Book review: Notes of a Native Son

Baldwin’s collection of essays is a foray into a different world and time. Perhaps it is not so different from now, but several layers of glass separate his experiences from mine. In some places the separation is less distinct—such as his reflections about life as an ex-pat—but in other cases the separation more striking.

The work is an autobiographical account of Baldwin’s life experiences as a black man in the US and then in Europe in the mid 20th century. The West, he points out, is not his heritage, but he has no other; the history of slavery robbed him of that. He sets out to assess Western heritage in relation to black people.

His essays are divided into three sections: reviews on writings and movies about blacks, reflections on life as a black man in the US, and reflections on life as a black man in Europe. Baldwin’s perspectives are illuminating. His perspectives let me see through the eyes of someone who experienced life quite differently than I.

Baldwin reviews what I can only assume are seminal depictions of blacks in books and movies at the time: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son, and Carmen Jones. I have read or seen none of these works. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read the famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but then as I read his review I quickly felt embarrassed that the book was written. His assessment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is as a protest book that aimed at making us feel good. As usual with Baldwin, his quick insight cuts through the ways that things aren’t always what they seem and that people are not always depicted realistically.

He continues with reviews of Native Son, a novel written by an African American about African Americans. However, this novel fares no better, also relying on stereotypes and views of blacks created by whites and perpetuated thanks to their co-option by blacks. “The American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart; and when he has surrendered to this image life has no other possible reality.” (page 38)

Carmen Jones was a movie with an all-black cast, an interpretation of Bizet’s Carmen. Unfortunately, it too falls short. Made by Hollywood, it shows a depiction of blacks through white eyes, thereby perpetuating an incorrect image of blacks to both black and white audiences.

In the second section of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin shares thoughts and perspectives about black experiences in the US. The first two essays center on geographical locations, the third essay on his father and his father’s death. I was struck by the strand of bitterness and hatred that flow underneath, surfacing again and again. Perhaps I was sensitive to it because bitterness and hatred of whites featured prominently in his depiction of his father in Go Tell It on the Mountain. And perhaps because I am unaware of this bitterness and hatred towards me in my interactions with blacks.

In any case, Baldwin depicts these currents in the world that blacks occupy in the US. Churches in Harlem preach punishment of whites. They hide the bitterness and hatred they feel towards Jews and white Gentiles. Given their shared experience of oppression, blacks and Jews he points out should be common allies against whites in the US. But there is too much distrust. Fueled by whites perhaps?

His depiction of his father mirrors the depiction of him in his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin reveals some of his own bitterness and hatred too. One cannot blame him and again I was left wondering if my relations with blacks are as free from similar feelings as I naively assume they are. As usual, Baldwin shares gems of his own reflections. “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.” (page 101).

In 1948, Baldwin left the US for Europe, only to return when the civil rights movement became too heated or painful to view from afar. He discusses the black musicians and entertainers who graced Paris and the flux of GIs studying in Paris after the war. (I found the latter fascinating given a recent book I read; at least in the US, the GI Bill, which helped so many WWII veterans gain an education, was often closed to black veterans and yet Baldwin points to black GI using the bill to study in France.)

His last two essays are the ones that spoke to me the most, perhaps because they were descriptions of his personal experience living in Europe. The last spoke to me because of my own time living abroad. I could relate to some of what he experienced as a person of a particular race in a sea of Others. In my case, it was as a white person in a sea of Asians.

He recounts a harrowing experience of being arrested, imprisoned, and on trial in a country whose customs and language he didn’t really know. He escapes the limbo he is in through the largesse of a fellow inmate gaining his release and seeking out an American lawyer in Paris that Baldwin knew. Baldwin left the US to be free from the horror of being black in the US but it ultimately found him in Paris. When he finally attained a trial and was able to explain what happened, he was quickly released but not before the courtyard erupted in laughter over his plight. The laughter was the same sort of laughter that he thought he left behind in the US—the laughter at the plight of African Americans. “This laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real.” (page 158). I winced at the realization he had.

His last essay described his experiences in a remote Swiss village, a village so remote that it hadn’t seen a black person before. Some of his experiences I could not directly relate to, such as the tradition that the villagers “bought” Africans to convert them. (I assume this was the practice of donating money to send missionaries to Africa to save souls.) Or the common ways children referred to him, innocent enough in this context but that resonated with the racist context of slurs in the US.

Notes of a Native Son collects Baldwin’s essays on race in the US and its reverberations in Europe. Although a slim volume, the book packs many punches and provides commentary on American society, white supremacy, and its continued oppression of blacks through their depiction and characterization by whites and adoption by blacks. Sadly, Baldwin seems to suggest that freedom from other’s views of what it means to be black cannot be escaped by leaving the US.

Beauty from the small and transitory

Cool water in a small teacup on a hot day.
Trees swaying and leaves rustling in the wind.
Sound of cicadas in a mid-summer garden.
Waft of wisteria on the breeze under a pergola.
Velvety petals of lamb’s ear along the path.

Movie review: Obit. (2017)

Obit. takes a look at the world of obituary writers at The New York Times. The documentary delves in their world. Various writers are interviewed and accompanied through their daily tasks.

Rather than a leisurely job of writing about interesting people, obituary writing is a hectic fast-paced job of writing about interesting people. Anyone who had an impact in the world could be fair game for an obituary. And their obituary must go out in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

For this type of work, people need to be called, facts tracked down, news clips gathered. Yes, news clips. The Times has a department devoted to news clips of people and events. Thousands of drawers in filing cabinets contain files on individual people. A team used to maintain these files. These days one person oversees the department. When a writer is assigned an obituary about a newly deceased person, they wander to the morgue (i.e., morgue file department) to gather information.

Writers search for the odd fact or interesting tidbit that speaks to a narrative that they are crafting about the deceased. On occasion they write advanced obituaries for famous people who may be at the end of their career or life that can be pulled when they die. Usually though the writers are scrambling to gather the facts and craft a narrative in time for the 6 pm newspaper deadline.

Oh yes, and before then they have to check the facts. They must call and track down people to corroborate items. But of course, Murphy’s Law. Mistakes happen. And corrections must appear in the following day’s paper.

The documentary covers some people for whom obituaries were written. Some you may know. Some you may not. Kinzler who saved Skylab. (Did he really or was this a family myth? The answer is the former. He really did save Skylab.) Pete Seeger and the photos they had on file (in the morgue) when he was a small child. The bass player for Bill Haley and the fight to keep in the obituary the fact that his father was a hog butcher. (It helps define his life, the writer argued.) Or Stalin’s daughter and her life as an ex-pat after Stalin’s death.

Why, one writer explains, are women and minorities often missing from obituaries? Obituaries are retrospectives, a reflection of the times 40, 50, or 60 years previously. In the past, the movers and shakers tended to be white men. But now women and minorities who had an impact during the civil and women’s rights movements are now passing away. Equality increases with the passing of time.

Obit. is an interesting look into the obituary department at The New York Times. The writers have the unique opportunity of learning about lots of people who led interesting lives and had an impact on the world. In their role, they occupy a fascinating seat to witness and celebrate the passing of history.

Book review: Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled Him to the Presidency

Lincoln’s Last Trial recounts an intriguing murder trial in mid-19th century Springfield, IL. Most of the town knew each other all their lives. The families of the defendant and the victim were united through marriage. The lawyers knew each other. Some people had run against each other for elected office. It was an odd situation where friends and former colleagues were on opposite sides.

The trial is a vehicle to examine small town lawyering, legal norms, and Lincoln before he ascended to the presidency. Lincoln remains a mystery but points are drawn out based on this trial and previous trials where he was a prosecuting or defending lawyer. Lincoln, the book argues, wove an image of himself as a folksy, down-to-earth, small town lawyer. His clothes were worn and his hair askew. It turns out that he really did store his papers in his stovepipe hat.

But his rumpled appearance was a ruse. His modus operandi was to build a friendly rapport with the jury—he is just like them. He looks like them. He talks like them.

And yet. We know he is not like them. When situations warranted it, he dropped the ruse and defended positions in the courtroom with an articulate and polished force. During these times he was a sight behold. People flocked to the courtroom to see him perform. Or at least to see him perform in this murder trial.

The novel is based on stenographic notes that Robert Roberts Hitt had written during the trial. Hitt was trained in a new technique of note taking. The quality of transcripts that he produced was so outstanding that he was in high demand. He had transcribed notes for Lincoln in the past and was specifically called to record this trial.

It is all by a twist of fate that we have the details for the Harrison-Crafton trial. We only have the details thanks to his notes of the trial. Stored in a garage in California. Discovered by chance in 1989.

The book recounts interesting historical tidbits, not just about Lincoln, but about legal customs. Under Illinois law, defendants could not take the stand in their own defense. Without Harrison testifying that he knew about threats to his life, how would Lincoln prove that he acted in self-defense?

But most interesting observations about legal norms came from Hitt who had transcribed trials in large cities like Chicago. Hitt noted the differences between small town courtrooms and big city courtrooms. The norms of the former were likely formed by the informal rules of circuit trials, which often were held in impromptu places. Jurors asked questions of witnesses in the middle of the trial with no cause for concern. Witnesses were allowed to freely give their accounts of stories without interruption or objections.

Some descriptions made me laugh out loud. The trial, which involved two local families, was highly anticipated and well attended. The courtroom was packed and standing room only. As a nod to the customs of the time, normally gentlemen would give up their seats for ladies present. But this trial was too important. Men wanted to attend without standing the entire time.

“As he [Hitt] waited for the proceedings to begin, spectators filled all the seats and standing room in the back and on the sides of the courtroom. There were a few women among them, but Hitt noticed with some amusement that the seated men tried to appear natural as they desperately avoided meeting the eyes of a woman, lest he would be compelled to give up his precious seat. But in several instances they were unsuccessful and, with a defeated shrug gave up their seats and joined those standing.” (page 60)

In another case, the response to questions posed in jury selection showed a quick wit (or slow obtrusiveness) on the part of the potential juror. “…’Are you sober? [asked the lawyer to a potential juror.] To which came the response, ‘You mean, right now?’” (page 67)

Dr. Allen, a witness for the defense, was a good friend of Lincoln’s and encouraged him to go into politics. “Dr. Allen had organized and ran the first Sunday school in the village, which proved very popular, but also had founded the local Temperance Society, which was exceedingly less so.” (page 193)

Lincoln’s Last Trial shows us a Lincoln that we already know as well as one that we may not. Lincoln the everyman comes across as a shrewd political operator. He sized up situations, typically hiding his intellect but bringing it to play at key times. He was ever observant and he knew how to ingratiate himself. But he was also a man of integrity who would not defend someone he didn’t believe in or prosecute someone whom he thought was innocent.

The myth of Lincoln looms so large. How much of the image in the book depicts the real Lincoln and how much the legend that he became?