The best writers, storytellers, artists, and thinkers are able to draw a connection between the specific and the general. An essay, a film, or a painting might deal with a specific thing on a surface level, but in the hands of the right person, that
That’s the power of the movie Moonlight, as Soraya Nadia MacDonald discussed recently in The Undefeated, to take the coming-of-age story of a gay black man in the Miami projects and make it feel beautifully, poetically universal.
James Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (c1955, Beacon Press, reprinted in 2012 with a new introduction), has that same power. The book is a collection of essays originally published between 1948 and 1955, broken into three parts. The first deals contains three pieces of explicit criticism, assessing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, and Carmen Jones, the 1954 all-black film adaptation of the opera Carmen. The second part is composed of three more autobiographical essays, including the titular Notes of a Native Son that discusses Baldwin’s rocky relationship with his father and growing up in pre-war Harlem. Part Three addresses Baldwin’s time in Europe, where he started living in 1948, at the age is 24.
The essays in all three parts perform at least two functions. The first is the surface-level one. The essays in Part One, for example, perform the essential role of criticism, providing insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the relevant works. The personal essays in Part Two discuss the black experience in New York and, briefly, New Jersey and Atlanta. And the essays in the final section discuss the American (and, specifically, black American) experience in post-war Europe.
The second function of the works in this book is a deeper one. When reading these essays, you’re swept up in Baldwin’s extraordinary prose. This is one of the few things I’ve read where I’ve regularly gotten lost — blessedly, happily lost — in the beauty of well-crafted sentences that communicate universal truths. It’s in those sentences that Baldwin’s writing transcends mere criticism or storytelling and becomes something much bigger.
The title essay is a good example of this. Initially appearing in Harper’s Magazine in 1955, it contains a discussion of the Harlem riots that occurred in the summer of 1943. These riots were set off when a policeman shot a U.S. army soldier in the lobby of the Hotel Bradford. The soldier was black, and as he was taken to the hospital rumors spread that he had been killed, and Harlem rioted. Baldwin notes, in an almost-sleepy tone, that “it would have been better” if the rioters had not bothered to smash store windows, but also “it would have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash.” In the discussion that follows, the complicated sociological relationship between the black community of Harlem and the general white society is elaborated in terms that are succinct and reasonable, while feeling timeless and universal. Indeed, this section could have been written about Ferguson or Baltimore in 2015.
This effect is a compound one. As you move through the book, the truths come to feel bigger, truer, and more powerful. Once Baldwin gets to his discussion of the black American experience in Europe, you realize that he is not just writing about Europe but also about America, about home. And not only is he writing about Europe and America at the present, but he’s writing about them both across time, across history. For the present is impossible to consider apart from the past; an ahistorical narrative is thus an untrue one. Or at best, only a partially-true one.
This was the second of two books I read this February for Black History Month. The first was The Beautiful Struggle, which I discussed in a Book Report last week. For me, one major benefit of reading The Beautiful Struggle now was simply the process: reading about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s experience growing up in Baltimore, and trying to understand both how and, importantly, why it was different from mine. The benefit of reading Baldwin in 2017 is in some ways very similar, getting more deeply into the theory and history of the why, and getting into it with some of the loveliest writing you’ll ever read.
- Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston, MA, Beacon Press, 1955.