James Baldwin's collection of essays has been powerful, in both message and prose.
In the following sections, I will quickly note down what I thought about each individual essay.
Everybody's protest novel
James argues why "protest novels" don't work, or don't touch upon a true solution. It comes down to the fact that all seem to accept — and argue within — the framework of reason perpetuated by society, that is, pious christianity, with its sins, concept of hell, and the striving towards god and heaven.
James calls this failure the rejection of life. These so-called protest novels fail to truly express the human being, its beauty, dread, and power.
Several of the novels James cites, I have never read. This made it a bit more confusing to really follow his arguments. In general, I found his arguments to be hidden deep underneath a layer of flowering prose.
Many thousands gone
James sets out to explore what it means to be a Negro in America, by examining myths being perpetuated. He argues that the sense of how Negroes live and endure is hidden from general America, because of two reasons.
- The speed of the Negro's public progress, which is highly complex, bewildering and kaleidoscopic. So much so, that he dare not pause to look back to the darkness which lies behind him.
- The American psychology, of which James notes that it is literally unthinkable to see this change.
The sentence that James writes that I think describes this American psychology, is as follows.
Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.
In other words, Americans spun an alternate truth for themselves so they didn't have to confront their past sins. This however also prevented them from truthfully observing the sometimes perilous lives of Negroes, which possibly lead to more denial and increased mutual hatred.
The remaining lion's share of this essay discusses the novel Native son by Richard Wright.
James criticizes the message brought forth by Richard as contributing more to an already established stereotype than breaking free and truthfully showing the lives of Negroes in America. He poses that it is not actually Bigger Thomas that we — the white American society — fear, even though he is the one who expresses his hatred and seeks vengeance, making him a part of the national statistics that lead to dehumanization of the Negro, but instead that we fear all those characters surrounding Bigger, who go to church and give no further cause for complaint. It is precisely that human aspect that doesn't fit with the story Americans had woven for themselves, which frightens them.
However, I was left to wonder, why would one be frightened of sincerely good people? Is it the confrontation with one's own faulty assumptions of the world that is frightening? But then those Negroes that live positive lives are not the frightening factor, but rather it is an inner demon housed in Americans that fuels their fright. Any human would benefit from acknowledging their own wrongs, incorrect assumptions, and mistakes on a regular basis. Population-wide individual introspection seems to have never really been reached, maybe because it is too difficult of an exercise for many. How to increase the practice of effective introspection?
Near the end of the essay, James writes a very powerful story as he would have liked to see Native son go, but ends with the conclusion that the actual novel ends on a much more underwhelming note.
Carmen Jones: The dark is light enough
James critiques the 1954 film Carmen Jones. Despite the professional competencies of the cast, James argues, the film never attains any positive qualities. The screenplay, the shots, and the musical score all distinctly did not fit the Negro actors. They muddled the plausibility of the Negro population.
Furthermore, James argues that the director leans too heavily into the sexual connotation society places with dark-skinned bodies. The lead actress Dorothy Dandridge is put to flounce around in tight skirts and plunging necklines—which James remarks to not exactly be plausible sexuality either. However, the male lead Harry Belafonte isn't allowed any sexuality in his role. The Negro male is too loaded a quantity for the director to know quite how to handle. Thus his sexuality is simply assumed, per extension of the societal image of the Negro male derived from statistical myths. Bosley Crowther from The New York Times presented similar critiques in his review.
James Baldwin concludes with the following paragraph.
The most important thing about this movie—and the reason that, despite itself, it is one of the most important all-Negro movies Hollywood has yet produced—is that the questions it leaves in the mind relate less to Negroes than to the interior life of Americans. One wonders, it is true, if Negroes are really going to become the ciphers this movie makes them out to be; but, since they have until now survived public images even more appalling, one is encouraged to hope, for their sake and the sake of the Republic, that they will continue to prove themselves incorrigible. Besides, life does not produce ciphers like these: when people have become this empty they are not ciphers any longer, but monsters. The creation of such ciphers proves, however, that Americans are far from empty; they are, on the contrary, very deeply disturbed. And this disturbance is not the kind which can be eased by the doing of good works, but seems to have turned inward and shows every sign of becoming personal. This is one of the best things that can possibly happen. It can be taken to mean—among a great many other things—that the ferment which has resulted in as odd a brew as Carmen Jones can now be expected to produce something which will be more bitter on the tongue but sweeter in the stomach.
The Harlem ghetto
Baldwin poses that Negroes bolster serious contempt against Jews, despite them all being part of a society that marginalizes both of them.
Life in Harlem irreparably scars Negro youth. The wonder is not that so many are ruined, but that so many survive. Negro news outlets are constricted, and mimic White institutions. If anything, Negro outlets are more sensational.
Notes of a native son
James's father was psychologically scarred, had anger issues, and was extremely suspicious of other people. James had always despised his father because of this, until he lived his first year on his own.
James speaks of the sheer weight that presses on him, and all other Negroes in America, by the silent societal injustices. This oppressive weight, spread out over a whole life, may build up to sudden bursts of anger. He tells of his father, and how he despised him, but near the end we see James's development leading him to understand that his own story is very similar to his father's.
Encounter on the Seine: Black meets Brown
The colonial French Africans that James Brown meets in Paris, lead him to think about their differences from Negroes, or African Americans. I think this is best captured in the following quote.
The African before him has endured privation, injustice, medieval cruelty; but the African has not yet endured the utter alienation of himself from his people and his past. His mother did not sing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and he has not, all his life long, ached for acceptance in a culture which pronounced straight hair and white skin the only acceptable beauty.
A question of identity
James ponders on the American student identity in Paris. A most striking quote I found to be the following.
[...] the American wishes to be liked as a person, an implied distinction which makes perfect sense to him, and none whatever to the European. What the American means is that he does not want to be confused with the Marshall Plan, Hollywood, the Yankee dollar, television, or Senator McCarthy. What the European, in a thoroughly exasperating innocence, assumes is that the American cannot, of course, be divorced from the so diverse phenomena which make up his country, and that he is willing, and able, to clarify the American conundrum.
While reading this, I thought that James was setting up a nice argument of hypocrisy. Namely, that Americans, once they go abroad and are strangers themselves, personally do not enjoy being stereotyped and identified based on certain characteristics of their group. However, back home, this is precisely what they have been inflicting on the Negro population; not appreciating Negroes as individual human beings, but rather judging them based on the abstract societal narrative woven around the Afro-American population. Ultimately, the feelings James thus observed with the American students abroad, would be a great showing of hypocrisy.
Except, that is not where James guided his essay to.
Equal in Paris
James tells about the time he is arrested and spends more than a week in jail while in Paris, only because a friend of him stole some bedsheets from a hotel.
I was chilled by their merriment, even though it was meant to warm me. It could only remind me of the laughter I had often heard at home, laughter which I had sometimes deliberately elicited. This laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real.
This essay evoked a feeling of hopelessness in me. The life James was living in Paris seems so empty, which was partly caused by his introspective tendencies which prevented him from doing much.
Stranger in the village
James talks about the times he visited a tiny Swiss village. He argues that these Europeans rightly have no experience with living with Black people. However, Americans are significantly different from Europeans in that they have been living with Afro-Americans for hundreds of years in some way or the other. This makes them all into a different people.
Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world—which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white—owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us—very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will—that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.
Hereby ending this essay and the book.
A short quote that I found fascinating, also from this essay.
Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious.