Notes on “Notes of a Native Son”
I’ve been teaching James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son” in different kinds of classrooms for almost twenty years. As material for contemplation of America and Americans, past and present and future, it is inexhaustible. As a model for writers, or for anyone trying to understand and communicate a complex understanding of a complex world, it represents an impossible and necessary challenge.
The subject matter of the essay is a few days in Harlem in the summer of 1943 when, in quick succession, Baldwin’s father dies, his father’s last child is born, and, then, at the time of the funeral, a “race riot” (in Baldwin’s words) breaks out. A new baby, a funeral, one explosion in response to the long history of racist violence in America — everything is happening at the same time, in his soul, in his family, in his community and city and nation. Baldwin’s essay begins as an effort to understand the impact of American racism on his father’s life, the meaning of his father’s life, and flowers into his thinking about his own life, and about how to face the unjust world and live within it.
I try to teach the essay by, as a group, walking into and through it, slowly. The experience for me is being lost in the dark room of the world, but then seeing essential questions and vivid depictions of individual and collective black American experience — grief and anger and wonder and love, life and death — light up and be set in order like stained-glass windows.
I love the essay for its formal qualities: its involving portrait of vital vulnerable interiority, its intricate circling motion, its insistence on open-endedness and paradox, its outrageously fluid prose. It’s important, I think, to see that the essay’s formal richness and beauty are not at odds with its urgent question-asking and truth-telling about the simple and complex damage that racists and racism do to the body and to the soul. The essay’s beauty is the light that shines through the questions and truths to illuminate them, to help us better see them, to help us trace their structure in the world and, through that understanding, to more fully and justly live.