James Baldwin’s s of a Native Son” is a poignant autobiographical account of a father-son relationship set in the era of the American Civil Rights Movement. The essay may be said to run on the parallel tracks of family relationships and racial discrimination. Baldwin’s father dies in the midst of racial riots in Harlem. As he goes through the rituals of death, the author analyzes his relationship with his father through the lens of their shared identity as African-Americans. Baldwin’s experience of racial discrimination gives him new insight into the personality of his father and leads him to make his peace with himself as a son and as a Negro.
Baldwin’s childhood in the black-majority environment of Harlem keeps him insulated from the reality of prevalent racial segregation. He differs from his father in his perception of white people and does not agree with his father that “white people would do anything to keep a Negro down” (Baldwin, 591). It is only when he moves to New Jersey that he is exposed to the vicious discrimination which forbids him entry to public places, such as bars and restaurants. For the first time in his life, Baldwin becomes familiar with the chorus, “We don’t serve Negroes here” (Baldwin, 593). As his bitterness towards this segregation builds up towards violence, Baldwin gains a new understanding of his father’s personality.
Baldwin has not shared a loving relationship with his father. As the eldest son, he has remained “contemptuous of his father for the conditions of his life” (Baldwin, 587). He is unequivocal in his declaration of hatred for his father. He resents his father deliberately isolating his family from the neighbors, and asserts that “he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met” (Baldwin, 588). However, Baldwin’s New Jersey experience opens his eyes to the fact that the blackness which his father proudly flaunted “had also been the cause of much humiliation and it had fixed bleak boundaries to his life” (Baldwin, 588). He realizes that his father’s relationship with his children is but his way of protecting them from the white society which threatens them. His father is attempting “to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised” (Baldwin, 599). By sharing his father’s bitterness towards racial segregation, Baldwin gains a new understanding of his parents.
As Baldwin realizes that he is in danger of erupting into violence in his rebellion against the injustice of racial discrimination, he empathizes with his father’s pride and bitterness: “this bitterness now was mine” (Baldwin, 589). This new understanding brings with it tender memories of his father’s pride in his singing, and his concern over his little injuries, and deep regret over their estrangement. As Baldwin comes to accept that his father loved him in his own way, he also realizes that “my real life was in danger from the hatred I carried in my heart” (Baldwin, 594). He acknowledges that hatred is self-destructive: it “never failed to destroy the man who hated” (Baldwin, 603). Baldwin accepts that life has to be lived on its own terms, without bitterness and its injustices must be fought with a “heart free from hatred and despair” (Baldwin, 604). Baldwin comes to terms with his relationship with his father and with his position as a Negro in a society that practices racial discrimination.
“Notes of a Native Son” is a deeply moving account of Baldwin’s love-hate relationship with his father. As Baldwin experiences at first hand the viciousness of racial discrimination, he realizes the roots of the bitterness which characterized his father and formed a barrier between him and his children. Their shared pride and their common rancor against the injustice of discrimination create a new bond between the son and his now-deceased father. Baldwin discovers “that to assert his humanity he must release his rage” (Howe, 1963). He accepts that his father loved him in his own way, mourns his father’s passing and confronts the reality of social injustice and the necessity to combat it without hatred.
Baldwin, James. “Notes of a Native Son.” Title of Collection. Ed. Editors Name(s). City of
Publication: Publisher, Year. 586- 604. Print.
Howe, Irving. “Black Boys and Native Sons.” Dissent. Autumn 1963. 358 – 368. Web.