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

Quote

“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