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Essay Notes Of A Native Son

First edition

AuthorJames Baldwin
CountryUnited States
PublisherBeacon Press

Publication date


Notes of a Native Son is a non-fiction book by James Baldwin. It was his first non-fiction book, and was published in 1955. The volume collects ten of Baldwin's essays, which had previously appeared in such magazines as Harper's Magazine, Partisan Review, and The New Leader. The essays mostly tackle issues of race in America and Europe.[1]


"Autobiographical Notes"[edit]

In spite of his father wanting him to be a preacher, Baldwin says he has always been a writer at heart. He is trying to find his path as a Negro writer; although he is not European, American culture is informed by that culture too—moreover he has to grapple with other black writers. Furthermore, Baldwin emphasizes the importance of his desire to be a good man and writer.

Part One[edit]

"Everybody's Protest Novel"[edit]

Baldwin castigates Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin for being too sentimental, and for depicting black slaves as praying to a white God so as to be cleansed and whitened. He proceeds to repudiate Richard Wright's Native Son for portraying Bigger Thomas as an angry black man, viewing this as an example of stigmatizing categorization.

"Many Thousands Gone"[edit]

Baldwin offers a sharp critique of Richard Wright's Native Son, citing its main character, Bigger Thomas, as unrealistic, unsympathetic and stereotypical.

"Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough"[edit]

Baldwin criticises Carmen Jones, a film adaptation of Carmen using an all black cast. Baldwin is unhappy that the characters display no connection to the condition of blacks and sees it as no coincidence that the main characters have lighter complexions.

Part Two[edit]

"The Harlem Ghetto"[edit]

Baldwin points out that the rent is very expensive in Harlem. Moreover, although there are black politicians, the President is white. On to the black press, Baldwin notes that it emulates the white press, with its scandalous spreads and so forth. However the black Church seem to him to be a unique forum for the spelling out of black injustice. Finally, he ponders on antisemitism amongst blacks and comes to the conclusion that the hatred boils down to Jews being white and more powerful than Negroes.

"Journey to Atlanta"[edit]

Baldwin tells the story that happened to The Melodeers, a group of jazz singers employed by the Progressive Party to sing in Southern Churches. However, once in Atlanta, Georgia, they were used for canvassing until they refused to sing at all and were returned to their hometown. They now enjoy success in New York City.

"Notes of a Native Son"[edit]

Baldwin explains how his paranoid and angered father died of tuberculosis when he himself was 19 years old. Prior to that Baldwin had been taken to the theater by a white teacher of his, and his parents had let him go because she was a teacher. Later he worked in New Jersey and was often turned down in segregated places—once he hurled a cup half full of water at a waitress in a diner. He goes on to say that blacks doing the military service in the South often got abused. Finally, he recounts his father's death which occurred just before his mother gave birth to one of his sisters; his father's funeral was on his 19th birthday and the Harlem Riot of 1943. This essay is an attempt to do away with the hatred and despair he feels towards his father.

Part Three[edit]

"Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown"[edit]

Baldwin compares Black Americans to Blacks in France. Whilst Africans in France have a history and a country to hold on to, Black Americans don't—their history lies in the United States and it is in the making.

"A Question of Identity"[edit]

Baldwin explains how American students living in Paris are shocked when they arrive and are eager to return home.

"Equal in Paris"[edit]

Baldwin recounts getting arrested in Paris over the Christmas period in 1949, after an acquaintance of his had stolen a bedsheet from a hotel, which he had used. The essay stresses his cultural inability to know how to behave with the police.

"Stranger in the Village"[edit]

Baldwin looks back to his time in a village in Switzerland—how he was the first black man most of the other villagers had ever seen. He goes on to reflect that blacks from European colonies are still mostly located in Africa, while the United States has been fully informed by blacks.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Notes of a Native Son is widely regarded as a classic of the black autobiographical genre.[2] The Modern Library placed it at number 19 on its list of the 100 best 20th-century nonfiction books.[3]


Further reading[edit]

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.