“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
James Baldwin was a fascinating and eloquent man, one who I would have loved to have had a conversation with. His insights into racial issues are truly phenomenal.
This is a collection of short essays about Baldwin’s experience with race. In the first three essays Baldwin critiques various books and movies on black culture that he believes do the race a disservice. In the 1950s when black representation was relatively low in both literature and film, I would assume that most black people would have been glad just to see themselves in print and on film;however, Baldwin talks about how misrepresentation is just as damaging as non-representation. I admire him a lot for that.
The other essays go into the black experience in the States and in Europe. One thing he said about his experiences in a small village in Switzerland was truly profound:
“I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know”
My favourite essay in this book was probably the titular one, Notes of a Native Son. It was heartbreaking and touching. I’ve read “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and I detested Baldwin’s father. However, after reading this essay, my perception has changed a little. I still found the father unlikeable but now I’m appreciating how difficult it must have been for a black man, an authoritative one trying to raise his family in a society in which all his hard work accounts for next to nothing, a society in which he is the king of the castle at home and is considered a “boy” in the white world. I could tell that Baldwin was trying to understand and forgive his father, and let go of his anger; it was truly touching:
“… I did not want to see him because I hated him. But this was not true. It was only that I had hated him and I wanted to hold on to this hatred… 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.”
Very powerful essays.