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.

Criticizing America

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“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.” ~ James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Book review: Go Tell It on The Mountain

The value of a novel is in revealing truths that move the reader, leaving the reader changed. Go Tell It on the Mountain does just that.

As I closed the book upon finishing it, an audible expression of astonishment escaped my lips. Go Tell It On The Mountain is a surreptitiously powerful book. The story seems so simple—a fourteen-year-old boy raised in a house led by stepfather who is a Pentecostal preacher.

Baldwin draws the reader deeper into the lives of major characters one by one. Their sins, their pain, and the suffering of their lives are laid bare for the reader to see. No judgement about them is clear-cut.

He plays with the role of sin and religion in the lives of African Americans. Sin envelops and morphs, rationalized away and looking different from various perspectives and through the eyes of various people. Religion both uplifts and destroys. Religion is a truth that brings salvation and partial healing. And a hypocrisy that brings damnation and harm. Salvation is never final and sin exists everywhere.

Racism of the early 20th century dances through the storyline. The poverty, the lack of opportunity, the despair screams of racism. Hatred of and distrust of white people pervades the life of some characters. Indifference of white people is the reality of other characters. White people appear on the fringes of the story as absent employers, violence to black lives, and the very present threat of police and the criminal justice system.

The novel shows lives cut short or full of pain. Lots of lost opportunities, snippets of love but mostly punctuated with hatred. Family and community are not idealized. The reality of relationships is on full display with its raw harshness.

My heart ached for each character in turn. They all exist in hell and live with a past that they wish to return to or long to forget. Life is a long series of pain and loss. Ironically in a such a family where religion plays such a central role in their lives, God seems absent.

Go Tell It on The Mountain is James Baldwin’s first major work, a semi-autobiographical novel. It is generally considered an American classic, and I can see why. His storytelling is superb and he reaches into the soul of the characters he describes. He touches on important themes, bringing them briefly front and center to the reader’s attention without preaching or belaboring his points. He relates truths in American society that leaves one pondering the items weighing down one’s soul from the telling of his story. The value of a novel is in revealing truths that move the reader, leaving them changed. Go Tell It on the Mountain does just that.

Movie review: I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House.

James Baldwin was an author and voice for social justice issues. (He rejected the label of civil rights activist.) In 1948, he left the US for Paris, due to the atmosphere of fear created by racist American society. After seeing a photo of a black woman being taunted and attacked by whites as she walked to a school that she was integrating, Baldwin could no longer remain abroad but returned in 1957. Baldwin then traveled through the south as a witness to the civil rights movement and a writer of his experiences. Through this time, he met and became friends with many prominent folks in the civil rights movement, including Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

The documentary, based on his unfinished manuscript, is a reflection on these three great figures in the civil rights movement, the civil rights movement itself, and racism in America. Baldwin explains his experiences in the US and those of African-Americans. Clearly a well-read and reflective thinker, Baldwin illuminates for whites the experiences of African-Americans in the US. Time and time again he patiently explains how experiences are interpreted differently by whites and blacks. He provides a stark education to his white audience.

I Am Not Your Negro is a combination of many different media. The movie shows clips of Baldwin giving talks at Cambridge or interviews on The Dick Cavett Show. His own words and thoughts are narrated over images. Clips from movies in his youth are shown that depict African-Americans and whites in different ways. These clips speak to what he explains about life in the US. His three friends are shown as the movie rolls through the late 50s to the late 60s—the deaths of Evers, Malcolm, and King are covered in succession.

Baldwin has a talent for holding a mirror up to us to reflect the soul of America. It shows a sobering portrait—a portrait well-known to African-Americans and unknown by whites who keep themselves in ignorance through formal and informal segregation. Baldwin’s words and description of America speak eerily of the present moment and the film overlays his words on scenes from modern-day America—an America long after his death in 1987.

I suspect that Baldwin would have been insightful despite his self-exile, but being an ex-pat gives one distance from which to view one’s own culture and reflect on one’s experiences. Baldwin’s time abroad likely sharpened his assessment of America and the cancer of racism.

Baldwin did not share a number of things with African-Americans from the 1950s and 1960s. He was not a Muslim or a black panther because he did not believe that all whites were the devil. He was not Christian because Christians, he observed, do not live by the commandment to love one another. He was not a member of the NAACP because that organization was entangled with black class distinctions.

His distance and separation from American culture and membership in variety societal groups gave him a removal from which to observe. Why is Malcolm X liked? Malcolm X, he explained to whites, articulates the suffering of African Americans and corroborates their reality. Whites do not know about the lives of their black brethren. Segregation that occurs after school when we go to our separate homes creates apathy and ignorance.

The commonality between whites and blacks seems to be hatred. The root of black man’s hatred is rage. The root of white man’s hatred is terror. Baldwin explains how a movie scene is seen differently based on one’s racial experiences in America. Rather than getting away to safety, a black convict jumps from the moving train when the white convict is unable to ascend it safely. White liberal audiences, Baldwin points out, love the black man for doing this; it reassures them that they are not hated. Black audiences abhor the scene, calling for the black man to get back on the train.

From his vantage point, Baldwin describes American virtues as simplicity, sincerity, and immaturity. The American hero, portrayed by John Wayne, epitomizes these traits. (Ouch. Wayne is considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity in the US, so this observation suggests that American males are immature and simple. Baldwin’s comments seem timeless.)

Blacks were originally needed for the American economy—to pick cotton. But now they are no longer needed. Will they be killed like the native Americans were? Comments like this made me pause and think about modern slavery through economics and the criminal justice system—and the killing of black men that seems to be an epidemic.

Baldwin also points out that in America and other western countries, whites easily pick up guns and cry “give me liberty, or give me death.” No one bats an eye at that. But if a black man did the same? It would not be interpreted or dealt with in quite the same way. Again, Baldwin’s comments seem timeless.

I Am Not Your Negro is an interesting glimpse into the civil rights movement and the lives of Evers, King, and Malcolm as told through the eyes of an ex-pat author. Baldwin’s comments and perspectives based on his life experiences as a black American in the US and abroad provide food for thought. And it makes me wish that he had finished his manuscript Remember This House.

We are our history

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“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” ~ James Baldwin