of the story. Baldwin’s father was a deeply troubled and damaged man who simply could not connect with other people. Baldwin says hauntingly, ‘there was something in him ‘groping and tentative which was never expressed and which was buried in him’. His father encouraged his son’s brilliance, as long as it manifested itself as something he approved (preaching), but he was also controlling and oppressive. As Baldwin leaves Harlem and encounters the racism of the white world, he begins to understand his father’s rage and trauma. This experience brings him to the point of breakdown and a confrontation that endangers his life. As he says towards the end of the essay, ‘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’.
The essays in part three are told from the perspective of Baldwin’s early years in France. There is an essay about encounters between the Aftrican American people living there and people from various countries in Africa and how hard that meeting is. There’s an essay about American students living in Paris while studying on the G.I. Bill which probably feels the most dated in the collection now. There is a funny and horrifying essay about Baldwin’s kafkaesque experience of getting arrested for stealing a bedsheet, being put in a French prison for eight days, and finding himself unable to communicate with the criminal justice system.
The final, and brilliant essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’ brings the collection full circle. Here Baldwin uses reflections on his time spent living in an entirely white Swiss village to delve into the relationship betweeen white Europeans and Africa and how this has played out in the history of slavery and white supremacy in the US. In the Swiss village, Baldwin finds himself treated as ‘a living wonder’, a creature that is hardly even human, and realises that the people there have no idea about the history with which he lives: ‘People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them’, he says. He discovers startling racist customs, such as ‘buying souls’ in Africa for conversion to Christianity (something my own mother did at school in the 1940s) and people ‘blacking up’ during carnivals. He considers the difference between being the first white man to be seen by black people in Africa and being the first black man to be seen by a village full of whites; the difference is conquest and power, what it means to be controlled by white culture and the inescapable rage this creates. As he says,
‘this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarecly Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconqured continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time. The shock this spectacle afforded is suggested by the promptness with which they decided that these black men were not really men but cattle’.
A decision which has shaped history and from which there is no way back to the ‘simplicity’ of this European village, ‘This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again’.
Baldwin talks about many things in Notes of a Native Son, but there are two striking silences. Women are almost entirely absent from the essays and Baldwin avoids talking directly about his sexuality. Women are mentioned here and and there, but Baldwin seems to be referring almost exclusively to men and addressing a presumptively male audience in which women appear to be subsumed and have no separate voice. Maybe it’s a 1950s thing. I don’t think it has anything to do with his personal attitudes because he was a close friend and supporter of many black women activists and creators, including Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansburry, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, so I’ll be interested to see whether he addresses this issue in later works.
The biggest silence, though, is the silencing of Baldwin’s sexuality which clearly couldn’t be spoken about openly in a book published in 1955. There are only shadowy hints beneath the surface of the text. It does feel like a big ommission because no doubt his sexuality had an enormous impact on his life experiences. He went to France to escape homophobia as well as racism. As with many LGBTQ people throughout history, sexuality can provide the motivation to get out and create new lives elsewhere.
Notes of a Native Son is a powerful collection which gripped me despite gaps in my knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading Baldwin’s later essays and novels now to see where his thinking developed, especially The Fire Next Time.
Read for #20BooksOfSummer20
Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016)