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Notes Of A Native Son Summary Essays

Summary

In an age of Black Lives Matter, James Baldwin's essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written. With documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro bringing renewed interest to Baldwin's life and work, Notes of a Native Son serves as a valuable introduction.

Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in "The Harlem Ghetto" to a sobering "Journey to Atlanta."

Notes of a Native Son inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic. His criticism on topics such as the paternalism of white progressives or on his own friend Richard Wright's work is pointed and unabashed. He was also one of the few writing on race at the time who addressed the issue with a powerful mixture of outrage at the gross physical and political violence against black citizens and measured understanding of their oppressors, which helped awaken a white audience to the injustices under their noses. Naturally, this combination of brazen criticism and unconventional empathy for white readers won Baldwin as much condemnation as praise.

Notes is the book that established Baldwin's voice as a social critic, and it remains one of his most admired works. The essays collected here create a cohesive sketch of black America and reveal an intimate portrait of Baldwin's own search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York. Baldwin's father was a pastor who subjected his children to poverty, abuse, and religious fanaticism. As a result, many of Baldwin's recurring themes, such as alienation and rejection, are attributable to his upbringing.

Living the life of a starving artist, Baldwin went through numerous jobs, including dishwasher, office boy, factory worker, and waiter. In 1948, he moved to France, where much work originated. Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953. A largely autobiographical work, it tells of the religious awakening of a fourteen-year-old. In addition to his childhood experiences, his experiences as a black man and a homosexual provided inspiration for such works as Giovanni's Room, Nobody Knows My Name, and Another Country.

Baldwin holds a distinguished place in American history as one of the foremost writers of both black and gay literature. He was an active participant in the Civil Rights movement.

Baldwin succumbed to cancer on December 1, 1987.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Notes of a Native Son Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin.

The essays that comprise Notes of a Native Son range over many genres. Some are essentially memoirs, as in the case of the title essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” in which Baldwin reflects at length on his relationship with his father. In other essays, Baldwin wears the hat of the critic. “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough” is a film analysis, while “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” are examples of literary criticism.

What all the essays share is incisive cultural analysis. Whether he is talking about the unreality of a film that is supposed to portray the African American experience or telling an anecdote about seeing his father on his deathbed, Baldwin is always making a larger point about American society and the American psyche. Baldwin has been compared to the biblical prophets, who stood at a remove from their society in order to rebuke and reform it. Baldwin’s prophetic quality is not to be confused, however, with the social activism of those who stand up for a cause. He insists again and again that the role of the artist is not to champion causes but to express his own experience, which is the only thing he knows intimately enough to speak about with any honesty and insight. And though Baldwin owes something in his style and basic stance to the biblical prophets, his relationship to religion was neither simple nor positive. He saw Christianity, in which he grew up, as a mechanism by which African Americans channeled their desire for revenge against white oppressors, and he suggests in these essays that the Christian story is a legend serving to reinforce the hatreds and presuppositions of the people who told that story, much as the fictional account of a fight in a hotel lobby sets off a violent mob in Harlem, described in the essay “Notes of a Native Son.”

The book is divided into three parts. The first consists of three critical essays: one about the protest novel, generally, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin specifically; another about Richard Wright’s Native Son, and the last about the film, Carmen Jones. The second part of the book is the most journalistic and anecdotal. It consists of an essay about the Harlem ghetto, another about the trip of a group of African American musicians to Atlanta with the Progressive Party, and the last is the title essay about Baldwin’s relationship with his father. The third part of the book consists of four essays dealing with questions of identity that arose in a new way for Baldwin during his time abroad.

Notes of a Native Son was published in 1955 and therefore uses the term “Negro,” which was standard among both black and white Americans at the time, to refer to African Americans. In this summary the term “Negro” will occasionally be used, as it was the term Baldwin himself used.

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