James Baldwin’s 1955 “Notes of a Native Son” Lands at No 26 on The Guardian’s List of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time

On a voyage of self-discovery: James Baldwin. Photograph: Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images
On a voyage of self-discovery: James Baldwin. Photograph: Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images

Baldwin’s landmark collection of essays explores, in telling language, what it means to be a black man in modern America

In the spring of 1820, Thomas Jefferson, who, in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, had launched a withering assault on slavery, confessed to an associate that the plight of the American negro was a momentous question, which, “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror”.

Race, still the greatest of the unresolved issues within America, has already inspired one entry on this list – No 5, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama. With James Baldwin, African-American literature reaches one of its 20th-century masters in fiction (Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room), a name to stand alongside Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and, most recently, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

Baldwin is also the author of some important nonfiction, several landmark essays of great power and beauty on the place of the black writer in white America. In this genre,Notes of a Native Son is a recent classic. For Henry Louis Gates Jr, it was Baldwin who “named for me the things you feel but couldn’t utter… articulated for the first time to white America what it meant to be American and a black American at the same time”. The 10 essays collected in Notes of a Native Son – on subjects ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to 1940s Harlem – distil Baldwin’s thinking. It is a source book for a subject that Langston Hughes described in a review of Notes as “the troubled problems of this troubled Earth”.

Baldwin frames his work as a crucial journey of self-discovery. He had, for instance, first to confront his complex relationship with his father, a preacher: “He [Baldwin’s father] could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else in him, buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm.”

At the same time, almost as taxing, he had to investigate himself: “I was trying to discover myself – on the whole, when examined, a somewhat dubious notion, since I was also trying to avoid myself.”

In Notes, Baldwin is much franker about the “condundrum of colour” than the complexity of his life as a gay man, perhaps because race could be rhetorically linked to a historical crime: “It is a fearful inheritance, for which untold multitudes, long ago, sold their birthright. Multitudes are doing so, until today. This horror has so welded past and present that it is virtually impossible and certainly meaningless to speak of it as occurring in time.”

Describing himself as “a survivor”, Baldwin senses the stirrings of liberation in postwar America and notes the changes that have begun to occur in his lifetime:

“When I was young, I was being told it will take time before a black person can be treated as a human being, but it will happen. We will help to make it happen.”

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SOURCE: The Guardian