…it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart…
Part II of Notes of a Native Son contains 3 essays: “The Harlem Ghetto,” a journalistic account of the politics, press and religious life of mid-50’s Harlem; “Journey to Atlanta,” an indictment of the Progressive Party (attention Bernie Sanders supporters!) overlaying a narrative about Baldwin’s brother touring the south; and finally, the soaring, lyrical memoir “Notes of a Native Son.” Here is discussion of one passage from each:
1. “The Harlem Ghetto” begins by asking why black politicians have all failed to substantially improve the lot of black people in America (later on, there’s a great discussion of the relationship between anti-black racism and anti-Semitism). Anticipating (and implicitly answering) by more than half a century criticisms levelled at Barack Obama vis-a-vis race questions, Baldwin writes:
Concerning Negro leaders, the best that one can say is that they are in in an impossible position… the terrible thing about being a Negro leader lies in the term itself. I do not mean merely the somewhat condescending differentiation the term implies, but the nicely refined torture a man can experience from having been created and defeated by the same circumstances. That is, Negro leaders have been created by the American scene, which thereafter works against them at every point…
This is an inversion Baldwin makes over and over again with reference to proposed solutions to the problems of racism: education, political reform, economic reform, expanded policing, urban planning etc. etc. etc. Since they are all “created by the American scene,” i.e., they are all founded on anti-blackness, and presuppose it in their operating principles, they cannot work to undo it. That’s a broad, impercise indictment, at least as I’ve formulated it – Baldwin is never so dogmatic, always contextalizing that criticism to the particular matter before him. The overall idea seems to be that until America is intellectually, morally emotionally and economically ready to reckon with slavery and its legacy, nothing else it does will ever bring about more than token improvements. And Baldwin seems to think, for the most part, that probably will never happen. He comes close at some places to pointing the way forward, but seems more to want those solutions to emanate more out of the catharases he creates in his essays and novels than to proscribe a ten-point platform.
2. “Journey to Atlanta” begins with this paragraph, one that white Bernie Sanders supporters (and Hilary supporters, for that matter) would do well to understand:
The Progressive Party has not, so far as I can gather, made any very great impression in Harlem, and this is not so much despite as because of its campaign promises, promises rather too extravagant to be believed. It is conisdered a rather cheerful axiom that all Americans distrust politicans. (No one takes the further and less cheerful step of consdering just what effect this mutual contempt has on either the public or the politicians, who have, indeed, very little to do with one another.) Of all Americans, Negroes distrust politians most, or, more accurately, they have been best trained to expect onthing from them; more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives. It is true that the promises excite them, but this is not because they are taken as proof of good intentions. They are proof of something more concrete than intentions: that the Negro situation is not static, that changes have occured, and are occurring and will occur–this, in spite of the daily, dead-end monotony. It is this daily, dead-end monotony, though, as well as the wise desire not to be betrayed by too muc hoping, which causes them to look on politicnas with such an extradordinarily disenchanted eye. This fatalisitc indifference is something that drives the opportunistic American liberal quite mad; he is prone, in his more exaasperated moments, to refer to Negroes as political children, an appellation not entirely just. Negro liberals, being consulted, assure us that this is something that will dissappear with “education,” a vast, all-purpose term, conjuring up visions of sunlit housing projects, stacks of copybooks and a race of well-sopaed, dark-skinned people who never slur their R’s. Actually, this is not so much political irreponsilbibty as the product of experience, experience which no amount of education can quite efface. It is, as much as anything else, the reason the Negro vote is so easily bought and sold, the reasons for that exclamation heard to frequently on Sugar Hill: “Our people never get anywhere.”
3. “Notes of a Native Son.” As I read this yesterday I realized that I’ve come close to memorizing a lot of its passages. This is something that happens from teaching a text year after year. As much as these passages sound familiar, I never tire of reading them. This essay excels so far beyond the others because it makes its principal points by narrating, in deceptively straightforward fashion, some events in Baldwin’s life, and in devestatingly effective parantheses and asides, asserting the general point he takes his autobiography to demonstrate. It focuses on the death of his father, the birth of his baby sister, and a year he spent in almost-Jim-Crow New Jersey. The central passage, for me, is an altercation Baldwin has with a waitress at a resutarant called “The American Diner.” The waitress meekly but insistently refuses to serve him, he throws a mug at her head, and narrowly avoids a lynching.
I’ve read that passage aloud with students, and discussed what they see as Baldwin’s and the waitress’s motivations. Baldwin describes the waitress with enough sympathy that it never fails to engage white students, the very white students who tend to opt out of “conversations about race.” Instead of leading to chiches about “how much things have changed,” this passage opens up to discussion about ways things like this happen today, how it feels to be part of them (on either side)… the bell almost always rings with students pretty honestly reckoning with some tough issues. It also seems to empower black students to address such cliches when they’re made by white students – Baldwin’s voice in the conversation allows, for just a few minutes anyway, the setting aside of “white feelings” as the primary axis along which to evaluate a conversation about racism in the United States.
I’ve always had an ambivalent (or worse) relationship with Christainity, but I must say in all honesty that the final three paragraphs of “Notes of a Native Son,” especially when encountered as the climax of this heart rending essay, sometimes make me believe.
They’re words I’ve also read aloud with students and discussed. I’ve heard very thoughtful, earnest students look up and say “I really don’t know, this is tough.” And they’re right. It’s not tough to understand the words; it’s tough to know how to live them.
I’ll just let them speak for themselves:
It would have been better, but would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash. To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need. Most of the time it is the members of the ghetto who smash each other, and themselves. But as long as the ghetto walls are standing there will always come a moment when these outlets do not work. That summer, for example, it was not enough to get into a fight on Lenox
Avenue, or curse out one’s cronies in the barber shops. If ever, indeed, the violence which fills Harlem’s churches, pool halls, and bars erupts outward in a more direct fashion, Harlem and its citizens are likely to vanish in an apocalyptic flood. That this is not likely to happen is due to a great many reasons, most hidden and powerful among them the Negro’s real relation to the white American. This relation prohibits, simply, anything as uncomplicated and satisfactory as pure hatred. In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose. But this does not mean, on the other
hand, that loves comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that. One is
absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one’s own reactions are always canceling each other out. It is this, really, which has driven so many people mad, both white and black. One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene. Amputation is swift but time may prove that the amputation was not necessary—or one may delay the amputation too long. Gangrene is slow, but it is impossible to be sure that one is reading one’s symptoms right. The idea of going through life as a cripple is more than one can bear, and equally unbearable is the risk of swelling up slowly, in agony, with poison. And the trouble, finally, is that the risks are real even if the choices do not exist.
“But as for me and my house,” my father had said, “we will serve the Lord.” I wondered, as we drove him to his resting place, what this line had meant for him. I had heard him preach it many times. I had preached it once myself, proudly giving it an
interpretation different from my father’s. Now the whole thing came back to me, as though my father and I were on our way to Sunday school and I were memorizing the golden text [Joshua 24:15]:
And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
I suspected in these familiar lines a meaning which had never been there for me before. All of my father’s texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me. This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped. That bleakly memorable morning I hated the unbelievable streets and the Negroes and whites who had, equally, made them that way. But I knew that it was folly, as my father would have said, this bitterness was folly. It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and
whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these
injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.