Notes of a Native Son

“Notes of a Native Son” (1995) is an essay by writer and public intellectual James Baldwin. Baldwin was known for his unabashedly honest and controversial critiques on race relations in America and Europe. “Notes of a Native Son” follows Baldwin’s reflection on his relationship with his father among the racial tension and resulting riots in Harlem, New York City.

Notes of a Native Son Notes of a Native Son

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    “Notes of a Native Son”: James Baldwin

    James Baldwin was born on August 2nd, 1924. He grew up poor, the oldest of nine children, in Harlem, and worked part-time to help provide for the family. Very little is known about his relationship with his mother, but he referred to her as loving and caring. David Baldwin was actually his stepfather, and James never knew his biological father. He refers to his stepfather as his father.

    Notes of a native son, James Baldwin sitting on a statue, StudySmarterFig. 1 - James Baldwin spent many years traveling abroad.

    Baldwin’s relationship with his father was always tense. James lived a life his father resented and warned against. He read books, liked to watch movies, and had white friends. He hardly spoke with his father, and “Notes of a Native Son” is his attempt to reflect upon and give meaning to his relationship with his father.

    “Notes of a Native Son”: Essay

    The essay “Notes of a Native Son” was published in Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of essays originally published in various magazines and literary journals. The collection describes the burgeoning era of the Civil Rights movement through the autobiographical perspective of James Baldwin. “Notes of a Native Son” is an autobiographical essay organized into three parts and follows a narrative arc. Part one is an introduction, part two builds action, and part three has a climax followed by a conclusion.

    “Notes of a Native Son” moves between societal observations by Baldwin to inner dialogues and reflections on his relationship with society and others, especially his late father. He’s paranoid he will inherit his father's bitterness and distrusting nature. He also fears the destruction that comes from hatred. He wrote it as a social commentary, intending his audience to be any American, white or Black, but especially young Black men like himself.

    “Notes of a Native Son”: Summary

    On July 29th, 1943, Baldwin’s father dies, and his last daughter, Baldwin’s sister, is born. Race riots have broken out in Detroit, Michigan, and Harlem, New York. On August 3rd, his father’s funeral was held, which was also Baldwin’s nineteenth birthday.

    Baldwin and his family drive through the aftermath of the Harlem riots to Long Island. He reflects on his father’s world view, that an apocalypse is coming, and the surrounding destruction seems to confirm it. He had always disagreed with his father, but now with his father's death, and his own birthday, Baldwin begins to consider the meaning of his father’s life, and its relation to his own.

    Baldwin and his father hardly ever spoke. There is little information he has about his father. His paternal grandmother was born into slavery. His father was part of the first generation of free Black people, and his exact age is unknown. Consequently, Baldwin is part of a generation that never experienced the Jim Crow South.

    Notes of a native son, train station with Colored sign, StudySmarterFig. 2 - It was typical in Baldwin's day to see separate facilities for Black and white people.

    Baldwin’s father was handsome and proud, yet severe and cruel to his children. His children would tense up in his presence. He struggled to connect with other people, and was very unsuccessful in life. He was incredibly bitter, and Baldwin fears he has inherited that bitterness.

    Baldwin had grown up in Harlem, in a predominantly Black community. Before his father’s death, he had spent a year in New Jersey, living among white and Black people. It was the first time in his life that he experienced the immense weight and power of white society and racism. Now he has begun to see the relevance in his father’s repeated warnings.

    His father had struggled with mental illness, but no one knew that until he was committed to a mental hospital, where they learned he had tuberculosis and would die soon. His paranoia led him to insulate the family against their neighbors. He did not trust anyone and refused help despite the poverty and struggle to feed nine children.

    Welfare workers and debt collectors were the only white people who came to their home. Their mother handled the visits, as his father was “vindictively” polite. Baldwin writes his first play, and his white teacher takes him to see a Broadway show, which his mother supports but his father reluctantly allows. When his father is laid off, the teacher continues to help the family, yet he never trusts her. He warns Baldwin that he can never trust any of his white friends.

    Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin and Marlon Brando, StudySmarterFig. 3 - James Baldwin befriended many famous white celebrities.

    His year in New Jersey exposed him to racism. Baldwin always conducted himself confidently, and this created tension with his coworkers at his factory job. It took four visits to a self-service restaurant to realize he wasn’t supposed to dine there. The repeated indignities ignite a rage in him, and it boils over at a restaurant he enters angrily. The frightened waitress’s reflexive answer leads him to throw a water glass at her. She dodges, and he runs out, barely missing violent patrons and the police, thanks to misdirection from his white friend.

    Baldwin returns home to Harlem and notes that unusual combinations of people seem to be waiting for something everywhere. It’s 1943, and World War II is in full swing. Black soldiers are writing home and making the news about the racist and brutal treatment they receive during training down South. Baldwin, with his aunt, visits his father for the first time in the hospital, and the last time while he’s alive. They’re both distraught at the sight of him looking frail and shrunken, hanging on life support. The next day his father dies, and his last child, Baldwin’s sister, is born that evening.

    Baldwin spends the morning of the funeral with a friend. She helps him find black clothes to wear. He arrives to the funeral slightly drunk. He reflects on the sermon that describes his father in opposing, flattering terms. Someone begins to sing his father’s favorite song, and he is transported to a childhood memory of sitting on his father’s knee. His father used to show off Baldwin’s singing ability when he was in the church choir. He remembers the one conversation he and his father had in which it was confirmed that Baldwin would rather write than be a preacher.

    Notes of a native son, Harlem club atlanta StudySmarterFig. 4 - Harlem's reputation as a Black cultural hot spot was well known in other cities.

    While Baldwin tries to celebrate his birthday, he hears gossip about an altercation between a Black soldier and a white police officer. The incident ignites the Harlem race riots, which do not cross into white neighborhoods but target and destroy white businesses in Harlem. He hates to see the destruction and feels anger towards the white and Black people who caused it. He concludes that being a Black man means living a paradox. One feels intense rage and bitterness towards the oppression of racism, yet they cannot let it consume them. It’s important to fight injustice everywhere. The fight begins within, and one must resist “hatred and despair.” He laments his father isn’t around to help provide him with some answers.1

    “Notes of a Native Son”: Analysis

    The essay is a reflection of Baldwin’s relationship with his father and his attempt to make it a meaningful one. Below are the major recurring themes that appear throughout his reflection.

    Intergenerational Trauma

    Baldwin is concerned that he will become bitter and hateful like his father. He fears he has inherited his father's paranoia. He’s the first generation that has lived a life outside the Jim Crow South. The abuse and trauma of slavery is alive in his father. He’s cruel to his children and overly protective. His life has shown him that white people are not to be trusted. Even their immediate neighbors, and those who try to help, are rejected.

    Sense of Belonging

    Throughout the essay, Baldwin exists in a constant state of tension. He does not feel comfortable at home with his father. He mentions how his father's presence would paralyze his children with fear. When he returns home for his father’s funeral, he feels disconnected from the people in his neighborhood. Harlem feels strange, with unusual combinations of people waiting on steps and corners. He spends the morning before the funeral drinking with a friend instead of being with his family. When he passes through the aftermath of the riots, he feels frustration towards the destruction.

    Truth versus Delusion

    Baldwin grapples with the dichotomy between what people want to believe, and what is reality. During his father's eulogy, he feels the preacher gives an inaccurate description of his father. He’s described as kindly and generous, and Baldwin experienced the opposite.

    Notes of a native son, British book cover, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Baldwin became the voice of his generation.

    His father’s paranoia created a hostile world. Even when people tried to help, his father was distrustful. Baldwin sees the painful reality of his father when he’s on his deathbed. His father’s death helps Baldwin through his own delusions. He didn’t believe his father’s dire warnings about the white world. Despite what Baldwin thought about himself, he had to learn the hard truth that as a Black man, he was not treated based on his character but his superficial traits.

    The Self-destruction of Hatred

    The mental and physical illness that Baldwin’s father experienced symbolize the all-consuming power of the hatred he felt towards the world. The physical destruction of Harlem from the riots mostly hurt the Black residents. Baldwin empathizes with the rage but recognizes that if he acts out in anger, it will only bring destruction to himself and others. He concludes he must live with that anger, but fight injustice whenever he can.

    “Notes of a Native Son”: Quotes

    Baldwin recognizes that hate is an internal conflict.

    I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

    Only an individual can choose to resolve the bitterness within themselves. He saw his father gradually consumed by hate and died with it. Hardly any friends came to his father’s funeral. When Baldwin realizes the destructive power of hatred, he concludes it is easier to externalize this hatred towards others than doing the difficult task of confronting pain and trauma within.

    Their legs, somehow, seem exposed so that it is at once incredible and terribly clear that their legs are all they have to hold them up.”

    "Their legs" refers to Baldwin watching children go up to view his father's casket. Baldwin felt that no one should be forced to see his father’s corpse. The children have little say in the matter. Reflecting on his childhood, he remembers how helpless children are against the whims of adults. His family dealt with repeated abuses from his father. Essentially, they have no choice but to tolerate it until they have the ability and options to decide otherwise.

    To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need.”

    Baldwin acknowledges that every Black person has a boiling rage within. It results from the repeated abuses and indignities from the oppression of racism. The need to destroy something comes from the powerlessness they feel against white supremacy. When an injustice occurs, such as the shooting of the Black soldier by the white police officer, the rage needs an outlet which resulted in the Harlem riots. He experiences this personally at the restaurant when he throws a glass of water at a waitress, after being told one too many times that he cannot be served because he is Black.

    Notes of a Native Son - Key takeaways

    • "Notes of a Native Son" is an essay written by James Baldwin
    • In the essay, Baldwin reflects on his relationship with his father, or lack thereof.
    • His father suffered from mental illness, and Baldwin is concerned he will inherit it.
    • Baldwin draws parallels between his relationship with his father and his standing as a Black man in a white world.
    • Baldwin concludes that he cannot let himself be consumed by hatred, and must do whatever he can to fight injustice.

    1Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son (1955).


    References

    1. Fig. 1 - James Baldwin (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Baldwin_4_Allan_Warren.jpg) by Allan Warren (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Allan_warren) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
    2. Fig. 5 - Notes of a Native Son (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/James_Baldwin_Notes_of_a_Native_Son.jpg) by Charles Gorham is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Notes of a Native Son

    How is James Baldwin's “Notes of a Native Son” organized?

    James Baldwin's “Notes of a Native Son” is organized into three sections.

    What is “Notes of a Native Son” about?

    “Notes of a Native Son” is a reflection on Baldwin's relationship with his late father.

    What does Baldwin talk about in “Notes of a Native Son?”

    In “Notes of a Native Son”, Baldwin talks about his relationship with his father, experiencing racism while living in New Jersey, and the race riots in Detroit and Harlem.

    What is the genre of “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin?

    “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin is an autobiographical essay.

    Who is the intended audience of “Notes of a Native Son?”

    “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin was written intending his audience to be any American, white or black, but especially young black men like himself.

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