In an age of Black Lives Matter, James Baldwin's essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written. With documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro bringing renewed interest to Baldwin's life and work, Notes of a Native Son serves as a valuable introduction.
Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in "The Harlem Ghetto" to a sobering "Journey to Atlanta."
Notes of a Native Son inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic. His criticism on topics such as the paternalism of white progressives or on his own friend Richard Wright's work is pointed and unabashed. He was also one of the few writing on race at the time who addressed the issue with a powerful mixture of outrage at the gross physical and political violence against black citizens and measured understanding of their oppressors, which helped awaken a white audience to the injustices under their noses. Naturally, this combination of brazen criticism and unconventional empathy for white readers won Baldwin as much condemnation as praise.
Notes is the book that established Baldwin's voice as a social critic, and it remains one of his most admired works. The essays collected here create a cohesive sketch of black America and reveal an intimate portrait of Baldwin's own search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.
James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York. Baldwin's father was a pastor who subjected his children to poverty, abuse, and religious fanaticism. As a result, many of Baldwin's recurring themes, such as alienation and rejection, are attributable to his upbringing.
Living the life of a starving artist, Baldwin went through numerous jobs, including dishwasher, office boy, factory worker, and waiter. In 1948, he moved to France, where much work originated. Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953. A largely autobiographical work, it tells of the religious awakening of a fourteen-year-old. In addition to his childhood experiences, his experiences as a black man and a homosexual provided inspiration for such works as Giovanni's Room, Nobody Knows My Name, and Another Country.
Baldwin holds a distinguished place in American history as one of the foremost writers of both black and gay literature. He was an active participant in the Civil Rights movement.
Baldwin succumbed to cancer on December 1, 1987.
(Bowker Author Biography)
In this essay, James Baldwin explores the complexities of both race relationships and familial relationships. Concerning his relationship with his father, Baldwin admits toward the beginning of the essay: “We had got on badly, partly because we shared, in our different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride.” This admission sets the tone for the rest of the essay, an idea of both opposition and similarity in this relationship.
Baldwin seemed to spend most of his childhood struggling against his father. His father wanted him to preach like he had while Baldwin wanted to write. He grew up in Harlem where he was in the majority and, against his father’s advice, easily befriended white people. When he moved to New Jersey, he encountered an environment much less friendly to Blacks. He became the minority in a segregated town. The poor treatment he received in New Jersey created a bitterness in Baldwin that matched the bitterness that his father had. His father’s bitterness had become his. He also does not act unlike the paranoid schizophrenic that his father was when he displayed some of his father’s violence at yet another restaurant’s refusal to serve him because he was Black.
In the first few sentences of the essay, Baldwin notes that his sister was born on the same day that his father died and that his father was buried on Baldwin’s birthday. Both of these events suggest a rebirth of sorts and, in a way, the essay ends in a rebirth. At the time of his father’s death, Baldwin has finally come to understand him and realize their similarities. Baldwin’s father has, in effect, been reborn in him.