By Liat Faver
This essay addresses sections of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, chiefly because these chapters are literary magnificence. Baldwin’s ability to deliver clearer than daylight settings and characters, in intricately woven words, and the emotion he conveys, make him irresistible.
In the title chapter, Baldwin, a young man of color in 1940s New York City, struggles with his identity. He takes us to the Harlem streets and we see, hear, and smell the neighborhood where “on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow” (100). He battles feelings of outrage at the many injustices visited upon blacks, describing “the ‘race’ men, who spoke ceaselessly of being revenged,” and the “directionless, hopeless bitterness, as well as that panic which can scarcely be suppressed” (101), in himself and his countrymen. In a restaurant, Baldwin’s storm overcomes him and in the wake of a violent outburst he begins “to feel that there was another me trapped in my skull like a jack-in-the-box who might escape my control at any moment and fill the air with screaming” (102). Although I am a white woman who wasn’t alive when this was written, I have felt the “jack-in-the-box” inside myself. The repression of women has often motivated my tempests. Black or white, male or female, unfair is unfair, wrong is wrong, and Baldwin knows it well.
Equal in Paris takes us to the grimy side of the City of Light, where Baldwin lives in “a ludicrously grim hotel on the rue du Bac, one of those enormous dark, cold, and hideous establishments in which Paris abounds that seem to breathe forth an odor of gentility long long dead” (138). This passage reminds me of the many vivid descriptions in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a tale set in dreary Parisian shadows, of a man consumed with self-loathing, in denial of his homosexuality. I recognize much of Baldwin’s inspiration for Giovanni’s Room in his Parisian excursions. Baldwin goes there with very little money, and devotes considerable attention to French culture, that is “nothing more or less than the recorded and visible effects on a body of people of the vicissitudes with which they had been forced to deal” (140). The young Baldwin is beginning to understand what generates a society, and his views are fair and balanced. In Paris he discovers new reasons to be afraid, and being black is among the least of them.
Baldwin continues exploring the manifestations of identity in his final chapter, Stranger in the Village, comparing white and black men and a “battle by no means finished, the white man’s motive was the protection of his identity; the black man was motivated by the need to establish an identity” (173). As opposed to individuality and self-awareness, the notion of identity as a preservation of one’s history and as adaptation to a confused, alien culture and its leaders, I am impressed with how uniquely, and utterly “it remains for him to fashion out of his experience that which will give him sustenance, and a voice.”
Notes ends with less pain and anger than its beginnings, and Baldwin’s travels reveal a man who has learned to define himself. He is stronger, wiser, and freer in a world that is “white no longer, and it will never be white again” (175).
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press. 1955. Print.