teaches us all
An Appreciation of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son
When I was a boy growing up in the 1950s our neighborhood swimming pool was segregated. When the first black girl was elected queen of my high school a few years after I graduated in 1962 there was a near riot. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, not Columbus, Georgia.
With the Civil Rights Movement beginning to sizzle in America in the early 1960, I learned about James Baldwin for the first time. Novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, Baldwin helped focus my eyes on the racial and social issues that bedeviled and continue to bedevil this country. It was his essays, however, that helped establish Baldwin as one of the top writers of the times. Delving into his own life, he provided an unflinching look at the black experience in America through such works as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961). Nobody Knows My Name hit the bestseller list, with more than a million copies purchased.
While not a marching or sit-in style activist, Baldwin emerged as one of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement for his compelling work on race. In 1963, Baldwin came out with The Fire Next Time. This collection of essays was meant to educate white Americans on what it meant to be black. It also offered white readers a view of themselves through the eyes of the African-American community. In the work, Baldwin offered a brutally realistic picture of race relations, but he remained hopeful about possible improvements. “If we … do not falter in our duty now, we may be able … to end the racial nightmare.” His words struck a cord with me then as well as now.
Within the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter Movement today, I decided to return to Baldwin. I wanted to rediscover the power and majesty of his language. He never wanted to be a spokesman or street-level activist. He saw his role as one with a powerful voice who could bear witness to the tumult of the times. In 1963 he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The feature said “There is not another writer—white or black—who expresses such poignancy and abrasiveness of the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.” Sadly, he left the country to return to his adopted France in the early 1970s, disillusioned because of continuing racial hatred and the violence that took the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Despite living through this period and even knowing about Baldwin’s disillusionment, it was still a joy to read him again after a hiatus of many decades. Notes of a Native Son, an unflinching look at the black experience in the 1940s and early 1950s, took me aback with its rich cadences, diction, alliteration, and the various descriptions and reflections. In thinking of what Baldwin achieved, I believe this book was written as a religious essay in which he uses the backdrop of the Black Church to frame his search for peace with his father and a sense of hope for the future.
What I enjoyed most was Baldwin’s use of various craft elements to convey a confessional tone that captures the tensions and confrontations he had to deal with at home and in the outside world. These tensions, which were especially disorienting and confusing, often left him with few direct answers or directions. They did, however, force him into a maturity where he could transcend the bleakness of his early years and find something positive to guide him into his adulthood. In his narrative he looks back after his father has died and recognizes that this man was not just a cartoon of cruelty, hatred and hostility; on the contrary, he was a man twisted, tormented and eventually destroyed by the vicious racism prevalent at the time.
In the initial two lines Baldwin hits the reader with the arresting sentences that establish both sides of the divide between death and life—what finally defeats the individual on the one hand and what represents hope for an unknown future on the other: “On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born.” He then sets the tone for his own internal contradiction that he, rather than his father, had somehow been responsible for all that had gone wrong between the two men: “It seemed to me that God himself had devised, to mark my father’s end, the most sustained and brutally dissonant of codas. And it seemed to me, too, that the violence which rose all about us as my father left the world had been devised as a corrective for the pride of his eldest son.” He continues his pondering by admitting, “I had been contemptuous of my father for the conditions of his life, for the conditions of our lives. When his life had ended I began to wonder about that life and also, in a new way, to be apprehensive about my own.”
Baldwin sets up the case against his father by portraying him as “indescribably cruel in his personal life.” As the man lies dying, Baldwin begins to appreciate, however, that his father was perhaps not cruel just for cruelty’s sake but more because his pride in his blackness “had also been the cause of much humiliation and … had fixed bleak boundaries to his life.” In his confessional, Baldwin eventually sees himself reflected in his father: “He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit and it frightened me, as we drove him to the graveyard through the unquiet, ruined streets, to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness was now mine.” His words add to the power of the previous reflection and give more weight to how the author has been wounded by the pain of institutional segregation: “When he died I had been away from home for a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father’s bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world.”
In another passage of self-reflection, Baldwin remembers when he traveled with his aging aunt to see his father for the last time. His father was dying in a hospital bed. The trip was uncomfortable since he quarreled with this woman who had been a childhood favorite, a beautiful woman and “very generous with all the children and each of her visits had been an event.” You can feel the ambiguity of the scene as he recalls the happiness she once brought him, but how all he can feel for her now is pity. “At one time one of my brothers and myself had thought of running away to live with her. Now she could no longer produce out of her handbag some unexpected and yet familiar delight. She made me feel pity and revulsion and fear. It was awful to realize that she no longer caused me to feel affection.” As their long trip to the hospital nears its end, Baldwin concludes, “So we wrangled and I smoked and from time to time she fell into a heavy reverie. Covertly, I watched her face, which was the face of an old woman; it had fallen in, the eyes were sunken and lightless; soon she would be dying, too.” His complex sentences have a rocking rhythm and a cadence that transported me along in his battle with himself.
As for this essay being religious, I feel it most in the strength in how Baldwin captures the speech of the Black church during his father’s funeral. As someone began singing one of the old man’s favorite songs, Baldwin says he was “abruptly” back in time to the Abyssinia Baptist Church which the family had attended when he was a boy. With that image, he says, “I had forgotten, in the rage of my growing up, how proud my father had been of me when I was little. Apparently, I had had a voice and my father had liked to show me off before the members of the church. I had forgotten what he had looked like when he was pleased but now I remembered that he had always been grinning with pleasure when my solos ended. For now it seemed that he had not always been cruel.”
Baldwin ends this essay on somewhat of a bittersweet note of hope, even though his reflections have taken him over a slow and torturous memory of events in the past. His language again can almost be heard as a high-minded sermon. In lengthy and complicated sentences, he layers meaning upon meaning to give his verdict on how his father had taught him a hard lesson in how to live one’s life. To me, I read this passage as an almost Christ-like homily on salvation: “It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”
Baldwin sets a high standard for producing such intimate portraits set in uncompromisingly harsh conditions. The grim self-knowledge gained from his early experiences is at times almost unbearable to read. He is a strong role model for any writer, the master of amplitude who creates a wealth of fully developed and complex characters. In addition, I find his voice to be almost theatrical at times with its commanding presence. Baldwin teaches us all how to transform some of life’s bleakest experiences into high literature.
- Image: James Baldwin, photographed by Mottke Weissman (public domain).