The Early Life and Young Adulthood of James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son

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Updated: Jun 28, 2022
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“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin was written in the 1950s. During this time, race relations in the US were at a particularly intense period. James Baldwin, who was considered by many to be the greatest American essayist, although he also wrote novels and plays, gave voice to the silent discontent of the black population in the US. This essay, to put it bluntly, is about the early life and young adulthood of James Baldwin, which takes place within the historical context of the early civil rights movement.

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Told through the lens of his relationship with his father, Baldwin portrays the lives of black people with complete honesty, flaws attached. It’s hard to determine Baldwin’s purpose for writing an essay of this manner other than to simply write about his life. Why does any writer write anything? Because they feel compelled to do so. Having the courage to write with such starkness, Baldwin’s essay had the byproduct of allowing many to see as human a group of people who were largely viewed up until that point as less than human. This essay was simply written for whomever wanted to read it.

The writing was for himself as a human, and as a black person; perhaps he wrote so that others might identify and expand their understanding of what it meant to be black and human. Another essay written by Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” a best seller stated that “Hatred, which could only destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law…” taken from “The Fire Next Time.” The idea of hatred leading to self destruction seems to be a common theme and it also emerges in “Notes of a Native Son.” Baldwin describes his relationship with his father, and the often intense feelings of hatred his family had for him. “There was something in him, therefore, groping and tentative, which was never expressed and which was buried within him.” It seems that the unexpressed oppression coming from racism not only destroyed his father, but also somehow destroyed their relationship. “It had something to do with his blackness, I think, – he was very black – with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew he was black but he did not know he was beautiful. He claimed to be proud of his blackness but it had also been the cause of much humiliation and it had fixed bleak boundaries to his life.” These quotes seem to describe this destruction.

Baldwin’s language and tone can be described as blunt, straight to the point, without emotion, and somewhat stark. “I do not remember, in all of those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home.” Speaking of his father here, Baldwin pours buckets of emotion into a shot glass of description. Reading this, one feels sadness. It’s almost as if he compares race relations to his broken relationship with his father. The outside world breaks the father, and in turn, the father breaks the family. The outside world, of course, is the word of racism and white oppression. The racism not only destroyed him, but made him a hateful person. “It is this, really, which has driven so many people mad, both white and black. One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene.” Baldwin here relates hatred to an infection. You can either cut it off completely, or let it eat you alive. The cure to hatred, in Baldwin’s words, is to, “…keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.” In order to combat this idea of despair, one needs to keep hope alive. Baldwin tells us to do something about our hatred, but doesn’t give us a formula of how to do so. It is up to each of us to find out how we can do something progressive with our hatred.

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The Early Life and Young Adulthood of James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son. (2022, Jun 26). Retrieved from