Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. 1955. Beacon P, 1957.
Summary of Work
Baldwin’s memoirs detail what it means to be black in America, and outside of it, and how black people form their identities, particularly how American black people form their identities in a space that has denied them access to their past. Further, he discusses how black-white relations work in America, and how they are based off of a mythos that is largely theological: blackness is associated with the devil or evil in Christianity, and the Christian image of goodness is all clothed in white; we know if a person is good and has made it to heaven if they are robed in white upon their appearance in our vision. In a theology of whiteness, black people are forced to either find a different identity, or far more likely and as we see has happened, forced to believe that they are sub-human or non-human because of their blackness, and they accept that role, even if unwillingly, in American white society. This identity and struggle to be recognized as a human being is documented in American protest literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Baldwin asserts is a terrible novel inasmuch as it should be a pamphlet for the type of material it uses, and that Gone With the Wind and other such novels capitalize on this idea of the beauties and tragedies of slave labor—all of which surround black bodies and their identities, which have mostly and largely been forced upon them as objects to be pitied, liberated by well-meaning white people. Of course, this liberation is good, but it still does not rid white people of their understanding that black people are somehow subhuman or lower than they are.
This mythology, woven throughout the American history books and fiction works, extends into film and other mediums of artistic representation, indicative of the underpinning moral beliefs of American society regarding race relations. We can see this in Richard Wright’s famous work Native Son, which gives people a picture of black rage because of this lack of identity, certainly, but also gives us the expected social redemption of Bigger Thomas, something that in Baldwin’s view, robs the novel of much of its power, regardless of its successes. And when all of this history and culture and moral belief is brought by black people over to France and other parts of Europe, they try to deny the identity, because it is just as uncomfortable in Europe as in America. But in Europe, they feel for a time they can escape it. The outright racism and hatred of black people is missing in Europe. However, they quickly come to understand that the derision they experience in America exists in Europe, just in different places, and that they cannot escape their identity as black Americans. The space itself requires them to recognize their unique situation: they are free from the outright racism of Jim Crow, but they cannot identify with the cultures of Europe, and Europeans simply have no understanding of what it means to be black in America or to have experienced that type of race relation. The uniqueness of American life is that black and white races are tied together to learn how to live with each other, and regardless of the white supremacy and the racism, that learning to live with each other, however rife with turmoil, is unique to the whole of the world. Other white countries colonized and left black people in their own country; America brought them in. Knowing that the identity of America, both black and white, rests on this identity and history, should be a step to recognizing a path forward, and to recognizing that the ideal of no racism is simply a dream, but not one that should be discarded.
Brief Note on Themes
The themes of racism, racial identity, and white-black relations run throughout this work. Understanding the mythologies and morals that created racial identity in America is also a huge theme, even when Baldwin is discussing his time in France and Switzerland. Coming to understand what it means to be black in America, and outside of it as a black American, is central to Baldwin’s memoir.