Sunday, December 2, 2012

Revisiting James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son

Posted By on 12.02.12 at 10:00 AM

James Baldwin in 1955
  • Carl Van Vechten
  • James Baldwin in 1955
"I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again."

So begins James Baldwin's autobiographical note to his essay collection Notes of a Native Son, published in 1955 when he was 31 years old. The essays had been written when Baldwin was just in his 20s; he had already published his novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni's Room (1954) by the time Notes came out. Even so, he told a friend that he thought it was too early in his life for a "memoir."

Baldwin wrote elegantly and honestly and passionately about race relations in America, and he did so from a lofty perspective, both self-aware and world-wise. One of his challenges was to define what it meant to be a "native son":

I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to make them mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.

And Baldwin wrote in his preface to the 1984 edition:

I had to claim my birthright. I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

The conundrum of color is the inheritance of every American, be he/she legally or actually Black or White. It is a fearful inheritance, for which untold multitudes, long ago, sold their birthright. Multitudes are doing so, until today. . . . Something like this, anyway, has something to do with my beginnings. I was trying to locate myself within a specific inheritance and to use that inheritance, precisely, to claim the birthright from which that inheritance had so brutally and specifically excluded me.

Here's an excerpt from the title essay, with Baldwin reflecting on a single day in which his youngest sister was born, his father died, and riots broke out in Harlem; he was about to turn 19.

"My last night in New Jersey, a white friend from New York took me to the nearest big town, Trenton, to go to the movies and have a few drinks. As it turned out, he also saved me from, at the very least, a violent whipping. Almost every detail of that night stands out very clearly in my memory. I even remember the name of the movie we saw because its title impressed me as being so patly ironic. It was a movie about the German occupation of France, starring Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton and called This Land Is Mine. I remember the name of the diner we walked into when the movie ended: it was the 'American Diner.' When we walked in the counterman asked what we wanted and I remember answering with the casual sharpness which had become my habit: 'We want a hamburger and a cup of coffee, what do you think we want?' I do not know why, after a year of such rebuffs, I so completely failed to anticipate his answer, which was, of course, 'We don't serve Negroes here.' This reply failed to discompose me, at least for the moment. I made some sardonic comment about the name of the diner and we walked out into the streets."

And chaos followed.

Notes_of_a_Native_Son.jpg

Beacon Press has just released a new edition of Notes of a Native Son, with an introduction by novelist Edward P. Jones (The Known World). I'll let Jones eloquently sum up:

One of the wonders of coming back to Notes after such a long time is how "current" Baldwin is. That might sound like a cliche, but in so many instances in our lives we learn that some cliches are built on things solid and familiar and timeless. "Journey to Atlanta" is but one of a hundred examples in Notes. What also comes across, again, is how optimistic James Baldwin was about himself, his world, black people. Even when he describes the awfulness of being black in America, he presents us with an optimism that is sometimes like subtle background music, and sometimes like an insistent drumbeat. But through it all, with each word—perhaps as evidence of a man certain of his message—he never shouts.

But I'll let Baldwin himself eloquently close:

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. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

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