Notes of a Native Son is one of the seminal books in the career of James Baldwin. The essay itself is built upon the life of Baldwin, and is used as a means to tackle many themes of oppression and racism within America and Europe. The primary way in which Baldwin is able to construct this theme and develop it is in the use of the setting and the character development. The tone itself is extremely tense. The relationship between Baldwin and his father is one which is very stressed and problematic for both characters. The overall nature of the way in which the story presents these two characters shows the effects of the perception of different races and societal statures in the United States and how this causes distance and tension between individuals who experience this. (Leeming, 134)
The tone itself is displayed through the many settings of the story and how these places and situations affect the characters. The tension manifests itself rather abruptly at Baldwin’s father’s funeral, which happens to occur on the same day as Baldwin’s birthday and the subsequent birth of his new sibling. (Leeming, 134) The different settings of the story also show the perception that African-Americans and Africans in general have been subjected to and the overarching ability of perceptions to reach different regions. The story takes place primarily in the ghetto areas of Harlem, which in turn is represented as a sort of mecca for the African-American society and culture. The remainder of the story takes place in Paris, when Baldwin moves to France at the age of 24. (Leeming, 134) Another prominent area which occurs in the story is in Atlanta, Georgina where Baldwin is able to see various forms of African-American culture in their more original habitat, such as jazz music.
There is a sense of isolation that Baldwin feels in many of the places that he lives or visits. As he notes being in Paris, it’s as if each person in the city that’s American isn’t quite American. They’re either on their way home eventually or have become so well-adjusted that there seems to be no difference between them and the Parisians. (Rodgers, 148) This sense of isolation and distance echoes in much of the story, starting with the strained relationship that he has with his father. Baldwin attributes much of this isolation to the estranged life that occurs with him. One of the many themes which Baldwin incorporates is this feeling that accompanies him in many of the things that he does. (Rodgers, 156)
In the story, his father originally wants him to become a preacher but he feels the appeal of becoming a writer and does so, much to the disdain of his father. (Rodgers, 164) This separation and the increasing anxiety that both of them have as a result of the social pressures in the United States tremendously affect the theme of the story. Many of the struggles that the characters face translate to the feelings that individuals have in countries such as those in the Third World. (Rodgers, 167) Baldwin reflects on his experiences in a village in Switzerland and the isolation that he was subjected to because of his race. (Rodgers, 200) The general perception that the individuals in the village had of him are jarring and represent much of the confusion and separation between various races and cultures. (Rodgers, 184) The settings that he uses in these essays create a vivid picture, as well as the narration that he uses to recount the events that occur and the overall relationship that he has to these events.
Notes of a Native Son is a series of essays compiled into a non-fiction novel, created by James Baldwin to address the strained relationship between individuals of different races in America and abroad. The various elements that Baldwin incorporates in these stories service to build the plot through the integration of thematic elements that are presented as part of the dialogue and the settings conveyed. Establishing the story through these means, Baldwin capitalizes on the elements provided to help enrich and build a compelling narrative of societal struggles and perceptions.
- Leeming, David (1994) James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 134.
- Rodgers, Joseph (1992). The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Greenwood Press. p. 158, pp. 148–200.