It is extraordinarily depressing to realize that the world of 2017 is not that much farther removed from the still-segregated world of the late 1940’s and ’50’s that James Baldwin writes about in his essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. Racism is an ingrained fact of life in our America, just as it was for Baldwin, with micro aggressions, fear, and repression as prevalent now as it was in the 48-state America Baldwin writes about in these ten essays. “I love America more than any other country in the world,” he writes in the Autobiographical Notes that begin the book, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Baldwin has a razor-sharp critical perspective on American society and the role of the black man in white-dominated life. He writes in crisp sentences that unfurl like detonations, building up intensity in waves of argument. Baldwin was a child preacher, and much of his writing in Notes of a Native Son sounds as if it should be read aloud. Many of the essays have a tightly-controlled anger that Baldwin holds just under the surface of his sentences, like a sermon from the pulpit that resonates with Biblical intensity and willfulness instead of bland Sunday-school rhetoric.
Perhaps the most well-known and widely anthologized essay in the collection is the title work, in which Baldwin writes of his father’s death which coincided with the birth of his sister, his nineteenth birthday, and the Harlem riot of 1943, a convergence of events that elicits his anger and retribution while also laying the foundation for his extraordinary interpretation of bitterness: “The dead man mattered; the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.”
And yet Baldwin never denies the inequities of the radicalized world, a Harlem so blighted and extorted by predatory pricing, so crowded and broken, that “To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need.” He writes of a rage so violent when he is refused service in a coffee shop in Trenton, N.J. that he hurls a cup of water at the offending waitress: “I hated her for her white face, and for her great, astounded, frightened eyes. I felt that if she found a black man so frightening I would make her fright worth-while.”
Baldwin lived in France for much of his life, and the last four essays are written during his time in Paris and Switzerland. In “Equal in Paris” he describes a week of abject misery in prison after he is arrested for supposedly receiving stolen property: an acquaintance lends him a bed sheet that the friend has stolen from a hotel, the police arrive, and arrest them both. Baldwin barely speaks or understand French, and the terror he writes of, not knowing or understanding what would happen, and the bureaucratic lethargy of the French justice system is horrifying and compelling. One does not need to think far to imagine what Baldwin hints at but does not say: how much infinitely worse it would be for a black man in the American justice system, accused of even such a petty crime as this, without the hope of exoneration Baldwin receives from the benevolence of a released prisoner, a French man, who contacts Baldwin’s lawyer, insuring his eventual acquittal.
This is such an important book to read, not just as a counterbalance for me after last week’s Dani Shapiro entitlement-fest, but also as humans in this troubled world of ours, an attempt to understand, imperfectly of course, absorbing through our different skin, the experiences of someone for whom living without malice, prejudice, and violence is not a given, not a right, not an inalienable guarantee of the pursuit of happiness. Baldwin does find a measure of his own hope through this very struggle to exist and be visible in the white world: “For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” Read this book. We must, as citizens of this world.