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.

Quest for existence


“A section of the white population, perceiving Negro pressure for change, misconstrues it as a demand for privileges rather than as a desperate quest for existence.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast.”  Saturday Evening Post (pdf). November 1964.

Movie review: Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures tells a story that is long overdue. The movie, based on a book of the same name, joins the ranks of other recent media that bring to light women’s history relegated to the dustbins of time. Thank goodness for the recent craze in bringing to light women’s contributions in technology, innovation, STEM fields, and at NASA. At long last, girls and women have role models that look like them, a powerful tool in populating STEM fields with more women.

Hidden Figures goes beyond this recent fascination with women in technology. The movie shows black women using their awe-inspiring skills in mathematics at NASA during the space race. Three black women in particular fill the storyline: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson.

The movie starts with the three of them broken down by the side of the rode on their way to work. But make no mistake, these are not damsels in distress. Vaughan fixes her own car. Jackson is a spunky spit-fire ready to take on discrimination when she sees it. Johnson is a daydreaming, yet down-to-earth soft-spoken woman who takes on discrimination in the workplace and in personal relationships.

Hidden Figures brings us into their world. We see the challenges that they faced based on their sex and race. Their skills were truly amazing. Vaughan taught herself FORTRAN and then sought to learn how to run the new IBM mainframe that NASA had purchased (the same mainframe that scores of white men walked away from, scratching their heads). Jackson approaches a judge in court about being allowed to attend classes at a white school so she could eventually become an engineer. And Johnson, well, she worked on mathematical calculations to send John Glen to the moon, which required developing math that didn’t yet exist.

Of course, men for the most part at NASA were not colleagues. At best, they were indifferent to the women. At worst, they were threatened and sought to make life as difficult as possible. White women were no better, treating the highly educated, highly skilled black women computers with contempt and as hired help rather than equal colleagues.

Race laws at the time added to these difficulties, and Hidden Figures makes it very clear the hurdles and insults that these caused. Johnson is forced to run half a mile across campus to use the bathroom. No bathroom for “coloreds” existed on the part of the campus where she worked to help get John Glenn to the moon. (Finally, in one scene where the head of the group yelled at her for leaving her desk for so long, she yelled back about why. And then she was allowed to use whatever bathroom she wanted.)

In another case, Johnson, unthinking while she was working on checking some figures, walked over the coffee pot to pour herself some coffee. The next day a smaller coffee pot appeared with the label “coloreds”. She was being told her place.

The obstacles that these women faced in their daily lives and in the workplace were unreal. And it is unreal to think that this was the way of things in the US even just fifty or sixty years ago.

But Hidden Figures isn’t just about black women, discrimination, or women in technology. The movie is also a good glimpse into the early space race. The anxiety with the Soviet Union launching satellites and spaceships into space is palpable. The urgency for the US to reach the moon first comes across, an urgency that is so easy to forget. In the fifties and sixties, the US seemed to be really bent on winning through science, innovation, and space exploration. Unfortunately, we seemed to have lost that drive in the ensuing decades.

My hope is that Hidden Figures inspires. Inspires improved race relations. Inspires an increased dedication to science and innovation. Inspires girls and women. We are truly blessed for the women who struggled to attain education, build careers, and contribute to our society and our collective goals. We are doubly blessed by non-white women who strove to attain these same goals. I am in awe of them. And thankful for the men, like John Glenn, who figuratively lent support as women struggle for equality and success.

Movie review: Loving (2016)

Loving can be an uplifting movie—or a depressing one—depending on your mood and perspective. It can reflect a triumph over injustice. Or remind you of how much discrimination still exists and is actually getting more blatant again.

The movie follows the Lovings, an interracial couple who marries during an era when interracial marriage was illegal in parts of the US. After Mildred becomes pregnant, Richard drives her to Washington D.C. to get married. They return to Virginia and move in with her family.

The problem is that interracial marriages are illegal in Virginia. Police show up in the middle of the night to drag them off to jail. Richard, as a white man, is free the next day on bail. He is not allowed to post bail for Mildred, but is told to have one of her people bail her out several days later. Pregnant and scared, Mildred sits in jail.

They get a lawyer, who advises them to plead guilty. He can get them off with a plea deal: leave the state and do not return together for twenty-five years, or go to prison. They leave the state and move in with a relative of Mildred’s in Washington D.C. As rural country folk with family in Virginia, they are miserable in Washington D.C. Mildred convinces Richard to return to Virginia; she wants Richard’s mother, a midwife, to deliver her baby.

Although they tried to be surreptitious in their return to Virginia, their return was noticed. They are arrested. Their previous lawyer shows up and takes the blame for them. He tells the judge that he advised them that it was OK to come back to Virginia to have the child. The Lovings are released and warned to never come back.

They spend the next five years miserable in Washington D.C. Two more children come, and the Civil Rights Movement arrives. Mildred is inspired to write Bobby Kennedy about their situation. He recommends their case to the ACLU. An inexperienced ACLU lawyer is handed their case and has some difficulty in convincing them of the best line of attack.

Neither Mildred nor Richard really seem to want the publicity. They just want to be allowed to live their lives as husband and wife in Virginia with their families and in the country that feeds their souls.

Mildred eventually puts her foot down, no longer willing to raise her children in a big city. They move back to Virginia to live in a remote farmhouse. Their legal case moves forward. On the advice of their lawyer, they meet with a photographer from Life magazine for an article and reporters who videotape an interview with Mildred.

The rest is history. Loving vs. Virginia found in their favor. Interracial marriages became legal throughout the US, and the Lovings were free to move back to Virginia, 10 years after they were run out of the state by a local judge. Richard builds the house for Mildred that he said he would back when they were planning to get married. Unfortunately, in 1975 Richard is killed by a drunk driver. Mildred lives in the house the rest of her days, dying in 2008.

How much is myth and how much truth? I do not know. But bless them for their fight to get their legal rights as a married couple recognized. Their battle, and its outcome, had profound effects…on interracial marriage and later same-sex marriage. Hopefully this is one anti-discrimination law that cannot be overturned.

TV movie review: John Lewis – Get in the Way (2017)

Get in the Way. That is John Lewis’s advice. The famous civil rights activist encourages others to get involved in order to change things. His entire life has been about getting in the way.

This documentary covers his activism, his foray into politics, his family—looking at different points throughout his life.

His six brothers and three sisters all seem to recount the same stories about him. He wanted to be a preacher and he loved the chickens he cared for. He would preach to the chickens, even baptize them, and, to the family’s amazement, they had funerals for chickens that died.

His parents raised him to treat others fairly and to be kind. And to stay out of trouble—the direct opposite of John’s modern advice of getting in the way. He went off to seminary and started getting in the way.

In 1957, he left for American Baptist College in Nashville, the first time he was in an integrated environment. There he met Jim Lawson at a nonviolence workshop and started his journey in nonviolent protests. After participating in protests, he described feeling free, as though he had crossed over. For him, “nonviolence is love in action.”

In 1960, the Supreme Court banned segregation on transportation, but the law was not enforced. John participated in the famous Freedom Rides, attempts to ride buses from DC to New Orleans. The rides ended in disaster. At one depot, a bus was met by a mob of hundreds who attacked and beat the riders. In 2009, one of the attackers, Elwin Wilson, apologized to John, an apology that John accepted.

John was a powerful force in the early years of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and went on to chair it from 1963 to 1966. Nonviolence was at the heart of all SNCC and John did. The documentary quotes lines from the SNCC Constitution: “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overcomes injustice.” .

John was also one of the Big Six who organized the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He coordinated efforts in 1964 to register voters in Mississippi. And in 1965 he joined—when SNCC wouldn’t—the march from Selma to Montgomery with King.

The documentary then shifts gears and focuses on Lewis’s role in politics. Active in community organizations, he was encouraged to run for office. John has continued to be active in fighting for civil rights and against discrimination in whatever form it takes. He has actively supported immigrants, LGBT rights, people with HIV/AIDS. A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

He does not seem to lose hope but realize that the fight is ongoing. Getting in the way never ends. He spoke up when the Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013. He spoke up when voting hours were reduced and voter ID requirements passed across the country, pointing out that they were aimed at suppressing the vote. He spoke up against efforts to limit or repeal gun control.

The documentary covers the highlights of John Lewis’s commitment towards securing people their rights and fair treatment. For a more in-depth look at his role in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, I highly recommend the recent movie Selma. For a look at his early life and the activism he took part at, check out the graphic novel trilogy March. Both will inspire you to get in the way.

Bless you, John Lewis, the conscience of the Congress. Thank you for the decades of service to your brothers and sisters of all persuasions. May you get in the way for many more decades.