The funeral was held on Baldwin’s birthday, and he spent the day drinking whisky with a female friend and wondering what to wear because he did not own any black clothes. His friend eventually found him a black shirt. At the church, Baldwin reflected that his aunt, who fought with his father throughout his life, was one of the only people who had a real connection with him. During the eulogy, Baldwin notes that the preacher was not describing his father as he really was, but rather inviting the congregation to forgive his father, reminding them that they did not know the full truth of what he suffered. Someone began singing one of Baldwin’s father’s favorite songs, and suddenly Baldwin was transported to a memory of sitting on his father’s lap in church. He recalls that his father used to show off Baldwin’s singing voice to others when he was young. He remembers their fights, and the only time in which they “had really spoken to each other.” Just before Baldwin left home, his father asked him if he’d “rather write than preach,” and Baldwin replied, simply, “Yes.” Baldwin did not want to see his father’s body in the casket, but had no choice but to go and look. Baldwin felt that his father looked like any “old man dead,” and notes the strange proximity of the body to his newborn child.
This passage is a cathartic and redemptive moment in an otherwise bleak essay. Baldwin’s inability to find suitable clothes, his sense that the preacher is not being honest, and his reluctance to see his father’s body all create the impression that he is alienated from his father and from the process of mourning him. However, at the same time he experiences a sudden sense of connection to his father through the experience of hearing the song. This in turn leads him to remember their only moment of true communication. Although it is tragic that this moment was so fleeting, there is also beauty in the fact that Baldwin recalls it at all, alongside other happy memories of his father’s life. The presence of his father’s youngest child, a newborn baby, creates a sense of hope. Although Baldwin’s father is gone, part of him lives on through his children, who may experience some of the joy and freedom that he was denied.
February 26, 1958Notes of a Native Son
By LANGSTON HUGHES
NOTES OF A NATIVE SON
By James Baldwin.
think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person. There is something in Cervantes or Shakespeare, Beethoven or Rembrandt or Louis Armstrong that millions can understand. The American native son who signs his name James Baldwin is quite a ways off from fitting such a definition of a great artist in writing, but he is not as far off as many another writer who deals in picture captions of journalese in the hope of capturing and retaining a wide public. 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.
In "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin surveys in pungent commentary certain phases of the contemporary scene as they relate to the citizenry of the United States, particularly Negroes. Harlem, the protest novel, bigoted religion, the Negro press and the student milieu of Paris are all examined in black and white, with alternate shutters clicking, for hours of reading interest. When the young man who wrote this book comes to a point where he can look at life purely as himself, and for himself, the color of his skin mattering not at all, when, as in his own words, he finds "his birthright as a man no less than his birthright as a black man," America and the world might as well have a major contemporary commentator.
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.
What James Baldwin thinks of the protest novel from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to Richard Wright, of the motion picture "Carmen Jones," of the relationships between Jews and Negroes, and of the problems of American minorities in general is herein graphically and rhythmically set forth. And the title chapter concerning his father's burial the day after the Harlem riots, heading for the cemetery through broken streets--"To smash something is the ghetto's chronic need"--is superb. That Baldwin's viewpoints are half American, half Afro-American, incompletely fused, is a hurdle which Baldwin himself realizes he still has to surmount. When he does, there will be a straight-from-the-shoulder writer, writing about the troubled problems of this troubled earth with an illuminating intensity that should influence for the better all who ponder on the things books say.
Mr. Hughes, the poet, is author the recent book, "The Sweet Flypaper of Life."
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