Notes of a Native Son

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Notes of a Native Son The Harlem Ghetto Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Harlem has not changed much since Baldwin’s parents were young; it remains characterized by injustice, poverty, and overcrowding. There have been some efforts to improve the neighborhood by adding facilities such as a Boys’ Club and playground. These projects receive the support of black leaders and the black press, who also encourage the construction of more schools, although Baldwin is dubious about the effectiveness of such efforts. Baldwin bemoans the plight of black leaders, who exist within a political system that thwarts them at every turn. At the same time, he notes that many leaders are self-serving.
The lack of progress that Baldwin has previously described in the context of white people’s attitude toward race is also an issue when it comes to the material conditions of black people in Harlem. Although Baldwin does not say so explicitly, the efforts to improve the ghetto through new facilities seem to be fundamentally undermined by a lack of major economic redistribution. In other words, no matter how many playgrounds or schools get built, people in Harlem remain disproportionately poor.
Themes
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Progress vs. Stagnation Theme Icon
Baldwin is similarly critical of the black press, pointing out its sensational elements (although arguing that this is hardly unique within the American media landscape) and criticizing the columnist Paul Robeson for buying into anti-communist fervor. He praises the “high-class” Pittsburgh Courier, known as the best African-American newspaper, and disparages the magazines Ebony and Our World, which claim to represent “the better class of Negro.” Baldwin laments the fact that the black press models itself on white publications, meaning that the hollowness and “decay” plaguing white society can also be found reflected in black media. He argues that the black press is unfairly used as a “scapegoat” and that people make unrealistic demands of it.
It can at times seem like Baldwin takes an overly harsh attitude toward black-produced culture, media, and politics, and that his critiques may in fact inhibit progress rather than enabling it. However, it is important to recall the statement he makes earlier in the novel: “I love America more than any country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” For Baldwin, criticism is constructive and originates from a place of love, not bitterness.
Themes
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Language, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Baldwin notes that African-Americans are generally very religious; there are likely more churches in Harlem than in any other ghetto in the country, and these churches vary enormously in size and style. He claims that some misunderstand black people’s religiosity as childlike, when it is in fact driven by the far more “sinister” desire for vengeance on white people and other wrongdoers. Black Americans have an “ambivalent” relationship to Jews. On one hand, they identify with the Jewish experience of slavery, persecution, exile, and homelessness; yet on the other, they resent Jewish landlords and businessmen for their role in the American capitalist tradition of exploiting black people. Few African Americans trust Jews, even while most would probably prefer to work for a Jew than for a white gentile. Some claim that Jews should have learned to treat black people better due to their own experience of persecution; in reality, however, the oppression of Jewish Americans tends to further alienate them from black people, a division which ultimately serves white gentiles most of all.
The relationship between black and Jewish Americans is one of the most important examples of the coexistence of intimacy and hatred in the book. Baldwin argues that black people resent Jews for many of the exact same reasons that they identify with them. Both groups carry with them a similar history of persecution and both suffer from a sense of homelessness created through diasporic existence. While on one level this unites Jews and African Americans, on another it drives them further apart. Note that Baldwin places a special emphasis on capitalism as a reason for the division between different oppressed groups. When people exist in a state of competition with one another, it becomes much harder to form alliances of trust and solidarity.
Themes
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
Baldwin recalls times when he has tried in vain to convince black acquaintances that anti-Semitism functions according to the same harmful logic as anti-black racism. He argues that it is hard to overcome the bitterness instilled in black people by centuries of torment and injustice. He disagrees with the idea that the experience of oppression creates wisdom or gentleness in the oppressed. Prolonged injustice, the stagnation of progress, and the continued assertion of inferiority instead create feelings of frustration, madness, and rage. All over the United States, black people are traumatized by the conditions of their lives; Baldwin argues that “the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive.” Jewish people often become the scapegoat at which black Americans misdirect their anger.
This passage is important, because it contains another major point of disagreement between Baldwin and other prominent public intellectuals (of all races). It is common to argue that the experience of oppression, even if lamentable in itself, has a “silver lining” of making oppressed people wiser and kinder than they might otherwise be. However, Baldwin rejects this line of thinking and is keen to highlight the bitterness and fury black people feel over the centuries of injustice they have been forced to endure.
Themes
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Progress vs. Stagnation Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
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