James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955)

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.

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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.

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James Baldwin, “Going the Meet the Man” (1965)

The Library of America volume of James’ Baldwin’s fiction ends with his 1965 short story collection Going to Meet the Man.  A common theme in Baldwin’s work is the daily-lived experience of racism in 20th century America that goes beyond the legal discrimination of Jim Crow.  It is these experiences that were so central to the lives of Northern blacks like Baldwin, whose families escaped the more formal discrimination of the South. I hesitate to say it was worse as in Baldwin’s mind the urban racism he wanted to describe was no less debilitation, brutal, or (as in the case of police repression) institutionalized.

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All eight stories are fascinating and provide insights into American racism from different ages and points of view.  I was reminded of The Dubliners in the way Baldwin progressively orders these stories from young to old – starting with vibrancy, curiosity, and potential and ending with impotence.  Not all of his characters are black.  Notably, the lead figure in “Going to Meet the Man” is a white sheriff who is incapable of having sex with his wife without remembering an act of racial violence he witnessed.  In general, Baldwin is reminding us of how important society is in defining our individual potential – more of then not setting limits for us.  The trouble is that autonomy and escape from social institutions – even in urban areas (the place where such escape should be possible) – is simply not possible when your identity is imposed on you from the outside.

“The Rockpile” revisits the family of Go Tell It on the Mountain.  Here it is the father, Gabriel, who defines his son as an outsider.  When his natural son, Roy, in injured when fighting with other boys on a local rockpile, the stepson, John must carry the blame.  The central institution in “The Rockpile” is the family and to a lesser degree religion, since John’s mother so often resorts to religion to justify her husband’s actions or demand John obey his stepfather or suffer his ordeals (like a good Christian).

“The Outing” gives us the same character and setting.  This time they are engaged in a Christian outing on a boat.  It strikes us as a rather nice setting and it is nice to observe some of the more playful freedom of the boys, who are mostly interested in the outing as a chance to spend time with some of the neighborhood girls.  Religion, of course, saturates the air and we see the parents working hard to keep their children focused on the religious purpose of the outing.  This can work as a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire polemic against social institutions, that they try to confine our individual free expression.  The expectation of being saved is placed on the boys at the end.  The cost of the gathering of the community is their future commitment to its values.

“The Man Child” is about the violent brought out by class resentment.  We are presented with two friends, Jamie and Eric’s father.  Jamie is a drunk, unmarried (he “lost” his wife), and an economic failure.  Eric’s father has achieved everything his friend lacks, including having a son, Eric.  While the two men stated at the same point but diverged greatly.  In resentment, desperation, or loneliness Jamie kills Eric.  While the previous two tales suggest the oppressive power of social institutions like family and tradition, “The Man Child” reminds us how devastating it can be to not have those things.

“Previous Conditions” is a more straightforward account of how race functions in America.  The narrator is a poor actor.  He sums up his dilemma: “I’m not tall and I’m not good looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand.” (816)  The story explores a series of slights he faces, including being kicked out of his apartment (he sublet from a white friend) because he was black.   He was taught as a child not to accept being called “nigger” but in his adulthood it has become part of the transcript of his life.  Despite his isolation the story ends with a simple act of kindness (innocently purchasing a round of beers for some women sitting next to him).  We also get a window into the mistrust and indifference of the urban setting.  “Anonymous, islanded people surrounded  me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes.  I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.)” (828)

“Sonny’s Blues” is a very powerful tale of a man who observes the fall of his younger brother into drugs after his decision to become a jazz musician.  After deciding to help his brother due to the death of his 2-year-old daughter we gain access to the narrator’s memories, particularly how he was charged with caring for his younger brother after the death of their father.  Sonny, the younger brother, is through all of this a more infantile character, relying on the care of others.  The narrator was scornful of Sonny’s choice to become a musician, even trying to believe that “musician” meant classical pianist.  When seeing the cleaned up Sonny perform at a bar, he learns how little he understood about Sonny’s powerful art, his renown, his talent, and how libertatory it was for him (even if that liberation was checked by drug use).  “It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament.  I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.  Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.  Yet, there was no battle in his face now.  I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.  He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy.” (863)  Music was a way to escape suffering and the burden of expectations (in this case also familial).

“This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” takes us back to the expat community in Paris (see Giovanni’s Room and Another Country for more examples of Baldwin’s interest in Americans in Paris as a setting for his work.  Its central theme is the relative freedom from discrimination that African-Americans felt when they moved to Europe.  This is an old theme.  Even Frederick Douglass wrote on this in reference to his travels in England.  The jazz musician Sindey Bichet moved to Paris to escape racism as well (I recall this in my mind, but do not quote me).  Let’s listen to a bit.

Anyway, Baldwin has some beautiful and lively descriptions of Paris here.  “So here are American boys, anything but beardless, scratching around for Hemingway; American girls, titillating themselves with Frenchmen and existentialism, while waiting for the American boys to shave off their beards; French painters, busily pursuing the revolution which ended thirty years ago; and the young, bored, perverted, American arrivistes who are buying their way into the art world via flattery and liquor, and the production of canvases as arid as their greedy little faces.  Here are boys, of all nations, one step above the pimp.”  (892)

“Come Out the Wilderness” explores an interracial couple.  Ruth is a black woman working in an office and Paul is a white man and painter.  Ruth feels anxious about their relationship, her memories of her ex-boyfriend and Paul’s flakiness about the relationship.  She is convinced of the worse about him.  “He wanted to go.  He was not going to another woman.  He simply wanted to go.”  (909) The core of the story is her musings about her relationships, which tended to be defined by power, ownership, obligation, and service — in other words slavery.  Above and beyond the obvious issue of the legacy of slavery among black women and reality of masters raping enslaved women, should this be a tool to critique relationships more broadly.  Indeed, Ruth’s musings on slavery came when she thinks about her black ex-boyfriend not her current one who is just aloof.  This was in some ways a critique of the most radical voices in the sexual revolution – that relationships tend to be colonial and should be rethought from the ground up.

“Going to Meet the Man” is the last tale in this collection and is set entirely in a bedroom.  The plot consists of a impotent man finally achieving sexual arousal.  What gives this impotent white sheriff an erection is his recollections of the brutal lynching of a black man, which he saw as a boy under the direction of his father who insisted he witness the torture and death of another human being.  The last scene is no less horrifying.  His arousal, awakened by these memories, is tainted with racially-motivated violence.  (I will let you read it yourself.)  Baldwin’s generation not only experienced incredible racially-motivated violence during the context of the Civil Rights Movement and struggles against police violence, but older people had lasting memories of the early 20th century, when violence became one of the key tools to enforce Jim Crow.  Although this is a horrifying window in the mind of a white racist, we take away from Going to Meet the Man the lesson that the Jim Crow-era of racism was something that was lived from  birth until old age, in every aspect of life from the bedroom to the playground to the house of worship to the pub.