Notes of a Native Son is a collection of essays published previously in various periodicals. Though not originally written to be published together, they share Baldwin’s concerns over the resolution of the United States’ racial dilemma and the question of American identity.
The first group of essays focuses on the black person as artist and on his or her image within the cultural canon. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin, once an enthusiastic fan of Harriet Beecher Stowe, labels her an “impassioned pamphleteer” and criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other “protest novels,” including Richard Wright’s Native Son, for falling short of their lofty aims, abusing language, and overtaxing credibility. Baldwin goes on in the second essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” to recognize Native Son as a literary landmark but questions its actual power, given the depersonalization and mythification of blacks as Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima. In essence, the “native son” is a monster created by American history, and it is American history that must confront and re-create him. The third essay in the group, “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” criticizes an all-black production of a theatrical standard for perpetuating racial stereotypes.
The second group focuses on the sociopolitical scene. “The Harlem Ghetto,” the earliest of the essays, documents the congestion and claustrophobia of 1948 Harlem. Baldwin considers token civic improvements—playgrounds and housing projects—to be at best superficial and at worst injurious. The position of black leaders is impossible, the black press merely models itself on downtown counterparts, and the popularity of churches only reflects the pervasive hopelessness.
This hopelessness is evidenced in “Journey to Atlanta,” which recounts the experiences of a group of black singers, including Baldwin’s brother David, as guests of the Progressive Party in Atlanta. The Melodeers, anticipating a week of open...
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The funeral was held on Baldwin’s birthday, and he spent the day drinking whisky with a female friend and wondering what to wear because he did not own any black clothes. His friend eventually found him a black shirt. At the church, Baldwin reflected that his aunt, who fought with his father throughout his life, was one of the only people who had a real connection with him. During the eulogy, Baldwin notes that the preacher was not describing his father as he really was, but rather inviting the congregation to forgive his father, reminding them that they did not know the full truth of what he suffered. Someone began singing one of Baldwin’s father’s favorite songs, and suddenly Baldwin was transported to a memory of sitting on his father’s lap in church. He recalls that his father used to show off Baldwin’s singing voice to others when he was young. He remembers their fights, and the only time in which they “had really spoken to each other.” Just before Baldwin left home, his father asked him if he’d “rather write than preach,” and Baldwin replied, simply, “Yes.” Baldwin did not want to see his father’s body in the casket, but had no choice but to go and look. Baldwin felt that his father looked like any “old man dead,” and notes the strange proximity of the body to his newborn child.
This passage is a cathartic and redemptive moment in an otherwise bleak essay. Baldwin’s inability to find suitable clothes, his sense that the preacher is not being honest, and his reluctance to see his father’s body all create the impression that he is alienated from his father and from the process of mourning him. However, at the same time he experiences a sudden sense of connection to his father through the experience of hearing the song. This in turn leads him to remember their only moment of true communication. Although it is tragic that this moment was so fleeting, there is also beauty in the fact that Baldwin recalls it at all, alongside other happy memories of his father’s life. The presence of his father’s youngest child, a newborn baby, creates a sense of hope. Although Baldwin’s father is gone, part of him lives on through his children, who may experience some of the joy and freedom that he was denied.