100 best nonfiction books: Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

BaldIn the spring of 1820, Thomas Jefferson, who, in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, had launched a withering assault on slavery, confessed to an associate that the plight of the American negro was a momentous question, which, “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror”. Race, still the greatest of the unresolved issues within America, has already inspired one entry on this list – No 5, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama. With James Baldwin, African-American literature reaches one of its 20th-century masters in fiction (Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room), a name to stand alongside Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and, most recently, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Baldwin is also the author of some important nonfiction, several landmark essays of great power and beauty on the place of the black writer in white America. In this genre, Notes of a Native Son is a recent classic. For Henry Louis Gates Jr, it was Baldwin who “named for me the things you feel but couldn’t utter… articulated for the first time to white America what it meant to be American and a black American at the same time”. The 10 essays collected in Notes of a Native Son – on subjects ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to 1940s Harlem – distil Baldwin’s thinking. It is a source book for a subject that Langston Hughes described in a review of Notes as “the troubled problems of this troubled Earth”.

…Throughout his writing, Baldwin never shies away from a frank and disquieting acknowledgement of feelings: “There is no negro living in America who has not felt, briefly or for long periods… naked and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter; to violate, out of motives of cruellest vengeance, their women, to break the bodies of all white people…” Despite this admission of rage, Baldwin can also be entertainingly satirical, as in his essay on Carmen Jones: “Hollywood’s peculiar ability to milk, so to speak, the cow and the goat at the same time – and then to peddle the results as ginger ale – has seldom produced anything more arresting than the 1955 production of Carmen Jones.”

All of the foregoing culminates in the title essay, Baldwin’s declaration of independence. Speaking of his struggle to vindicate himself as an artist, he writes: “This fight begins, however, in the heart and it has now been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”

More here.

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