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Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays, is the second book James Baldwin wrote while living as an American expatriate in Europe. The title essay, one of his most famous, explores the difficult relationship between himself and his minister father. In the course of the essay, he addresses the themes of race, black identity, birth and death, the intersection of private turmoil and social rage, and the corrosive effects of hatred. Wole Soyinka wrote of Baldwin's commitment to "love sought, denied, distorted, waiting in the wings or hovering on the wing."
The title itself alludes to Richard Wright's novel, which also examines racial oppression in the Chicago ghetto and its violent consequences. In doing so, Baldwin connects Wright's murderous protagonist Bigger Thomas with his father and himself. As Baldwin's father was dying, his last daughter was being born, hence the inextricable link between life and death. A race riot breaks out in Harlem: his father's life and death are also invariably tied to race.
Throughout the essay, the reader sees the manifold ways in which his blackness restricts the possibilities of his life, and his chronic tension paralyzed his children. The father becomes mentally ill and paranoiac. Baldwin refuses to accept his father's belief in white oppression until he works in a World War II defense plant in New Jersey.
After being refused service repeatedly--and noting ironies like the name "American Diner"--something snaps and Baldwin's "fury flowed toward" a waitress. He hurls a water glass. Later, after he and his friend flee the diner, he realizes not only that he might've been murdered, but that he too was capable of murder.
In the end, reviewing his memories, Baldwin revises and modifies his view of his father. He comes to the recognition that life and death are meaningful, and that to form judgments on the basis of skin color is to "acquiesce in one's own destruction." He tries to reconcile two opposed ideas: to accept life as it is, and with vigilance to fight injustice everywhere. But one must first efface one's heart of hatred and despair. He wishes his father were alive in order to "search his face for answers" which only the future can give.
This rather lengthy paraphrase is meant to convey the continuing relevance of Baldwin's work. In my opinion, his essays are among the most important moral documents of his time, and of the twentieth century. These would also include The Fire Next Time, which was predictive of the violent race riots of the late 1960s, and Nobody Knows My Name. The novels Just Above My Head and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone are also recommended. Baldwin once said that American innocence can also involve dissembling and historical amnesia. We fail to read James Baldwin at our own peril.
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