James Baldwin

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.

You can get Notes of a Native Son through my Bidwell Hollow store on Bookshop.org.

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Memorable Quotes

“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.”

Notes of a Native Son Book Cover Notes of a Native Son
James Baldwin
Memoir
Beacon Press
November 20, 2012
208

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.

If you’re a writer, you get a lot of advice about how to improve your writing. One piece of guidance writers receive is to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader, the thinking goes. 

And I agree. How can you be a word peddler if you’re not a word consumer? But what’s often not talked about is what a writer reads. 

The words writers take in mean as much as the words a writer puts down. That’s because to be our best writing self requires seeing the world outside of ourselves. A common thread among the best writers is they know something other than their own lives. 

Exposure and understanding help shape great writers. That’s why we need to be intentional with our reading. Below is a lesson I learned, and how it can help you, too.

Mix up the books

A few years ago, I listed all the books I read that year. Seventy-five percent of what I read was about World War II and written by white men. I was shocked. 

Do you know the writers whose work I had never read? The list included names such as Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. These are writers who excelled at their craft, and I was not consuming their words. Not to mention, I wanted to write fiction. And yet, the only books I read were nonfiction. 

Nicholas E. Barron quote: "Branching out beyond your comfort zone can help you discover new voices and improve your writing."

We all make choices, either consciously or unconsciously, in what we read. Maybe your bias is in the genre. You like mysteries, and so all you read are mystery novels. 

Or, your bias could be in authors. I didn’t intend to read only books by white guys. It just happens that a lot of books about World War II are by white men. Look at a list of the past dozen or so authors you’ve read. Are they all one gender, race, ethnicity, and so forth? 

We can also be partial in where our books’ settings. Shortly after discovering my predilection for World War II books, I realized I rarely read something set in Africa. Now I rotate into my reading pile books taking place in Africa.

There are many ways we pick the books we read. And we may have the best of intentions in our choices. But branching out beyond your comfort zone can help you discover new voices and improve your writing.

improve your writing by reading diversely

Reading Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room shook me. Discovering Willa Cather changed my understanding of what stories a writer can tell. Consuming Toni Morrison’s work is like crawling into the lap of a master.

Becoming more intentional in my reading has enhanced my writing. I’m a better writer now than when I was reading World War II books. And I understand and appreciate more who a writer can be and what stories they can tell. 

You can have the same experience. Look at the books you’ve recently read. Are there commonalities among them? The authors may be similar, or the books are in the same genre. See if there are ways you can expand what you read.

And, once you do, reevaluate after some time. Two years after I broadened what I read, I realized something. I hadn’t read a book published within that time. Everything I read was older than two years. So, I adjusted. Now I work new books into my reading.

Writers should read, yes, but the words we consume matter. Being intentional about your reading will improve your writing. So, reach beyond your typical reads to discover new authors and worlds. And watch yourself grow as a writer.


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This article originally appeared on Medium.