Baldwin was born in Harlem and spent much of his youth looking after his many younger siblings. He was a keen reader and read every book he could find except the Bible, because that was the one he was told to read. At 12, he wrote a story that was accepted for publication in a church newspaper, but was then censored. He also wrote songs, plays, and poetry. His father disapproved of his writing and wanted him to become a preacher, which he did between the ages of 14 and 17, before leaving home. Baldwin wrote two books in his early 20s for which he received fellowships, but which were deemed “unsalable.” At 24, he moved to France and finished the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Baldwin was born into difficult circumstances, yet was sustained during these years by his love of literature and single-minded determination to become a writer. Despite his precocious early success, it seems that the world was not ready to accept his work, as evidenced by the censorship of his story in the church newspaper and his first two books being called “unsalable.” This can be blamed on the climate of delusion and dishonesty that Baldwin denounces throughout the book.
Baldwin reflects on the aspects of his upbringing that helped and hindered his development as a writer. He suggests that the King James Bible, the “store-front church,” black American speech, and Dickens all influenced his current writing style. However, the single biggest influence on him was the fact that he was born black. He points out that much has been written about “the Negro problem,” but that almost none of this writing is very good, in part because both black and white Americans are reluctant to examine the past. Baldwin himself reached a turning point when he acknowledged the fact that he was a “bastard of the West,” and that European history and culture were not really his inheritance. At the same time, he also realized that he would have to “appropriate” white heritage in order to form a sense of heritage of his own, because he also had no personal connection to Africa. He felt a crushing sense of self-destructiveness and a hatred and fear of the world.
This is one of the most important passages in the book. It explains Baldwin’s sense of his own identity and heritage and it establishes the foundation of his exploration of African American life. Baldwin’s realization that white European culture and history do not “belong” to him highlights the particular alienation that black Americans experience, being surrounded by culture that do not pertain to them. At the same time, this observation also calls into question the way we think about heritage and identity. Is it really the case that white Americans have a connection to Bach or Rembrandt just because of their ancestry and the color of their skin?
People inevitably write from their own experiences, and Baldwin feels that writing about blackness was “the gate I had to unlock” before approaching other subjects. He argues that everyone in America is affected by “the Negro problem,” regardless of their race. He praises Ralph Ellison for being the first writer he has encountered that represented the black experience in all its “ambiguity and irony.” Baldwin says he enjoys making experimental films with his 16mm camera, eating and drinking, discussion, and laughing. He is not a fan of the bohemian lifestyle, which he finds too hedonistic, and he resents people who either like or dislike him on account of his race. Baldwin loves America and thus he is highly critical of it. He strives for skepticism, nuance, and honesty, and places the greatest value on getting his work done.
At the time Baldwin is writing, many people assume that “the Negro problem” is something that affects black Americans alone and, therefore, that only black people should have to address it. In this passage, Baldwin corrects this delusion by pointing out that, as much as being black is a definitive part of his identity, it is also an accidental attribute that does not determine who he is as a person or disconnect him from people of other races. Black people must be treated as equal human beings before any real understanding or progress on racial injustice can take place.