Notes of a Native Son is a collection of ten essays by James Baldwin, written in the 1940s and 1950s. The pieces give an honest, unvarnished look at being Black in America and then, in the book’s final entries, in Western Europe.
Despite when it was written, the essays in Notes of a Native Son remain frustratingly accurate. You could read one of them today, not knowing when it was originally produced, and assume it was a contemporary account of racism and prejudice toward Black Americans.
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My rating: 4/5
“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.”
“The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again.”
“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”
“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
“I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”
“It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.”
“It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.”
“We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become.”
“Americans are far from empty; they are, on the contrary, very deeply disturbed.”
“It is simply impossible not to sing the blues, audibly or not, when the lives lived by Negroes are so inescapably harsh and stunted.”
“It is part of the price the Negro pays for his position in this society that, as Richard Wright points out, he is almost always acting.”
“I can conceive of no Negro native to this country who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by the conditions of his life.”
“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.”
“A society at once rigid and unstable can do nothing whatever to alleviate the poverty of its lowest members, cannot present to the hypothetical young man at the crucial moment that so-well-advertised right path.”
“In so far as I reacted at all, I reacted by trying to be pleasant—it being a great part of the American Negro’s education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people ‘like’ him.”
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious.”