Notes of a Native Son

James Baldwin is the author of the book, and he narrates each essay from his own first-person perspective. Baldwin was born in 1924 to a large, poor family in Harlem, and his strained relationship with his father is a prominent topic in the book. It was Baldwin’s talent as a writer and critic that allowed him to escape his difficult upbringing and overcome the many serious obstacles he faced as an impoverished gay black man. As a narrator, Baldwin is unfailingly honest about his own flaws and difficulties, particularly in relation to his journey to make sense of his own identity. Throughout the book, he discusses his struggle to overcome the sense of bitterness and hatred that he argues afflicts all African Americans living in a profoundly unjust, racist world. By interrogating this struggle through writing, Baldwin is not only able to assert control over it, but to also inspire others to do the same.

James Baldwin Quotes in Notes of a Native Son

The Notes of a Native Son quotes below are all either spoken by James Baldwin or refer to James Baldwin. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Beacon Press edition of Notes of a Native Son published in 2012.
Preface to the 1984 Edition Quotes

I had to try to describe that particular condition which was––is––the living proof of my inheritance. And, at the same time, with that very same description, I had to claim my birthright. I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.

The conundrum of color is the inheritance of every American, be he/she legally or actually Black or White… I was trying to locate myself within a specific inheritance and to use that inheritance, precisely, to claim the birthright from which that inheritance had so brutally and specifically excluded me.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: xx
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There have been superficial changes, with results at best ambiguous and, at worst, disastrous. Morally, there has been no change at all and the moral change is the only real one. "Plus ça change," groan the exasperated French (who should certainly know), "plus c'est le même chose." (The more it changes, the more it remains the same.) At least they have the style to be truthful about it.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: xx
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Autobiographical Notes Quotes

But it is part of the business of the writer––as I see it––to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at length, with nothing to be articulate about. ("You taught me language," says Caliban to Prospero, "and my profit on't is I know how to curse.")

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 6
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I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use––I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine––I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme––otherwise I would have no place in any scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 7
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I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 9
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I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 9
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Everybody’s Protest Novel Quotes

Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden. From this void––ourselves––it is the function of society to protect us; but it is only this void, our unknown selves, demanding, forever, a new act of creation, which can save us––"from the evil that is in the world."

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 20
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Many Thousands Gone Quotes

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear. As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference… The story of the Negro in America is the story of America––or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans. It is not a very pretty story: the story of a people is never very pretty.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 25
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Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 26
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We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try those origins which contain the key––could we but find it––to all that we later become. What it means to be a Negro is a good deal more than this essay can discover; what it means to be a Negro in America can perhaps be suggested by an examination of the myths we perpetuate about him.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 28
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Native Son does not convey the altogether savage paradox of the American Negro’s situation, of which the social reality which we prefer with such hopeful superficiality to study is but, as it were, the shadow. It is not simply the relationship of oppressed to oppressor, of master to slave, nor is it motivated merely by hatred; it is also, literally and morally, a blood relationship, perhaps the most profound reality of the American experience, and we cannot begin to unlock it until we accept how very much it contains of the force and anguish and terror of love.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 42
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The Harlem Ghetto Quotes

It seems unlikely that within this complicated structure any real and systematic cooperation can be achieved between Negroes and Jews. (This is in terms of the over-all social problem and is not meant to imply that individual friendships are impossible or that they are valueless when they occur.) The structure of the American commonwealth has trapped both these minorities into attitudes of perpetual hostility. They do not dare trust each other––the Jew because he feels he must climb higher on the American social ladder and has, so far as he is concerned, nothing to gain from identification with any minority even more unloved than he; while the Negro is in the even less tenable position of not really daring to trust anyone.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 71
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Notes of a Native Son Quotes

I felt, in the oddest, most awful way, that I had somehow betrayed him. I lived it over and over and over again, the way one relives an automobile accident after it has happened and one finds oneself alone and safe. I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 99
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The Negro’s real relation to the white American…prohibits, simply, anything as uncomplicated and satisfactory as pure hatred. In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind––and the heart––that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose. But this does not mean, on the other hand, that love comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that. One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one's own reactions are always canceling each other out.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 113
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Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown Quotes

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.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 124
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Equal in Paris Quotes

No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 143
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Stranger in the Village Quotes

Joyce is right about history being a nightmare––but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 166-167
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There is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence. The astonishment with which I might have greeted them, should they have stumbled into my African village a few hundred years ago, might have rejoiced their hearts. But the astonishment with which they greet me today can only poison mine.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 168
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There is a great deal of will power involved in the white man's naïveté. Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain human remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 170
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At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself. And the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans––lynch law and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession––either to come to terms with this necessity, or to find a way around it, or (most usually) to find a way of doing both these things at once. The resulting spectacle, at once foolish and dreadful, led someone to make the quite accurate observation that "the Negro in America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men."

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 176
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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.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 179
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James Baldwin Character Timeline in Notes of a Native Son

The timeline below shows where the character James Baldwin appears in Notes of a Native Son. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Preface to the 1984 Edition
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Language, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
When Baldwin’s friend told him to write Notes of a Native Son, he objected that he was... (full context)
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
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Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
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Baldwin reflects on the nature of inheritance and the way in which people are and are... (full context)
Language, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
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Baldwin was 31 when Notes of a Native Son was published and is now 60. He... (full context)
Autobiographical Notes
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Baldwin was born in Harlem and spent much of his youth looking after his many younger... (full context)
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Baldwin reflects on the aspects of his upbringing that helped and hindered his development as a... (full context)
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People inevitably write from their own experiences, and Baldwin feels that writing about blackness was “the gate I had to unlock” before approaching other... (full context)
Everybody’s Protest Novel
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...afterlife. Miss Ophelia, presumably voicing the opinion of the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is horrified. Baldwin argues that the characters in the novel never question the simplistic terms within which they... (full context)
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Baldwin argues that in order for the novel to be more truthful, Stowe would have had... (full context)
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Baldwin compares the goal of the protest novel to that of white missionaries in Africa. He... (full context)
Many Thousands Gone
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Baldwin argues that black people have been unable to tell their story to “the white majority,”... (full context)
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...white people understand themselves. This causes tension between the races that persists in the present. Baldwin concludes that “it is a sentimental error… to believe that the past is dead.” (full context)
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Baldwin argues that people become American when they cut off ties to other cultures, histories, and... (full context)
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Baldwin feels that Wright’s aim was to depict a “monster” created by America, and that this... (full context)
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...but rather as an isolated individual who acted out of “his hatred and his self-hatred.” Baldwin argues that Native Son is doomed by its replication of the (false) American understanding of... (full context)
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Baldwin states that “Negroes are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny.” He argues that... (full context)
Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough
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Baldwin argues that the film Carmen Jones revolves around a parallel between “an amoral gypsy and... (full context)
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Baldwin contends that the film’s flaws are the product of Hollywood’s condescending attitude toward black people.... (full context)
The Harlem Ghetto
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Harlem has not changed much since Baldwin’s parents were young; it remains characterized by injustice, poverty, and overcrowding. There have been some... (full context)
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Baldwin is similarly critical of the black press, pointing out its sensational elements (although arguing that... (full context)
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Baldwin notes that African-Americans are generally very religious; there are likely more churches in Harlem than... (full context)
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Baldwin recalls times when he has tried in vain to convince black acquaintances that anti-Semitism functions... (full context)
Journey to Atlanta
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Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
People often say that all Americans distrust politicians, and Baldwin suggests that African Americans distrust them the most. Although black people may feel excited over... (full context)
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Baldwin notes that recently two of his brothers traveled to Atlanta with their vocal quartet as... (full context)
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...quartet had only made $6, not even enough to feed themselves on the journey home. Baldwin notes that they laugh about it now, and that the four men surprisingly feel no... (full context)
Notes of a Native Son
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Baldwin’s father died in 1943, a few hours before his last child was born. After his... (full context)
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Baldwin was frightened by his father’s bitterness and frightened of inheriting it. When his father died,... (full context)
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Baldwin’s father had nine children, and the family lived in terrible poverty. When white welfare workers... (full context)
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The year before his father’s death, Baldwin had been living in New Jersey, where he had been living among both black and... (full context)
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On his last night in New Jersey, Baldwin’s white friend took him to Trenton to see a movie. After, they went to a... (full context)
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Baldwin rushed home, not wanting to miss the birth of his sibling or his father’s death.... (full context)
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Baldwin visited his father only once during his illness. He had avoided seeing his father because... (full context)
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The funeral was held on Baldwin’s birthday, and he spent the day drinking whisky with a female friend and wondering what... (full context)
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After the funeral, while Baldwin was downtown celebrating his birthday, a black man and a white policeman got into a... (full context)
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Baldwin’s father used to preach: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the... (full context)
Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown
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...people to become successful entertainers in Paris—at least in comparison to the time at which Baldwin is writing. He notes that there are a few black performers working today, including Inez... (full context)
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...a sense of kinship with their fellow “colonials,” with whom they live in impoverished conditions—although Baldwin notes that this is simply the normal standard of living for young people in Paris.... (full context)
A Question of Identity
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...have chosen to stay in Europe instead of returning home is also far from clear. Baldwin suspects that it is not love of French history or culture that brings Americans to... (full context)
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Baldwin notes that it is easy to adore Paris while disliking the French, who tend to... (full context)
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Baldwin also considers the case of American students who adapt perfectly to the French lifestyle, cut... (full context)
Equal in Paris
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A year into his time in Paris, Baldwin is arrested for receiving stolen goods. This happens thanks to an American tourist Baldwin had... (full context)
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On the night of 19th December, Baldwin is sitting alone in his room and decides to visit the American tourist. He finds... (full context)
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Later, Baldwin is fingerprinted, and his photograph is taken. He is then driven to a prison called... (full context)
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An old man in Baldwin’s cell, who had been arrested for petty larceny, is acquitted. As he waits to be... (full context)
Stranger in the Village
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Baldwin goes to a small village in Switzerland and learns that he is the first black... (full context)
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...painted in blackface and solicit these donations. The wife of a bistro owner happily tells Baldwin that last year the village bought 6-8 Africans. Baldwin thinks about European missionaries who are... (full context)
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Baldwin returns to the village each summer for multiple years, and the villagers grow less curious... (full context)
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...and, as such, have a uniquely terrible and meaningful relationship to white Americans, their oppressors. Baldwin argues that the Chartres cathedral may “say something” to the Swiss villagers that it does... (full context)