Notes of a Native Son is the first of Baldwin’s collection of essays. Often in his novels, characters are trapped by social expectations, family, urban environments, or peer groups. Baldwin mentions more than once that he did not want to write about the “Negro problem” simply because he was a black writer active in the Civil Rights era. Yet, that is exactly what he does in his 1950s and 1960s non-fiction work. He realized the limitations of this and the cruel assumptions underpinning the expectation that a black writer consider issues of race. “I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews — mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” (5) But as any writer, he had to write about the life he lived and the times he lived in. This makes the “Negro problem” central to his work form this period. The essays in Notes of a Native Son were written when Baldwin was just starting his writing career and are grouped into three sections based on his experiences in these years: (1) his exhaustive reading, (2) growing up in Harlem, and (3) life as a black expat in Paris.
The first part, consisting of three essays, examines the images of blacks in American culture. First, he critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin and by extension “protest novels,” which by their nature suspend realism for the pushing of a political wish. Her characters are simple and her understanding of relationships between the races under slavery was shallow. Such novels, Baldwin asserts, have their role in promoting freedom but are nevertheless bad novels because they miss out on the fundamental reality. “The oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs.” (17) Baldwin next levels a similar critique against Richard Wright’s Native Son. Like Stowe, Wright is “trapped by the American image of Negro life. . . . It is the socially conscious whites who receive him [Bigger] — the Negroes being capable of no such objectivity.” (31) By embracing the anger of the era, Wright is no less a distorter of the black experience. His final critique is of Carmen Jones, a film with an all-black cast interpreting Carmen. And again, we find the work of art separated from the realities of black life. “One is not watching the complex and consuming passion which leads to life or death — one is watching a timorous and vulgar misrepresentation of these things. . . .The Negro male is still too loaded a quantity for them to know quite how to handle. Baldwin’s essential cultural critique at this time is the inability of artists to depict the world as it really is.
The next set of essays are autobiographical and deal with the urban experience of African-Americans in places like Harlem. He starts with a depiction of just how horrible things are in Harlem (“The Harlem Ghetto”). Poor services, high rents, staggering food costs, and abuse by black and white politicians. We feel like we are in the world described by David Simon in The Wire. Indeed we are in many ways and it is tragic how little of what Baldwin describes has changed in the last fifty years. What we end up with is trapped people. Baldwin explores this social prison through an analysis of black anti-Semitism. He sees it as a reflection of black bitterness toward whites produced by a racist society. “The Negro’s outlets are desperately constricted. In his dilemma he turns first upon himself and then upon whatever most represents to him his own emasculation.” (53) Yet (and here is makes the same point he makes in critiquing Native Son) bitterness and anger is not all that defines the urban experience. “Journey to Atlanta” considers some jazz musicians who toured the South. There they were taken advantage of by local political workers of the Progressive Party to canvas neighborhoods. Of course, the lesson here is that these skilled musicians were essentially seen as their skin color. “Notes of a Native Son” is the story of Baldwin’s father and his death. These memoirs intersect with some of the brutal realities in Harlem, including the indifference of some of the whites he encounters. Baldwin uses these small events to make explicable the race riot that engulfed Harlem at the same time that his father died. “The avenues , side streets, bars, billiard halls, hospitals, police stations, and even the playgrounds of Harlem — not to mention the houses of correction, the jails, and the morgue — testified to the potency of the poison while remaining silent as to the efficiency of whatever antidote.” (78)
The final four essays come from Baldwin’s observations of expat life in Paris, particularly focused on what he sees as the uniqueness of the African-American experience. In contrast to black nationalists (who he debates directly in The First Next Time), there is not a singular modern black experience in the world. African-Americans are bound to the U.S. and have their own struggles there. While providing some potential for freedom, Paris seems to be at best an escape from where the real reckoning must take place. One looks at the meetings of African-American expats with Africans living in France. “They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years–an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good-will, too heavy and too double-edged to ever be trapped in speech.” (89) Paris cannot become a center for identity for expats because too many of them are emotionally or otherwise tied to America. Baldwin often wrote about blacks in America encountering police, so it is interesting that he took the time to write a long essay about his arrest in Paris (he was accused of fencing). The police and judicial system is something that (I suppose) few expats experience and it may very well be one of the last parts of a foreign culture on experiences, if at all. I suppose the essay shows how Baldwin never quite became a Parisian and still held onto American attitudes about the police and power. The final essay describes Baldwin’s visit to a town that may have never encountered a black before. In a way, this allows Baldwin to escape race for the first time in his life. Since race is a dialectical experience, shaping the development of both whites and blacks, this small town lacked the “black-white” experience that would have contributed to such a fossilization of racial expectations. Being in a town without any blacks meant he was in a town without a history of slavery, violence, economic exploitation, and hatred. He sums up the “Negro problem” in America by saying “I am a stranger here. But I am not a stranger in America and the same syllable riding on the American air expresses the war my presence has occasioned in the American soul.” (124)
I will forestall any conclusion for now, until I write on more of Baldwin’s writings on race.