Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son - James Baldwin




To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won't destroy you. - James Baldwin from "The Negro in American Culture", Cross Currents, XI (1961), p. 205


In his dramatic and provocative short piece Notes of a Native Son (1955) included in the ten essay volume of the same title, Baldwin connects a series of coincidental events, unifying them in a brilliantly conceived aesthetic design. Segmented in three parts, he reviews: an act of rage against a waitress in a restaurant; his father's death and his sister's birth; a race riot in Harlem, his father's burial and his 19th birthday.



In order really to hate white people one has to block so much out of the mind – and the heart – that this hatred becomes an exhaustive and self destructive pose.


Baldwin examined parallels between his younger, unenlightened self and his father's characteristic of garnering the enmity of many with his often unchecked fury. In late June of 1943, an experience of discrimination in a restaurant ignited Baldwin's already building rage, leading him to throw a water pitcher at a waitress. Suddenly frightened by what he had done, he fled the scene, later speculating: "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 imagine that 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.

July 29th, 1943 : The coincidence of his sister's birth, the same day as the death of his father - a man who was, to Baldwin, "certainly the most bitter man I have ever met," whom he considered was poisoned by the intense loathing, fear and cruelty he carried in him (diagnosed with mental-illness and later tuberculosis) - symbolically shaped in Baldwin's mind the death of an old toxic bitterness and the forming of an untainted, new beginning, to forgive and accept..."life and death so close together, and love and hatred, and right and wrong...." Ironically, his father's simple words echoed with posthumous meaning, that "bitterness is folly."



Harlem had needed something to smash. To smash something is the ghetto's chronic need.


August 3rd, 1943 : As if "God himself had devised [ it ] ", the day that marked his 19th birthday, the day his father was returned to the earth, a race riot roiled in Harlem. Ghetto members vented their anger, fought one other, destroyed and looted in "directionless, hopeless bitterness", leaving smashed glass and rubble as 'spoils' of injustice, anarchy, discontent and hatred. These events deeply affected Baldwin who upon reflection sought a change from ill-will to good, to let go the demons and darkness that threatened to consume him - the hatred, bitterness, rage, violence, disillusionment, the social problems perpetuated by "being Negro in America."

It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. 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.


As a writer, Baldwin depended greatly on his past experiences, grasping at every bittersweet drop. "I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly." Whether by coincidence or divine making, Baldwin's reflection on those fateful few days was spiritual, cleansing, revelatory, life-saving. From it germinated a new philosophy and idealism that lingered strongly and eternally, nourishing a poetic power and sustaining a literary genius for many years hence.