Essay Mondays: Baldwin


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

Wow. Well, I have no hesitation at all about this week's Essay Mondays choice: James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" is one of the most masterful essays I've ever read. In every way I found it inspiring: its well-crafted prose and controlled yet flowing structure; its skilled evocation of atmosphere; and, most importantly, the subtle and honest analysis of the psychological effects of institutionalized bigotry.

Baldwin structures "Notes of a Native Son" around a specific moment in time, one that turned out to be a crucible for him, his family, and for the entire black American community. On July 29, 1943, Baldwin's father died; on the same day, Baldwin's mother was delivered of her last child. This took place in Harlem, where Baldwin grew up, and where the resentment and unrest around the mistreatment of black soldiers training to fight in WWII (all black soldiers were trained in the American South) was building to a boiling point in the summer heat. Race riots were breaking out in Detroit and Harlem, and, as the family drove the body of its patriarch to the graveyard "through a wilderness of smashed plate glass," Baldwin himself, who had returned to Harlem to await his father's death after a year away from home, turned nineteen years old.

Like Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," "Notes on a Native Son" is equally compelling from the point of view of pure structure and style, and from one of philosophy and subject matter. Baldwin organizes the essay so that the many strands coming together in this one fraught Harlem month—his conflicted relationship with his father, which he now must resolve; the end of a life and the beginning of another; his experiences living on his own in New Jersey, including his first personal encounters with Jim Crow laws, and the ways in which those experiences affected him; the tense and menacing climate in Harlem, which turned the normal social order upside down in unnerving ways; his attempts, in a ridiculous yet so human fashion, to celebrate his birthday despite everything else going on—all interweave and build off each other, each one adding depth and import to every other. Baldwin's hatred of his father, for example, was partly due to his father's life-long bitterness, a bitterness that poisoned his relationships with his children and his congregants. The son had forsworn his father's outlook, but his recent experiences in New Jersey, where he had to grapple with being reduced from person-hood to a color of skin, have thrown his own world-view into heartbreaking disarray:

He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit and it frightened me, as we drove him to the graveyard through those unquiet, ruined streets, to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness was now mine.
        When he died I had been away from home a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father's bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.

Nineteen, that age of working out our inheritances and realizing who we are in the wider world, is doubly intensified here by Baldwin's almost simultaneous loss, both of his father, and of his illusions about his father in the world. Having defined himself in opposition to his father, he suddenly finds both that the source of that definition is gone, and that he is (horrifyingly) in real danger of ending up losing his life to the same kind of bitter alienation. Elsewhere in the essay, he describes an incident in New Jersey: after being refused service over and over again on account of his skin color, his feeling of frustration and powerlessness causes him to "snap"—he walks into a fancy restaurant and starts hurling pitchers of water at the white waitress who tells him "We don't serve Negroes here." "I felt," he writes, "that if she found a black man so frightening I would make her fright worthwhile." Later, after his white friend distracts the angry white restaurant-goers long enough for Baldwin to escape, he describes his horror at analyzing his own feelings:

I lived it over and over again, the way one relives an automobile accident after it has happened and one finds oneself alone and safe. I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.

I am white. I have never encountered anything even remotely comparable to a society-wide refusal of my common rights based on the color of my skin, and I feel very uncomfortable comparing myself to Baldwin. And yet, this paragraph resonated so deeply with me. I have an inkling of that horrifying, unwelcome bitterness that Baldwin is describing, but I feel it as a woman, in relation to men: in relation to the men who see my body as permission to cat-call me, to joke about sexual positions I might enjoy, to yell words like "slut" and "whore" at me as they drive by, to condescend to me, to assume that I don't understand them when they talk about computers or math. As in Baldwin's description of wanting to justify the waitress's bigoted fear of his skin color, since he couldn't do anything to change it, the hardest part of these situations is often the feeling of impotence: the message that the best way to deal with these people is "just to ignore them," that a victim who reacts to their aggressor is "just making things worse" or confirming the dominant stereotypes (violent black man, humorless feminist, "playing the race card," and so on). This means that it often feels like there's no way to get rid of one's feelings of anger and violation—one is told not to react, so one must simply carry those feelings inside, becoming ever more bitter with time, or, like Hughes's famous "dream deferred," exploding. Baldwin writes elsewhere:

That year in New Jersey lives in my mind as though it were the year during which, having an unsuspected predilection for it, I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once this disease is contracted, one can never really be carefree again, for the fever, without an instant's warning, can recur at any moment. It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.

And yet, one is responsible for finding some way to live in which one's heart is not overcome by bitterness; each one of us is, after all, the only person who can see to the state of our hearts. Baldwin vividly evokes his struggles to deal with all of this at nineteen, hinting at the path he was later able to find, but also letting the reader feel the moment-by-moment discomfort of the author's situation. It's a powerful, well-observed, and thought-provoking read, and I'll definitely be checking out the full volume of essays (also entitled Notes of a Native Son) in which this one appears.

Up next week: Adrienne Rich, Edward Hoagland, or Wendell Berry. And on another note: only three more weeks' worth of essays left in the Lopate book! I think I'll take a break from Essay Mondays for a while when I finish the book; I've really enjoyed it but I'm starting to feel overly structured in my reading.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • I love Baldwin. I teach "Sonny's Blues" now after a disappointing experience teaching Native Son (my kids just gravitated too much to the violence without getting to the finer points). Baldwin applies a subtler touch, which allows students to get to the issues of the heart and mind. Thanks for reminding me of this essay; perhaps I'll use it too. This quiet statement carries such weight: "to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people." The problem with Baldwin is that his language and experience are such a product and reflection of his times. The challenge is showing its relevance, but I believe his point about the members of the ghetto smashing each other and themselves is as pertinent today as it ever was then.

    By the way, I do so hope you will enjoy and comment on Berry next week. He is a favorite of mine.

  • I find this line so interesting: "It can wreck more important things than race relations." Startling, sometimes, for a well-intentioned white person to realize that there *are* more important things than race relations for a person of color, even when his whole life is affected by them. Family. Learning. Religion. Books, possibly. Friendship. The bitterness can poison any of those more important things.

    Lovely review. I like it over here.

  • Sara: It's interesting that you bring it up, since the other Baldwin essay Lopate includes is "Alas, Poor Richard..." which is all about his conflicted relationship with Wright. I certainly connected more instinctively with Baldwin than Wright (towards whom I have always had a bit of an antagonistic attitude, for some reason), so it's very interesting to read about their own struggles with one another. Re: Baldwin's writings being a product of his time and place, I can see why that would be a challenge in terms of teaching, but for me his evocation of the historical moment was a huge part of what I loved about the essay - his descriptions of the tense, humid atmosphere in 1943 Harlem were so vivid I felt like I was there. And on another note, I'll take your vote for Berry under advisement! :-)

    Jenny: Aw, I'm glad you like it. :-) I know what you mean - that is a powerful line. And brings up the sheer humanity of Baldwin himself and every other person present during the events he describes. And why it's so important for all of us to struggle against the bitterness, when/if it comes upon us.

  • Baldwin's language and experience may be a product and a reflection of his times as Sara points out, but his experience is no less relevant today for anyone following the rhetoric of the illegal immigration/racial profiling law in Arizona for example (apparently being "against" illegal immigration makes it OK to make vicious racist comments on mainstream message boards in this enlightened country of ours). Have to say that I will miss these essay posts of yours, Emily, and that the variety of authors/topics you've touched on through the course of the Lopate book has been pretty wide ranging in unexpected ways.

  • I don't know exactly why I feel the need to clarify, but self-consciousness is the devil, I suppose. I believe Baldwin is terribly relevant. When I spoke of the challenge, I was speaking merely pedagogically. Students (especially my students who are often young and not particularly academically motivated) try to disregard his relevance because of the language (certainly, since we don't say "Negro" anymore, we don't have these kinds of issues).

  • Richard: Yeah, I think this essay is still super-relevant for anyone who's ever witnessed institutional discrimination - and let's be honest, that's most of us! (Totally agree on the racist anti-immigrationists, btw. The other current conflict that leapt to mind for me is gay rights, & the split within the gay community on assimilation.) Glad you've enjoyed the essay posts - maybe I'll bring them back in the future after I've had a little break. :-)

    Sara: Oh no worries, I understood what you were saying. I remember an age when details like "Negro" instead of "African-American" would totally throw most of my class in terms of being able to relate it to their own experience.

  • I remember falling in love with the Baldwin essay too. He really is a masterful essayist. I tried to read the entire collection of essays, but it didn't quite work for me. I may try again some day, though, because I know Baldwin is great. I want to read more of his fiction too. I remember really loving the way his mind worked.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography