Notes of a Native Son – Part 1

Notes of a Native Son (1955) collects some previously published essays and includes some originally penned for the collection.  I have read the eponymous essay (“Notes of a Native Son”) with my classes for the last several years, and it’s always a powerful reading experience.  It’s Baldwin at his most directly autobiographical – it’s in Part II of the book, so I’ll write about that next time.

But this time, I’ll stick to Part I of the book, which is mostly literary and film criticism.  It  includes 4 essays – “Autobiographical Note” (not actually part of Part I), “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” a criticism of both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and also Native Son; “Many Thousands Gone,” a further consideration of Native Son; and “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough,” a critical review of a 50’s-era Carmen-remake film with a mostly black cast.  I’ll stick to finding one paragraph from each, quoting and discussing.

Quite honestly if you don’t care what I have to say, you can still skim for the Baldwin quotations, which are independently inspiring, maddening and thought-provoking.

  1.  From “Autobiographical Note,” about why so much of what Baldwin writes is  “about race”:

I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else. I don’t think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart.

That last sentence – “it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart” – is a core issue I’ve tried really hard to reckon with as a white person.  I was raised with the idea that racism was bad, but I was encouraged to see the bad of racism along the same lines as other bads – environmental destruction, economic inequality, sexism, homophobia and heterosexism, and so on.  All from this white-cis-gendered wealthy American male privleged perspective that taught me I could care about these things if I wanted to, or I could not care about them if I didn’t want to.  So we’d have these little “units” about them in our classes, but those units didn’t even try to address the more ontological aspects of the problems.  Several problems on this list (maybe all of them) have that ontological dimension, that is, our attitude towards them is significantly constitutive of our identities.

So I’ve tried hard to come to see, and respond and act in response to the reality about what Baldwin here calls “the Negro problem” – viz., that it is not “a thing apart,” not something separable from any of the other problems that our society faces, but also not “a thing apart” from my own identity and existence, not something I can pick up and put down at will.  I can tell myself I’m doing so, but I can’t really do it.  Even the person who moves to the whitest, wealthiest, “safest” most new-construction American suburb (perhaps, especially the person) will not succeeed in treating “the Negro problem” as a thing apart from him/herself – it’s just a matter of what level of consciousness and perspective on action such a person reaches about it.

A couple of years ago in my sophomore English class, for an “informative speaking” unit, I set the requirement that each student select something which falls under the heading of Black History.  It was timed to coincide with Black History Month, and we had read Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook,” on the first day of that month.  I got some pushback from some more conservative white students (the class was aboug 50% black and 50% white).  I repeatedly heard things like “why are we always talking about racism?” or “I get it, white people are bad!  Can we stop talking about this now?”  What I’m coming to see is how to address that concern: I have to tell such students that we are always dealing with racism (or in it, or through it, or next to it), whether we’re talking about it or not, and so, better to make it an explicit part of the conversation as often as possible, rahter than try to treat it as “a thing apart.”  What made it all worth it, for me, was one black student giving a speech about the Black Panther Party (her uncle had been a member).  She showed pictures her uncle had given her and educated the students in the room, teaching them that, contrary to what they might have heard, much of what the Panthers did was provide food, education and medical care towards neighborhoods that the dominant society refused to meaningfully include in its social structures.  I’d like to think that some of those conservative white students were able, at least momentarily, to encounter this information, realize it was coming from one of their classmates, hear her speak respectfully of her uncle, and push them just a little past their default distrust in an organization with the word “Black” in its name.  Another black student gave a speech about Emmett Till, and showed the class pictures of his open-casket funeral, and read words from his mother.  I learned a lot as a teacher by doing what I now know to call “isolating race” in the assignment – the point being, that if we don’t “isolate race,” we end up treating it as “a thing apart” and then we set that thing aside and ignore it.  And that’s bad.

2.  From “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” about how so many novels and other cultural productions “about racism” are counterproductive to the cause of anti-racism:

This is more striking as one considers the novels of Negro oppression written in our own, more enlightened day, all of which say only: “This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” (Let us ignore, for the moment, those novels of oppression written by Negroes, which add only a raging, near-paranoic postscript to this statement and actually reinforce… the principles which activate the oppression they decry).

That last phrase “the principles which activate the oppression they decry,” embedded within a paranthesis, is a perfect exactly of the deceptive density of Baldwin’s prose.  Regardless of the accuracy with which he diagnoses Native Son or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he clearly diagnoses problem hugely prevalent in the products of a culture that refuses to examine its own ontologically effective racism.  It produces these hackneyed, Dickenian morality tales that do more to congratulate the audience for the alleged liberal-mindedness than anything else.  We’ve argued about some of them here on this blog – most memorably Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.   Such films and novels thrive on decontextualized moral claims, like Lincoln’s weird discourse about Euclid and the “simple”notion of equality, and also tend not to include very many black characters, since the primary struggles end up being about and for the benefit of white people (something Baldwin points out about Stowe’s book as well).

3.  “Many Thousands Gone” begins with this massive thunderbolt of a paragraph:

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.  It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear.  As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference.  The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves.  We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him–such a question merely opens the gates on chaos.  What we really feel about him is involved with all that we feel about everything, about everyone, about ourselves.

We could spend hours unpacking that first sentence, or even just the subbordinate clause.  Rather than unpack this paragraph further I’m just going to let it speak for itself.  It answers perfectly clearly exactly why any American Literature class needs to be “about race” the whole time.  This paragraph is an essay itself, but the essays goes beyond it in ways I’ll need to process by re-reading later.

4.  “Carmen Jones:  The Dark is Not Light Enough” is a good essay as well, but I’ve left my book at home and can find its text online.  It does a good job explaining why what I’ve come to see as the Cosby Show approach to race in America doesn’t work: you can’t just make characters black and seal them off from what that ends up meaning for their lives.  I again have no idea if this is a fair criticism of Carmen Jones, but it’s recognizable enough as a phenomenon to know it’s defintitely a problem we always need to be on the lookout for.

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