Notes of a Native Son is a 1955 collection of James Baldwin’s essays and articles, all previously published elsewhere as I understand it. Their subjects range over books, movies, personal history, and social commentary; what each piece has in common is a consideration of race relations in the United States. He is concerned with the American “Negro” (this is no longer considered the right word, but I’m tempted to use it here, because he did) and the relationships amongst Americans, white and black. A persistent question he ponders is that of the black man’s search for identity in a nation that variously rejects him, resents him, or feels guilt over its treatment of him, made more difficult by the loss of his own personal history pre-slavery.
There are some heavy bits here, unsurprisingly. While not exactly academic, some of it is definitely on the philosophic side of things. When Baldwin dives deeply into literary criticism, he loses me (I guess I’m rusty on literary criticism; I used to find such articles much easier to read!): “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” nearly made me quit the collection. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” he discusses a movie, and actors, so unfamiliar to me that I was only reading on the surface – where I rather enjoyed the essay, it is true, but where I certainly failed to understand fully what he had to say. On the other hand, “The Harlem Ghetto” struck me as intelligent, occasionally amusing, and relevant today. And as you know, I am always thrilled to make connections across seemingly unrelated books I’ve read or historical figures I’ve studied. Before I was halfway through this book, I’d seen mention of Lillian Hellman (see a recent biography, one of my favorite books of the year) and the Patterson family (another), not to mention of course threads that take me back to The Warmth of Other Suns, which is how I got to this book in the first place. Ah, the circularity of things: it amazes and thrills me.
My favorite pieces in this collection were the autobiographical ones. I like Baldwin’s voice very much: he is wry and funny even when discussing the serious and the tragic. And I was most interested in learning more about him. My edition begins with a “Preface to the 1984 Edition” followed by “Autobiographical Notes,” both of which set the bar high. The titular essay comes about midway through and is also excellent. But my very favorites were the last two. “Equal in Paris” relates Baldwin’s experience being arrested in Paris and tried for possessing a bedsheet from the wrong hotel. It was hilarious, and ended chillingly. And “Stranger in the Village” covers his time spent in a tiny Swiss village where the residents had never seen a black man before, and is where I felt he made his most sweeping and hopeful statements about our present and our future. It was tragic, but forward-looking.
I really enjoyed Notes of a Native Son, although there were a few moments where I got bogged down. Baldwin’s voice charmed me. I recommend him.