Recursions, Part 3: James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

Milton, homeless and looking for work, under a bridge in downtown Los Angeles

This is the third in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them.  I will publish mine here, once or twice a week, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group. 

Notes on “Notes of a Native Son”

I had not read Baldwin for decades when I started this book, and the first aspect of his writing that struck me was his writing itself: impeccable, elegant, and heartfelt. Baldwin must be one of the most perfect wordsmiths ever to grace the English language in this contemporary era. Every sentence, even the harsh and bitter ones, was a pleasure to read.

Having said that, I must register a cavil: Baldwin too often makes broad general statements that are presented as self-evident but that may not be so in the context of a much later time. As an example, Baldwin lists a litany of characteristics he feels exemplify the state of “the Negro press” in his day, but doesn’t give even a snippet of quotation to justify his assertions. Likewise his analysis of the history of relations between Black and Jew in America seems entirely anecdotal. I wouldn’t expect extensive footnotes in a literary essay, but a glimpse through the window to the outside world so frequently referenced might be nice now and then.

Although Baldwin discusses “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at length, as well as Wright’s “Native Son,” his “Notes” are not really literary criticism; they are an sort of intellectual memoir, and one of the best-written I’ve encountered. They are very much about growing up Black in America, and also about just growing up in America, and about learning how American you might remain despite the way America treated you when you find yourself living in another country. Baldwin was surprised to discover that in France, he was American first, and Black a distant second. Many American Blacks in France at that time found that far more refreshing than Baldwin seems to have done. But most of them, too, came back home.

The dilemma of Blacks in America seems at least in part to be that they remain foreigners in their own country–a status imposed by force of custom, and maintained by the custom of force…force as exercised by white folk. So, that “Notes” is not really a rigorous sociological document, nor a concise literary analysis, is of no import: it is a relentless exploration of what it means to be James Baldwin, brilliant and Black, in an America that requires him to remain invisible and unheard.

Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.

Rick Risemberg