43 pages 1 hour read

James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide


Notes of a Native Son is a collection of nonfiction essays by James Baldwin. Baldwin originally published the essays individually in various literary and cultural commentary magazines between 1948 and 1955. The Beacon Press first republished the essays as Notes of a Native Son in 1955. This study guide refers to the 2012 Beacon Press edition of Notes of a Native Son. Citations to page numbers, however, come from the volume The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, published by St. Martin’s/Marek in 1985 (hardback first edition), which includes all of the essays curated in Notes of a Native Son.

With the publication of Notes of a Native Son, along with his first novel Go Tell It on The Mountain, Baldwin catapulted into the national spotlight as a major literary figure. His rise coincided with the emergence of White liberal support for civil rights, and the White press came to see him as one of the leading voices of Black America. As this White support for civil rights waned by the beginning of the 1970s, Baldwin was deemed no longer relevant by the mainstream society, while Black readers would become more devoted to his later work.

Notes of a Native Son established Baldwin as a major essayist. All of his essays amount to meditations on race and reflections on slavery’s ongoing repercussions for human connection today. He offers these meditations by discussing the most mundane things that everyone can relate to—death, love, family, popular culture, fear, and desire. Baldwin’s essays closely connect to his own lived experience—which was both typical and atypical for a Black person in mid-twentieth century America. He grew up poor in Harlem, exposed to many of the cultural institutions central to that historic Black neighborhood in New York City. He also had an inimitable talent and drive for writing about the human condition as he experienced it. This led him to travel to Paris to find his way as a writer. While most Black people were not able to go this route, Baldwin was following a path laid out by Black writers and artists in the generations immediately preceding his. The New Negro Movement of the 1920s was also known as the Harlem Renaissance because Harlem was in many ways the cultural epicenter of this major development in Black history.

In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, coining it as a “protest novel,” a uniquely American literary genre. While the intention of the genre is to help the oppressed, he believes the novel perpetuates the agenda of White liberals using stock characters that don’t accurately portray the experiences of slaves as complex human beings. Baldwin explores another novel of this genre, Native Son, in “Many Thousands Gone.” The title of the essay references the deaths of thousands of slaves, and Baldwin argues that the novel, and society, refuses to move past slavery, and the Black community alienates Black people who try to overcome segregation.

In “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough,” Baldwin criticizes the musical film Carmen Jones, which took the plot from the opera Carmen and gave it an all-Black cast. Baldwin points out that the American public tends to sexualize the Black body, and the film doesn’t better the opera’s message. He also notes that the actors are all very light-skinned, making them “light enough” for Hollywood.

In “The Harlem Ghetto,” Baldwin portrays his neighborhood in New York City, along with the racial oppression therein, and he considers that interracial understanding might be possible. In “Journey to Atlanta,” he tells the story of his brother’s quartet, The Melodeers, whom the Progressive Party sponsored, but then abandoned in Atlanta. Baldwin points out the party’s attempt to gain the favor of Black voters, though they had no interest in helping the Black community.  

“Notes of a Native Son” discusses Baldwin’s father’s life history and death, their strained relationship, and the generational pain that caused his father to be distant from his family. “Encounter on the Seine,” centers on the interactions between Black Americans, White Americans, Black Africans, and Black American entertainers in Paris. Baldwin suggests that Black Americans, displaced by slavery, have no heritage or roots as do Europeans. In “A Question of Identity,” Baldwin posits that Americans’ sense of time, understanding of society’s limitations, and skewed concept of freedom, leave American students in Europe without a sense of identity.

“Equal in Paris” tells the story of Baldwin’s arrest for using a friend’s bedsheet, which the friend had stolen from a hotel. Baldwin notes that his jailers were no better or worse than their American counterparts. In “Stranger in the Village,” Baldwin relates how the people of a Swiss village, who had never seen a Black person, treated him as a novelty—they did not intend to be unkind, as a contemporary White American might, but their reactions were dehumanizing.