In the first couple of essays in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, it seems as though Baldwin valued his own ideas and opinions over the narrative, where a balance of the two would have been more enjoyable for the reader. The reader’s opinion however, seems to be only an afterthought for Baldwin, a disregard that both strengthens the book by allowing Baldwin to write freely, unencumbered by outside opinions, and weakens the book because at times it neglects the essays narrative. In some parts of the book, Baldwin seems to insert as many of his ideas as possible. As a result, it was harder to grasp Baldwin’s overall intent for some of the first essays. In the later essays however, Baldwin better weaves his ideas into the narrative and because the story line reflects these ideas, they have more impact. Langston Hughes, in a review of Notes of a Native Son, found Baldwin’s writing “thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing, and amusing,” and overall the collection of Baldwin’s essays lives up to this assessment. Baldwin presents unusual observations on society, what it means to be of a certain race, and what it means to be an American. His ideas stand out because they are told from the point of view of a man on the periphery examining a culture that should be his own.
As an author in the late 1950’s, Baldwin is unique in that he “depended on neither the white world nor the black world,” but instead made observations without regard to either (Baldwin, Reflections of a Maverick). In isolating himself from both worlds, he learns more about himself as he also comes closer to his goal of making “the concept of color obsolete (Baldwin, Reflections of a Maverick).” Notes of a Native Son stands out from other literature and documentaries about the same era because Baldwin does not seek the reader’s pity for black people or for himself, nor does he gloss over his less than amiable emotions. He not only gives the reader insight into the pain of being black during this time, but also illustrates the complexity and depth of emotion within himself. Baldwin admits that a waitress’s refusal to serve him, although stated “with a note of apology in her voice” made him grow “colder and more murderous than ever (Baldwin, 96).” In relating this story, Baldwin eschews the sentimentality, “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, [which] is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel (Baldwin, 14).” He readily criticizes this sentimentality in “protest novels,” which often reduce the subjects to caricatures comparable to the static characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Baldwin, 13). Baldwin avoids manipulating the reader into pity, sympathy, or guilt, as the author of a protest novel might attempt to do, and instead seeks recognition as a human in his range of emotions and experiences.
Langston Hughes, in his review of Notes of a Native Son suggests “that Baldwin’s viewpoints are half American, half Afro-American, incompletely fused…a hurdle which Baldwin himself realizes he still has to surmount.” Hughes proposes that when Baldwin overcomes the challenge of fusing the two, that Baldwin will become “a straight-from-the-shoulder writer, writing about the troubled problems of this troubled earth with an illuminating intensity that should influence for the better all who ponder on the things books say.” Although Baldwin fails to unite the two worlds, his detachment from both provides insight into what it means to be an American. Baldwin believes assimilation is the true goal of Americans—that the “American ideal…is that everyone should be as much alike as possible (Baldwin, 65).” Norman Mailer partially echoes this view, claiming that society is divided among the conformists and the non-conformists—the hipsters. Mailer however, romanticizes the role of the Negro in society, claiming that they avoid the pressures of a conformist society with the ever pressing threat of death or the oppression of expression. Baldwin disagrees with Mailer, point out that “a Negro learns to gauge precisely what reaction the alien person facing him desires, and … produces it with disarming artlessness” as a result of the dangers of society (Baldwin, 68). Mailer depicts the hipster, who he identifies with, as a product of society as well—“a new breed of adventurer who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts” (Mailer, The White Negro), but makes light of the struggles that Baldwin and other black people at the time faced.
Having never really thought in depth about what it meant to be an American, I always assumed that being an American was about having the right to be an individual, to criticize, to protest, to practice your own beliefs. What Baldwin insists, however, is that much of America would prefer that everyone were the same because differences make us uncomfortable. Baldwin forces the reader to acknowledge that some of the people who consider themselves the most patriotic, the vehement proclaimers of “’Merica,” are more than just a caricature of our society. America was once called a melting pot, a blend of cultures that became something completely original. While this idea, this exchange of cultures, seems ideal, what Baldwin depicts, is more of a forced culture loss—an America in which “any minority identified by the color of its skin and the texture of its hair… eventually grows self-conscious about these attributes and avoids” using products that emphasize their differences, but instead searches for ways to become more like the majority (Baldwin, 65). However, while assimilation is normal, there are many different groups and many cultures that retain their own characteristics and practices while living in America.
Although Baldwin has been criticized for writing about black culture after fleeing to Europe, the new perspective he attains while in France allows him to further understand himself and the differing worlds back in America. It also reduces the temptation to write sentimentally. “From the vantage point of Europe, he [discovered] his own country (Baldwin, 137).” While in France, Baldwin points out the paradoxical role of Americans in the world. In the United States Americans seem to wish to be a part of the same culture, to fit into society. While they are abroad, Baldwin suggests that Americans are resistant to being lumped together with American ideas and stereotypes such as the “Marshall Plan, Hollywood, the Yankee dollar, television, or Senator McCarthy (Baldwin, 129).” What Baldwin seems to be referring back to is the problem of historical background the “depthless alienation from one’s self and one’s people [which] is, in sum, the American experience (Baldwin, 123).” He implies that Americans have separated themselves from their history and therefore attempt to become a part of whichever society they live in.
Baldwin also makes some striking if not merely cynical observations about America politics. He proposes that while most of America is said to distrust politicians,
“of all Americans, Negroes distrust politicians most, or more accurately, they have been best trained to expect nothing from them;[because] more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives. It is true that the promises excite them, but this is not because they are taken as proof of good intentions. They are the proof of something more concrete than intentions: that the Negro situation is not static, that changes have occurred and are occurring, and will occur (Baldwin, 73).”
He expands upon this idea by noting that “in the struggle for mastery, the Negro is the pawn (Baldwin, 74).” Baldwin points out an idea that holds true for today’s politics. The minority groups, the people who are in need, the people who have a specific goal, are often used as pawns because they are the people with the most to lose or to gain. Politicians can decide whether to take a possibly profitable risk and endorse the goals of a minority group or to make them promises—or—they can withhold their views and refrain from action in order to hold onto the votes of a different group. This happens in politics every day, and while I would like to believe that Baldwin is wrong, that all politicians sincerely believe in the groups they make promises to, it would be naïve to believe that strategy never affects politicians’ decisions in regard to minority groups.
Through his writing Baldwin began to find his identity—who he is in relation to society, as an American, and as a human. Baldwin believed that “when you’re writing you’re trying to find out something you don’t know…what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out (Baldwin, Paris Review).” In the autobiographical essays of Notes of a Native Son Baldwin reluctantly finds his identity and his past. The essays are powerful because as Baldwin states in an interview with the Paris Review, he did not allow himself “to be defined by other people, white or black. It was beneath [him] to blame anybody for what happened to [him]. What happened to [Baldwin] was [his] responsibility (Paris review, Baldwin).”