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Essay On James Baldwin Notes Of A Native Son

February 26, 1958
Notes of a Native Son
By LANGSTON HUGHES

NOTES OF A NATIVE SON
By James Baldwin.

think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person. There is something in Cervantes or Shakespeare, Beethoven or Rembrandt or Louis Armstrong that millions can understand. The American native son who signs his name James Baldwin is quite a ways off from fitting such a definition of a great artist in writing, but he is not as far off as many another writer who deals in picture captions of journalese in the hope of capturing and retaining a wide public. James Baldwin writes down to nobody, and he is trying very hard to write up to himself. As an essayist he is thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing and amusing. And he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing.

In "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin surveys in pungent commentary certain phases of the contemporary scene as they relate to the citizenry of the United States, particularly Negroes. Harlem, the protest novel, bigoted religion, the Negro press and the student milieu of Paris are all examined in black and white, with alternate shutters clicking, for hours of reading interest. When the young man who wrote this book comes to a point where he can look at life purely as himself, and for himself, the color of his skin mattering not at all, when, as in his own words, he finds "his birthright as a man no less than his birthright as a black man," America and the world might as well have a major contemporary commentator.

Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is arousing emotion in fiction. I much prefer "Notes of a Native Son" to his novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," where the surface excellence and poetry of his writing did not seem to me to suit the earthiness of his subject matter. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.

What James Baldwin thinks of the protest novel from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to Richard Wright, of the motion picture "Carmen Jones," of the relationships between Jews and Negroes, and of the problems of American minorities in general is herein graphically and rhythmically set forth. And the title chapter concerning his father's burial the day after the Harlem riots, heading for the cemetery through broken streets--"To smash something is the ghetto's chronic need"--is superb. That Baldwin's viewpoints are half American, half Afro-American, incompletely fused, is a hurdle which Baldwin himself realizes he still has to surmount. When he does, there will be a straight-from-the-shoulder writer, writing about the troubled problems of this troubled earth with an illuminating intensity that should influence for the better all who ponder on the things books say.

Mr. Hughes, the poet, is author the recent book, "The Sweet Flypaper of Life."

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Baldwin begins the title essay in Notes of a Native Son with a statement of death and birth. He mentions that his father died on the same day that his father’s last child was born. This theme of death and birth also works itself out on a larger scale, eventually encompassing the entire essay. By the end, while sitting at his father’s funeral, Baldwin is able to see his father in a different light, one that includes both his negative and positive characteristics. In doing so, Baldwin is also able to see himself more clearly. By examining his relationship with his father, Baldwin experiences several revelations, which culminate in a type of symbolic death and spiritual rebirth by the end of the essay.

In laying out the details of his relationship with his father, Baldwin presents many examples of how he is both similar to his father and different from him. Sometimes Baldwin is very conscious of the differences. At other times, he seems oblivious to the differences, or maybe he just does not want to see them. For instance, at one stage in the essay, he points out that he had not gotten along very well with his father because they shared ‘‘the vice of stubborn pride.’’ With this statement, Baldwin clearly sees the link between himself and his father. He also admits that his father’s ‘‘intolerable bitterness of spirit’’ had unfortunately been handed down to him. However, there are other moments when Baldwin’s rage and even a kind of paranoid madness descend upon him, possibly blinding him to the personal characteristics that he and his father share. He moves back and forth, throughout most of the essay, at times freely drawing parallels, at other times trying desperately to gain distance. The strength of the piece, however, is in his final resolution in which he comes to grips with his father’s emotions as well as his own. In the end, he is able to separate himself from his father and yet still cherish in a place in his heart the fact that he and his father will be forever joined.

Sometimes Baldwin’s connection to his father comes to him slowly. At first, he might not relate to some of his father’s traits, such as when he flashes back to memories of his childhood; but then, after Baldwin has a later experience that sheds light on his father’s beliefs, Baldwin gains a better understanding. For instance, he writes about his father’s dislike of, and impatience with, white people. ‘‘It was clear,’’ Baldwin relates, ‘‘that he felt their very presence in his home to be a violation.’’ Baldwin then tells the story about when he was in elementary school and a white teacher took an interest in his writing abilities. She builds a relationship with Baldwin and his family, nurturing his talents and encouraging him to write. His father has trouble accepting this white woman in his home. He is suspicious of her. Baldwin, at that time, understood the power this teacher had. She could open up the world a little wider for him. He used her power to help him get out from under the oppressive nature of his father. At the time, he felt that his father was completely off-base in his fear of white people.

Throughout high school, Baldwin makes friends with white students. He is able to accept them in spite of his father’s warnings that they are not to be trusted. Much later, however, after Baldwin has spent years dismissing his father’s warnings about white people and how they will ‘‘do anything to keep a Negro down,’’ Baldwin leaves home. He had spent his earlier years in Harlem, where the population was mostly black. When he leaves home, he lands a job in a defense factory in New Jersey, where black people were, at that time, in a small minority. Not only are the people with whom he works white, they are southern whites, people who are used to demanding very specific behaviors from black people. Baldwin has already admitted that he has a stubborn pride, so he is not one to humble himself easily simply because of the color of his skin. ‘‘I acted in New Jersey as I had always acted, that is as though I thought a great deal of myself.’’

Slowly but surely, the racist attitude of this white population wears away Baldwin’s confidence. At first, he tries to ignore it, but in a fit of rage one night, he becomes so blinded with hate that he believes he could have killed someone. He never mentions that his father ever had such thoughts, but he does portray his father as someone who was ‘‘locked up in his terrors; hating and fearing every living soul.’’ It is through this experience in New Jersey that Baldwin begins to understand his father’s dislike of white people. It is as if, through their now mutual distrust of white people, Baldwin has discovered a common language. If his father was right about white people, maybe he was right about other things, too. This marks the beginning of Baldwin’s revelation.

It is during this time that Baldwin’s father is diagnosed as suffering from paranoia. Baldwin does not ever mention this mental illness on a personal basis; that is to say, he never implies that he ever feels paranoid, but he does describe some of his thoughts that could possibly be interpreted as paranoid. For instance, he writes that during that year when he lived in New Jersey, he felt as if he had ‘‘contracted some dread, chronic disease.’’ He then relates how he had been fired from his job several times, but through some undefined circumstances, he won his job back. Instead of seeing the positive implications in this, he describes the situation thus: ‘‘It began to seem that the machinery of the organization I worked for was turning over, day and night, with but one aim: to eject me.’’ He also mentions that when he walked down the streets, the people who passed him ‘‘whispered or shouted—they really believed that I was mad.’’ One further example of a possible paranoia that was brewing inside of him happens again when he is walking down the streets. He writes: ‘‘People were moving in every direction but it seemed to...

(The entire section is 2475 words.)