Notes of a Native Son – Part 3 (of 3)

The last part of Notes of a Native Son is made up of several travel essays Baldwin wrote in Europe – “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” an essay about how African Americans see Africans (and vice-versa) in Paris; “A Question of Identity,” mostly about white Americans coming to understand themselves while they’re in Paris; “Equal in Paris,” the strange but true story of Baldwin’s arrest (equal parts Les Miserables and The Trial) of eight days Baldwin spent in jail for accepting a stolen gift – a bedsheet a new friend had taken in protest from a hotel he had dramatically checked out of; finally, the best in the section, “Stranger in the Village,” a piece about Baldwin’s stay in a Swiss village, but one that broadens to a much more universalized statement about being black in a white-supremacist world.  These are more occasional pieces, but I can pull some things out of each to talk about.

After this I’ll be reading Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s second novel.

“Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” has a clear-minded exposition of the ways white privelege affects the perceptions of black people and white people:

The white american regards his darker brother through the distorting screen created by a lifetime of conditioning.

Instead of a screen, for me, I experience this as a LOUD SHOUTING VOICE that lifetime has created – one which screams anti-black intuitions at me, and I’m only just now starting to quiet (sometimes through shouting back, and sometimes through listening really quietly and making sure I hear it).

The Negro, on the other hand, via the same conditioning which constricts the outward gesture of the whites, has learned to anticipate.

As a white person reading these words, it makes me realize that I need to be very mindful of the problems lurking behind the goal of getting my students of color to “be honest” in my classroom… I’m white, I’m a male, I’m straight, I’m 39, and I’m a teacher, 5 sources of power disparity that are present, and all five, I think, that make different students “anticipate” differently with me.  I’ve tried to meet this with just continual, hopefully not self-involved self-apprasial, sometimes spoken and sometimes internal, combined with a repeatedly professed desire to listen to my students.  That all sounds trite but it’s hard.

There’s also a great account of what it means (to Baldwin) to be a black American:

They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years–an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good-will, too heavy and too double-edged ever to be trapped in speech.  This alienation causes the Negro to recognize that he is a hybrid.

The idea of “hybridity” has gained a lot of traction in literary study in the last thirty years – it’s also echoed by Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet”:

Man you need to calm down, don’t get mad
I don’t need your sistah
(But supposin’ she said she loved me)
Would you still love her
Or would you dismiss her
What is pure? Who is pure?
Is it European I ain’t sure
If the whole world was to come
Through peace and love
Then what would we be made of?

Once you grasp the essential hybridity of language, culture, race, and identity, a lot changes – and in the minds of a lot of white people, that’s pretty scary.  It’s not scary if you ask them about it – they’ll say they’re fine with it; it’s scary once they understand how much of their identity is contructed around one side of the purity/impurity dichotomy.

2.  “A Question of Identity” – is more about Americanness than whiteness or blackness (though it mentions both of those).  The essay generally explores how Americans generally lack a meaningful sense that they HAVE an national identity, not very often having to ecounter people who do not participate in it one way or another.

Here’s the best passage:

[Expat Americans] are charmed by the reflection that Paris is more than two thousand years old, but it escapes them that the Parisian has been in the making just about that long, and that one does not, therefore, become Parisian by virtue of  Paris address.  This little band of bohemians, as grimly singleminded as any evangelical sect, illustrate, by the very ferocity with which they disavaow American attitudes, one of the most American of attributes, the inability to believe that time is real.

3.  “Equal in Paris” is an occasional ethnographic narrative about Paris, which I would recommend reading but I do not have any important quotations to extract from it.

4.  “Stranger in the Village” – like I said, the best of this section of the book, presmably the reason it’s the book’s final piece.  Baldwin describes living in a Swiss village where, he jokes in the opening line “from all available evidence no black man had ever set foot.”  He introduces his experiences as though they were sui generis, the product of this odd fish-out-of-water circumstance of his presence in this village, but then prophetically changes gears:

For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incedibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted.  These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it.  The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Mcihaelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrant, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it.  Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach.  Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory–but I am in Africa, watching the conquerers arrive.

Puzzling through the implications of this statement leads Baldwin onto a run of insight about being black, and being white, in America.  He eventually winds back to the conclusion that “it is important to undersatnd that this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them” (emphasis added).  A black person, I take Baldwin to be saying, has unique insight into the ways that privelege is mediated, but the white person tends to accept privelege immediately, and so cannot address it without a lot of work that a black person has to do, and get good at, each and every day of their life.

When he explains why white people have so much trouble with this, he  captures the profound dilemma that is at the root of white anti-black racism:

The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white man cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being.  This is a very charged and difficult moment, for there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naivete.  Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors.  He is inescapably aware, nevertheless, that he is in a better position in the world than black men are, nor can he quite put to death the supsicion that he is hated by black men therefore.  He does not wish to be hated, neither does he wish to change places, and at this point in his uneasiness he can scarely avoid having recourse to those legends which white men have created about black men…

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *