Notes of a Native Son (Beacon Paperback)

by James Baldwin

Other authorsEdward P. Jones (Illustrator)
Paperback, 1984



Call number

E185.61.B353.N68 1984



Beacon Press (1984), Edition: Reissue, Paperback, 192 pages


Originally published in 1955, James Baldwin's first nonfiction book has become a classic. These searing essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and Americans abroad remain as powerful today as when they were written. "He named for me the things you feel but couldn't utter. . . . Jimmy's essays articulated for the first time to white America what it meant to be American and a black American at the same time."

Media reviews

James Baldwin writes down to nobody, and he is trying very hard to write up to himself. As an essayist he is thought-provoking, tantalizing, irritating, abusing and amusing. And he uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing. ... Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is arousing emotion in fiction. I much prefer "Notes of a Native Son" to his novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," where the surface excellence and poetry of his writing did not seem to me to suit the earthiness of his subject matter. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.
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The collected "pieces" of the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain form a compelling unit as he applies the high drama of poetry and sociology to a penetrating analysis of the Negro experience on the American and European scene. ... The expression of so many insights enriches rather than clarifies, and behind every page stalks a man, an everyman, seeking his identity...and ours. Exceptional writing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jnwelch
Notes of a Native Son, the collection of James Baldwin's essays, was first published in 1954.

They are all well-written. The ones I connected with most strongly were the first person "I" ones, as opposed to the ones where he takes a more distanced, professorial tone. It is disturbing to read about his and others' experiences with "We don't serve Negroes" and the like. I grew up beyond that particular time, but the schools in my town weren't desegregated until the mid-60s. Our struggles today with more subtle racism (e.g. in hiring and advancement to leadership, police misconduct, or even less overt hostility in restaurants) are frustrating and at times outrageous, but the America he describes is an outright nightmare. The rage he and others felt was justified and inevitable.

I've been the only white guy in any number of situations - wonderful, friendly, neutral, uncomfortable, dangerous - but I cannot truly and fully imagine a role reversal where I had to deal with such racism on a daily basis. His book certainly brings a lot of that home, especially in the more personal essays.
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LibraryThing member kidzdoc
Notes of a Native Son (1955) was Baldwin's first book of nonfiction, and consists of 10 previously published essays preceded by a brief autobiography. These essays appeared in Partisan Review, Commentary and Harper's Magazine. Several of the early essays are a bit stiff and stilted, not unexpected for a young writer. However, you also feel as if he is trying to walk a fine line, being a black writer writing for a predominantly white audience, one who is financially struggling and is dependent on these articles to eke out a meager living. It is in the later essays that the passion and wit of the Baldwin we know and love comes out.

The brightest jewel of this collection is "Notes of a Native Son", which is set in 1943, the year that his stepfather died. He vividly describes the racially charged climate, when black soldiers were brutally mistreated and the daily racial strife led to riots in several US cities; his experiences working at a munitions factory in New Jersey and a explosion of anger toward a waitress who refused to serve him at a restaurant, which nearly led to his death at the hands of a white mob; his diificult and complicated relationship with his father, who died just before Baldwin 19th birthday; and a Harlem riot that occurs just after his father's funeral, triggered by a confrontation between a white city policeman and a black soldier on leave.

Baldwin makes a powerful statement of the complexity of black and white relations, and each group's hatred toward the other:

"One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene. Amputation is swift but time may prove that amputation was not necessary--or one may delay the amputation too long. Gangrene is slow, but it is impossible to be sure that one is reading one's symptoms right. The idea of going through life as a cripple is more than one can bear, and equally unbearable is the risk of swelling up slowly, in agony, with poison. And the trouble, finally, is that the risks are real even if the choices do not exist."

Baldwin's father was a preacher, but he was not very good, due to his bitterness and inability to connect with others. Baldwin was a successful child preacher, which won the admiration and love of his father. However, once Baldwin decided that he wanted to abandon the pulpit and dedicate his life to writing, he incurred the wrath of his father, and they rarely spoke after that.

Baldwin writes about a visit he took with his mother and aunt to visit his father at a hospital on Long Island, the last time he would see him alive:

"It was on the 28th of July...that I visited my father for the first time during his illness and for the last time in his life. The moment I saw him I knew why I had put off this visit so long. I had told my mother that I did not want to see him because I hated him. But this was not true. It was only that I had hated him and I wanted to hold on to this hatred. I did not want to look on him as a ruin: it was not a ruin I had hated. I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain."

The last part of the book concerns his life as an expatriate living in Europe after World War II. "Encounter on the Seine" describes the experiences of American blacks living in Paris, particularly the awkward interactions with white Americans, Parisians, and Africans. In "Equal in Paris" he is imprisoned in a Parisian jail for eight days for a crime that he did not commit. In the last essay, "Stranger in the Village", he is invited to spend time at the home of a friend in a small Swiss village whose residents have never seen a black man.

I did not enjoy this book as well as The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen, two of his other nonfiction books. However, the title essay is searing and brilliant, and the book overall is a worthwhile read to learn about the black experience in America and Europe in the mid-20th century.
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LibraryThing member alanteder
This collection of essays from 1955 is an excellent introduction to James Baldwin for those who may only just be discovering his work. I picked this up based on the recent attention given to the Oscar-nominated James Baldwin documentary film "I An Not Your Negro."

Although the essays are all from 60+ years ago, there is nothing dated about Baldwin's observations, whether it is his wry commentary on Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Richard Wright's "Native Son", Otto Preminger's film version of "Carmen Jones" or his description of the 1943 Harlem Riot, the experience of his brother's jazz vocal group The Melodeers being exploited by so-called "progressive" political forces or the story of Baldwin's own jailing during over a Christmas season in Paris, France.

I listened to the 2015 audiobook edition from Blackstone Audio which includes Baldwin's 30th anniversary foreword from 1985. The narration by Ron Butler was very well done.
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LibraryThing member colinflipper
This book of essays by Baldwin focuses on issues of race in America, but also uses his experiences in Paris to make interesting contrasts.

I picked the book up on account of being blown away (at least twice) by Giovanni's Room, but this was a pretty poor choice for a vacation read. Baldwin is a very smart writer and the subject matter leads him into some technical passages composed in a fairly academic style. The literary criticism in the first two essays (‘Everybody's Protest Novel’ and ‘Many Thousands Gone’) went pretty much over my head.

However, the essays that drew from his experiences with his father and his time in Europe were more readable and do a wonderful job of conveying nuanced emotion. The autobiographical stuff seems to loaded towards the back of the collection, so don't give up if you are having trouble starting out.
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LibraryThing member bianca.sayan
I've never read Baldwin before, so this was an interesting introduction. I found his essays initially frustrating. His language was so academic and obtuse, he often obscured his own meaning to me. Baldwin also uses odd and off-putting terms, referring to "The Negro" and "Us" (grouping him, the reader, and everyone else into this category). But Baldwin's expressions of how he felt about being black, american, and literary is fascinating. He communicated his alienation, his initial naivety, his feeling of not belonging to any group, his desire to reconcile these different aspects so well, I suddenly understood it as clearly as I ever would. I especially liked his notes on "Native Son", in which he talked about how books like "Native Son" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" severely undermined African Americans (and undermined the important need for everyone to confront how history has shaped perceptions) .

Baldwin exposed me to many ideas that were new to me, and, I felt, educated me so clearly on his perspective in ways that evoked surprising, visceral sympathy. I was surprised and pleased with what he made me learn and what he made me felt.
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LibraryThing member thorold
This early collection may be a little uneven, but there's absolutely no doubt what a great writer Baldwin could be when he was on top form. The combination of Dickens-and-Old-Testament influences on his prose style with his rhetorical training in the pulpit can make his writing seem rather overblown when he's dealing with trivial subject-matter — his devastating review of Carmen Jones has all the proportionality of a tactical nuclear strike on a wasps' nest, for instance — but when he's got something important to say, he is able to say it with all the confidence and authority of a George Orwell. And we believe him. The best pieces in this collection — in particular the title piece, about his father, and the piece about a brush with the law in Paris — are exceptionally good essays. And they are very interesting for the light they cast on Go tell it on the mountain and Giovanni's Room, respectively.… (more)
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
I just cannot easily put myself in the position of James Baldwin. He can explain, and he tries hard to explain the feeling of rejection that he received from the white dominated society that he grew up in. But, I can't find more than an explanation, there is not an emotional connection here. But, that said, if you are looking for the result of North American society that has through neglect, and positive oppression damaged about thirteen (by present figures (2020) percent of its own people, here is a look at such a mind.. It is not a great deal of fun to read this collection of essays, but it is necessary.… (more)
LibraryThing member MrsLee
Where to begin? I do not feel qualified to review this book. Why did I give it four stars? The writing was excellent. Baldwin says what most people cannot articulate. As a white, middle aged, middle class woman who has grown up and lived in rural America with very little exposure to other races, this was hard to swallow. However, like bitter medicine that one takes because it will cure you, I was glad to read it.

These are essays, memoirs of a sort, which detail the Negro experience in America in the early 1900s. It is not pretty. It is not easy reading, but it is an exploration of what constant degradation does to the soul. I wept. My heart breaks, and I am anguished that in spite of the many practical changes in our society such as integration and equal opportunity laws, there is still the undercurrent of hatred and distrust. One can change the circumstances, and one should, but who can mend the heart?
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LibraryThing member nicholasjjordan
This should probably get five stars, but I read Fire Next Time right before it, and Notes isn’t quite as good.
LibraryThing member Cirencester
Since its original publication in 1955, this first nonfiction collection of essays by James Baldwin remains an American classic. His impassioned essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written.


Original publication date


Physical description

192 p.; 5.32 inches


0807064319 / 9780807064313
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