Tuesday, July 6, 2010

GET LIT: Notes Of A Native Son

Notes Of A Native Son
James Baldwin, 1955

Noted black intellectual James Baldwin can always be trusted to bring the noise. If you can’t find this little hard-to-come-by gem, just grab any Baldwin book you come across. I’ve read a ton of his work and I’m rarely disappointed.

“Notes Of A Native Son,” which references the famous Richard Wright book, is hardcore criticism of a world not eager to coexist with blackness. In 1940 Wright’s defiant novel “Native Son” brought the reality of growing up black in America to a shocked public. That book helped increase racial discourse, and society soon saw a greater representation of black America in film, music, art and literature.

The problems of stereotypes again arose without much criticism. This book, though, seeks to dismantle the new reality the mass media was offering to the American public. Black stories were presented, but were they accurate? Black faces were represented, but were they accurate? Baldwin starts with these basic questions then delves into the American subconscious with subsequent arguments.

In discussing the increased publication of ethnic protest novels, he writes, “They emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.”
With this statement he not only describes then-contemporary black life, but also the decomposing stability of white America. This prefaces the rise of the coming civil rights movement, and highly critical artistic endeavors by writers like LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) and filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles.

Baldwin’s style bears significance. He is highly educated and worldly, which gives his opinions a rhetorical leaning. In utilizing this heavy-handed style he is able to fake out the mid-century intellectual by sounding colorless. This allows him to make serious social criticisms while seeming very safe. It is transparent when reading today, but it still works.

The book discusses the white reverence for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” while destroying its mythology. It later condemns Hollywood’s mis-marketing of black films. The book chronicles Baldwin’s search for identity, a struggle that took him from the streets of Harlem across the globe. Baldwin’s writings travel through Atlanta’s racial divide and later to Paris to discover how blacks are treated outside America.

Baldwin’s theme refers to “Native Son,” but previous reading of that work is not necessary, but of course recommended.
-Bret Duchen

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