Book Note: James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (reprt. 2012; Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). (Amazon; Bookshop)

I didn’t intend to finish this book during the weekend when we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Actually, I started reading it a few months ago and I thought I’d finish it during the winter break but as I’m prone to do, I got distracted when a new wave of books arrived in my mailbox. But I made my way back to it and now I’ve read it.

I think one of the things white Americans need to know is this: MLK isn’t the only Black American voice with which we should be familiar. Also, the parts of MLK’s legacy with which most of us are familiar are often sanitized for us. But if we really care to hear the voice of our Black neighbor, we need to read more of King’s corpus, and we need to hear voices other than those of King.

Whenever I read a book by a Black author I’m hesitant to say much because (1) it can come across as virtue signaling and (2) it places me back in the central role as a speaker rather than a listener. So, I’ll say little. Instead, I’ll say: go read this book if you want to hear the thoughts of one of America’s legendary and insightful Black authors. What I will say is more of a sharing; a sharing of a few of the statements that really hit me between the eyes:

  1. In the “Preface to the 1984 Edition,” Baldwin writes of white Americans that when our legends are attacked, “as is happening now—all over the globe which has never been and never will be White—my countrymen become childishly vindictive and unutterably dangerous.” (p. xxii). If we’ve seen anything over the past half-decade, it’s this. Threatened by pluralism, white Americans have become scary. Baldwin reminds us a paragraph later: “The people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.”
  2. An important experience I had while reading this book is recognizing how many Black Americans feel white Americans see them but also hearing how many Black Americans feel about white America. (Note: I’m torn between capitalizing “White” since in a sense, to keep it lower-case seems to universalize whiteness when whites are just one demographic among many in the United States while simultaneously sensing that one of the things white supremacy has done to white people is prevent us from actually creating a constructive culture of which we can be proud because much of our identity-making has been a project that attempt to lift ourselves up at the expense of people of color, making me wonder is the lower-case, denoting a lack of unified culture built around any real solidarity, is more appropriate. I don’t know.) Baldwin speaks of himself as a “kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.” (p. 6 from “Autobiographical Notes”) He comments that much of what is celebrating in this country, “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the strong of Paris, the cathedral at Chartes, and to the Empire State Building” are “not really my creations; they did not contain my history”. (pp. 6-7) Baldwin observes that to be Black in America means that one must “hide from himself as the price of his public progress”. (p. 9) And as he writes in “Many Thousands Gone,” for the Black American, “the past was taken from him whether he would or no,” (p. 30) as he is “adopts the vestures of his adopted land” (p. 30).
  3. People like me need to realize that our whiteness—not pigmentation but the cultural weight of whiteness that we white people have created—can become threatening even if that’s not our intent because so many people who look like us have used their whiteness to dehumanize our Black neighbor. In the essay, “Notes on a Native Son,” Baldwin remembers a time when he basically zoned out when he was refused service by a white female waitress and that this dehumanizing act “made me colder and more murderous than ever” (p. 98) Even as the woman fearfully and hesitantly enforced segregation, her feelings about her participation in this act were secondary to what the act was doing to Baldwin. Baldwin didn’t do anything he ended up regretting but what he felt arise in him scared him. On several other occassions, he comments on these feelings. For example, in “Stranger in the Village,” he says, “…since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naïveté, or else to make it cost him dear.” In the next sentence (p. 170), he states, “The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white mean cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being.”
  4. Baldwin’s comments in his “Autobiographical Notes” (p. 9), “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This was made evident in narrative form in his essays on his time in Paris, where for all the perks of experiencing French culture, he still felt away from home. Many white Americans have the attitude that “if you don’t like it, leave,” which is silly, at best. True love doesn’t mean lying to yourself or cheerleading everything that something or someone you love does. You can love a child or a parent and rebuke them. In fact, you must if you truly love them. We white Americans need to learn that the anger we hear from some Black voices is often more disappointment than anything. Black Americans love this country as much as white Americans do, maybe more when you look at how many white Americans would happily cast aside democracy in order to establish a ethno-state or a theocracy.

I said too much. Read the book.


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