I can’t remember where I first learned anything about this man, or why I decided to start with Notes of a Native Son.
I do remember the muggy, summer evening that I, on a bit of a whim, drove straight to one of my favorite bookstores after getting off work.
I also purchased Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider that day, and while I can’t remember exactly what the clerk said as he was checking me out, I know he excitedly told me I was in for a treat. I was reading the biggies, the basics. They were going to blow my mind.
Boy howdy was he right — and I haven’t even read the first sentence of Sister Outsider.
I can’t tell you why I started with James Baldwin. The pages of the edition I have are weirdly thin, almost like most bibles I’ve touched. The cover has a photo of the man himself, reclined in a way I can only describe as sassily, smoking a cigarette carelessly and looking at you, the reader, with a “Watchu gonna do?” air. Very sexy.
In addition to Notes of a Native Son, my edition includes other collected essays: Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, The Devil Finds Work, and Other Essays.
It’s arranged in chronological order, which is how I’m going to write about my experience. I think it’s a really simple, genius way to lay things out. I feel like I’ve been growing and learning with him. And as someone in my late 20s, so many of the experiences he describes, his journey to his identity, render Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name uncomfortably and beautifully relatable to me. Dude definitely figured some things out before I have, but I get it.
Two of my favorite essays are titled Encounter on the Seine, A Question of Identity and Equal in Paris. Baldwin spent quite a bit of time in France, including some of his formative years. He discusses, at some length, the affect being abroad has on understanding your own, nationally-linked (whether you like it or not) identity. You see these new, different ways people who were born in a foreign culture think about things; the way they eat, bathe, socialize; the boundaries they draw; the institutions they trust. You start to look at the way you and the people around you do all those things. What limitations are collectively allowed, and why? What happens when someone violates those socio-cultural laws?
You’re forced to think about these things in a way you may not have if you hadn’t needed to confront that cognitive dissonance you encounter forcibly living another way. You have to reconcile your way of life with another culture’s to try and understand what the hell is going on, who’s doing what for what purpose, and answering the all-important question – how should I be doing things?
It’s such a humbling, uncomfortable, important endeavor.
“It really is quite impossible to be affirmative about anything which one refuses to question; one is doomed to remain inarticulate about anything which one hasn’t, by an act of the imagination, made one’s own.” (96)A Question of Identity, Notes of a Native Son
Baldwin and I, we learned the same lesson in France.
A huge theme for Baldwin is race relations in America. It’s at the center of most of his essays. He talks about the incredible gap of understanding that exists between Black and white America, primarily on the side of white communities; how negatively it affects American culture; how unique of a situation America is in, having, as he would put it, “Africans” and “Europeans,” colonizer and colonized, forced to live in and build a society and culture together; how harmful the white moderate is; and how tied up all of this is with American identity – Black and white.
Baldwin also has so much room for hope in his view of the world. America is moving faster than anywhere else in the world, and the back-and-forth, so painful, is evidence that progress is being made. Even empty promises from (mostly liberal) politicians, he argues, are at least “proof of something more concrete than intentions: that the Negro situation is not static, that changes have occurred, and are occurring and will occur.” (54)
But it’s painfully obvious we aren’t moving fast enough to those who remain oppressed, as well as those who have acknowledged and worked to understand that oppression and the sinister, complicated way it operates.
How does this persist? It’s so obvious we have a problem in America, in the world. Very few people will come out and say they judge people based on the color of their skin anymore, but the statistics are irrefutable. You don’t even have conservative politicians trying to argue that race doesn’t affect your experience here in America very often.
“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.” (75)Notes of a Native Son
“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors.” (122)The Discovery of What It Means To Be an American, Nobody Knows My Name
That’s it. It’s the discomfort, the pain. We — especially white folks — don’t want to deal with the world we’ve created. But it would be so. Much. Better. If we did.
Now: why am I pissed, you may ask, as I remind you of the title of this blog post?
All of these concepts, this way of thinking, is so embarrassingly new to me.
I started my journey to the reality of our situation with a one-on-one class with Dr. Aparna Nair, but I really dug in after moving back to Tulsa following graduate school. Three years later, I’m still wading through the basics, shocked and struggling to grasp the complexity of an issue I know most Black people in America understand and have understood for most of their lives.
Some of that is, I would imagine, due to painful lived experiences and generational knowledge. This breaks my heart.
None of this was part of my curriculum. I wasn’t reading excerpts from James Baldwin’s essays at any educational institution I attended. The only Black literature I’d read prior to the last few years was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which was so complex and nuanced (as my 11th grade mind remembers it) that I didn’t engage with it intellectually to the extent I should have. I didn’t have the building blocks of historical fact and present-day issues I needed to contextualize what I was reading. Or are those just excuses?
I feel angry. I feel let down. I feel frustrated by my parents, my family, the white mentors and teachers I looked up to as a child.
I’m also incredibly angry at myself.
Why did it take me so long to really see this?
The opportunites to learn more were there, especially during my undergraduate education. I could have taken Black history and African American Studies courses. In graduate school, even moreso. I was studying late 19th century America, focusing on a town in Arkansas. It made sense.
The disgusting part is, I saw racial inequity a lot earlier than I’m proud to admit, and I accepted it. I excused it. It wasn’t my problem. I used to drive around with weed in my car, knowing I probably wouldn’t get pulled over… and if I did, no one would suspect me, a young-looking, blue-eyed, white woman of having drugs on my person. I laughed about it with my friends, feeling cool.
Growing up, the (white) adults in my life had provided me plenty of tools for alleviating the guilt. Slavery’s been over for well over 100 years, Black Americans are just playing the victim for handouts now; it may be true that it’s harder to be Black in America, but I worked for what I have, and you work hard too.
There would be no accountability coming from the people and institutions with whom I had partnered thus far on my intellectual and moral journey. If anything, I’d be getting pushback. In denying their narrative around race relations in America, I’d be forcing an at least partial examination of the precariously-constructed story they were telling themselves.
And I knew learning more in a classroom would make me uncomfortable in a way as yet unknown. I’d be sitting in a multiracial room unpacking the horror of 300 years of oppression perpetuated by my race onto others.
Fine. Confronting it in a classroom may be a little harder for someone like me, but my first instinct is always to pick up a book on my own anyway. There’s certainly no shortage of amazing work on race in America. I didn’t take that route either.
At the core of what was happening? Fear and shame. As always, Baldwin says it best:
“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed.” (209)Faulkner and Desegregation, Nobody Knows My Name
Said in another, equally impactful way:
“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors.”
Short sidenote: is it not absolutely awe-inspiring that a Black man writing in the mid-20th century had the insight and the emotional energy to explore and put words to this? I just… wow. Perpetually trying not to fangirl over here.
White supremacy is genius in its construction, providing excuses and barriers to exit at every turn. You really do have to suspend belief in almost every area of your life and be willing to reexamine, reevaluate, and seek out and listen to perspectives that make you feel guilt, dis-ease, and ashamed. It fucking sucks.
But we are all harming ourselves when we live in the comfort of delusion, a concept Baldwin spends quite a bit of time teasing out. A few stand-out examples:
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” (129)The Discovery of What It Means To Be an American, Nobody Knows My Name
“Our dehumanization of the Negro… is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.” (20)Many Thousands Gond, Notes of a Native Son
“It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.” (179)Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem
To end on a hopeful note, I’m so proud to be an American. Our history is terrible but hopeful, but I firmly believe our future, no doubt earned by more suffering, will be beautiful (if we can get it together, of course).
I’m thankful to James Baldwin and all the other writers and activists, past, present, and to be discovered, whose work contributes to my liberation and arms me in the continued battle for a better world.
It’s an honor to be here, to learn, and to continue converting this anger into action.
“One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” (129)Stranger in the Village, Notes of a Native Son