When Baldwin’s friend told him to write Notes of a Native Son, he objected that he was “too young to publish my memoirs.” Baldwin had returned to the United States from Paris in 1954, for reasons that remain unclear to him. He recalls that 1954-55 was overall a great year; he lived at a writers’ colony, watched his friend Marlon Brando win an Oscar, and had his play put on at Howard University, where it was popular despite objections from the faculty and negative reviews in the press. Baldwin also fell in love, although he adds that he didn’t have any money. He finished the short novel Giovanni’s Room, and agreed to publish Notes of a Native Son even though he did not consider himself an essayist. At the same time Baldwin felt that he wanted to discover himself through the project and to access his “inheritance” and his “birthright.”
In the opening to the preface, Baldwin addresses different ideas about time, age, and maturity. He initially rejects the idea of publishing “Notes of a Native Son” because he thinks he is too young to publish his memoirs, yet he doesn’t elaborate on what he means by this. Is the problem that he hasn’t had sufficient life experience to write about, or that not enough time has passed to achieve a retrospective outlook on his existing experiences? At the same time, Baldwin also suggests that writing memoir is a way of accessing his “birthright,” which by its definition is something he should not have to wait until old age to receive.
Baldwin reflects on the nature of inheritance and the way in which people are and are not the product of their circumstances. He describes his wish to reclaim the inheritance that he has been denied. Unfortunately, not much has changed since Baldwin wrote the book. White people live in fear of black people and treat them as superfluous and unwanted members of society. Baldwin thinks back to the African chiefs who sold people to slave traders, noting that there is no way they could have known that slavery would last forever, or “at least a thousand years.” Meanwhile, in the United States, movies like Gone With the Wind create a false image “of the happy darky,” which many Americans believe is accurate. Baldwin notes that, for the most part, the only evidence of white supremacy has come through the testimony of black people, and that in the contemporary world white people “have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.”
One of the characteristics of Baldwin’s writing style is the way in which he moves quickly between different thoughts and references. For example, in this passage he jumps from discussions of inheritance and social determinism to the stagnation of racial justice to African slave traders to “Gone with the Wind.” While these examples may seem distinct from one another, they all support Baldwin’s point that the past—a person’s “inheritance”—is something inescapable. The weight of inheriting centuries of racist violence and oppression can be difficult to comprehend, but that does not mean anyone should turn to comforting and sentimental myths for relief, such as those portrayed in “Gone with the Wind.”
Baldwin was 31 when Notes of a Native Son was published and is now 60. He considers himself a “survivor” of prejudice and oppression. He recalls being told that “it takes time” for the world to change, but he objects to the logic that black people must patiently wait to be treated as human. Baldwin laments the fact that black Americans cannot trust the words of their “morally bankrupt and desperately dishonest countrymen.” He concludes with a quote from Doris Lessing, who argues that the white oppression of black people is one of the worst crimes of all of humanity, yet it is just one component of the overall block that prevents people from identifying with all living creatures.
The end of the preface is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. It is clear that, at the age of 31, Baldwin hoped and expected there would be a larger degree of progress by the time he reached 60 than has actually been the case. At the same time, Baldwin remains steadfast in his determination that the world will change and he characterizes this change as inevitable. His impatience in refusing to concede that “it takes time” is itself a kind of optimism pushing against widespread cynical “realism.”