I recently went to see the documentary I am Not Your Negro. After watching that very good documentary I finally picked up Notes of a Native Son, which I purchased a while ago but I have not read.
The first section are literally and film criticism essays (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, A Native Son and Carmen Jones.) I have not read or watched any of these, although I knew the basic outline of the story of the first two. This section would likely have been much better if I was familiar with the works being talked about.
Section two and three were some of the best essays I have ever read and I want to go back and read them again.
The three essays in section two are about growing up and living in Harlem, his brother’s musical group’s ill fated trip to the South as entertainment for a political campaign and a eulogy for his father. The eulogy essay is the best essay of the book I think. Eulogies often gloss over the negatives of a person and highlight what will be missed. Baldwin’s father was not going to be missed much, although once he was gone, Baldwin was able to deal with his love for him. Baldwin’s father died on Baldwin’s 19th birthday and Baldwin left soon after to move to Paris.
The last section is what it meant to be Black in Europe and what he understood about Blackness because of the change of setting.
The idea of a ‘color-blind’ ideal society destroyed by Baldwin’s writing. Many White essayists assume their culture as normative and don’t particularly think about race in regard to their normal everyday life. But as an African American man in the 1950s, Baldwin could not think of life without thinking about race. Race impacted every part of his life, whether he was in the US or Europe.
I highly recommend this Notes of a Native Son (and I am Not Your Negro) and look forward to picking up some of Baldwin’s fiction as well. After reading this, I can see why Ta-Nehisi Coates is so often compared to James Baldwin.
I read this right after I finished the group biography of The Inklings (The Fellowship by Philip and Carol Zaleski). While, Baldwin was younger than all of the Inklings, they were all alive and writing at the same time. With the exception of Charles Williams, the rest of the Inklings were highly educated authors that were well educated from a young age in the classics and other languages and literature. Baldwin had a mediocre education that ended with high school. He commented at one point that he had not even been on a college campus until one of his plays was put on at a college and he was invited to the show. That comment says much about the how the long term history of writing and thinking about minority issues is impacted by history and culture.