In the preface, Baldwin notes that he was initially resistant to the prospect of writing a memoir, but he eventually came to see it as a good opportunity to explore his “inheritance” and identity. In the 30 years since the book was published, there has been little progress on racial matters in American society.
Baldwin was born into a large family in Harlem. He was a keen reader and talented writer from a young age. His writing style was influenced by the literature he read, as well as the rhetoric of the church and black American speech. There came a point in his life when he realized that European culture did not belong to him in the same way it did to white Americans, and this caused him to feel alienated and self-destructive. He explains that he is so critical of America because of his great love for the country, and he concludes that he strives to be “an honest man and a good writer.”
In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin accuses Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin of presenting morality in overly simplistic terms. He claims that this makes it a bad novel, more of a “pamphlet” than a piece of literature. People are far more complex in reality than the characters Stowe depicts in the novel. By failing to capture reality, Baldwin argues that protest novels replicate the oppressive conditions that exist in society.
The next essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” begins with Baldwin stating that white people have refused to listen to the stories of black Americans. Instead, white people think of African Americans in terms of statistics and stereotypes. Yet the intimacy between the two races means that black people understand white people better than white people understand themselves. Baldwin notes that Richard Wright’s Native Son is celebrated as the best depiction of black Americans to yet exist, but that the novel falls short due to the fact that it fails to properly depict relationships between black people, as well as the issue that its central character, Bigger Thomas, is ultimately “redeemed” by righteous whites. The novel thus perpetuates the racist idea that in order to become human, black people must assimilate into whiteness.
In the next essay, Baldwin critiques the film Carmen Jones, an adaptation of the 19th-century French opera Carmen featuring an all-black cast. Baldwin points out that the central and heroic characters are all light-skinned, while the dark-skinned actors play immoral characters. The film also depicts sexuality in a sterilized, childish manner. As a result, Carmen Jones tells us more about white people’s mindset than it does about actual black people.
Little progress has taken place in Harlem since Baldwin’s parents were young. Baldwin criticizes black politicians and the black press, although he reflects that many of the problems of the black media are in fact simply the mirror-image of white publications. He notes that African Americans tend to be very religious, and that there should exist a close relationship between black people and Jews due to the two groups’ shared experience of persecution and homelessness, but both groups remain suspicious and prejudiced about one another.
In “Journey to Atlanta,” Baldwin explains that black Americans tend to distrust politicians, who never deliver on the promises they make to black communities. Two of Baldwin’s brothers sing in a vocal quartet that was recently asked to perform on a Progressive Party tour of Atlanta, and Baldwin’s brother David told him all about the trip. The quartet was supposed to perform at churches, after which members of the party would speak to the congregation. However, the quartet actually ended up being conscripted into canvassing, a job for which they were not paid. Eventually, the quartet tried to put on an event where they could sing (and thus earn some money), but a white member of the party, Mrs. Warde, sent black policemen to stop them from performing. The quartet ended up returning to New York shortly after, and Baldwin notes that David was cynically unsurprised by how the trip turned out.
The essay “Notes of a Native Son” begins with the death of Baldwin’s father in 1943. The funeral was held on Baldwin’s birthday, and that same day a race riot broke out in Harlem. Baldwin’s father did not know his own birthday; he was born in New Orleans and moved North in 1919. Baldwin’s father, a preacher, was a difficult man with a bad temper who had trouble connecting with others. He suffered from paranoia, and he died after contracting tuberculosis and refusing food (which he believed was poisoned). When Baldwin was young, one of his teachers took an interest in him and supported both the young Baldwin and his family; however, Baldwin’s father was resistant to this arrangement, as he didn’t trust the teacher because she was white.
Just before his father’s death, Baldwin had been denied service in a whites-only restaurant in New Jersey and, filled with rage, he threw a glass of water at the white waitress. He was disturbed by the incident and began to fear that the hatred inside him could lead to his death. While visiting his father during his father’s illness, Baldwin again realized that he had been holding onto hatred of his father in order to avoid confronting the pain of losing him. During the funeral, Baldwin hears one of his father’s favorite hymns and is suddenly struck by a fond memory of him. After the funeral, the riot starts, and Baldwin reflects on the frustration of people living in the ghetto. He concludes that it is important to accept the reality of life while always being prepared to fight injustice.
In “Encounter on the Seine,” Baldwin notes that most African Americans living in Paris are studying there on the G.I. Bill. There is tension between black Americans and the many native Africans who move to Paris from French colonies. Baldwin compares the differences between the lives of African expatriates and African-Americans, and the guilt that defines the relationship between these two groups. He reiterates his hope that black Americans will be able to reckon with their heritage, history, and identity.
“A Question of Identity” focuses on the life of American students living in Paris. Baldwin argues that most of these students remain fixated on a stereotypical image of Paris and thus never experience the reality of the city. Parisians themselves tend to not interact with foreigners in the city. Eventually, many Americans are so overwhelmed by the freedom they experience in Paris that they are forced to return to the United States. Some students fully assimilate into French culture, however Baldwin argues that even these individuals remain saturated in an idea of Paris, not the reality. It is often only through travel to Europe that Americans can get a real understanding of their own country.
A year after moving to Paris, Baldwin meets up with an American tourist whom he had briefly known in New York. Baldwin helps the tourist get a room in his hotel, and the tourist lends him some sheets that he had stolen from his previous hotel. Baldwin ends up getting arrested for possessing these stolen items, and he is taken to a prison 12km outside of Paris. Baldwin has difficulty communicating with the policemen and guards, and he is kept in prison over Christmas. Eventually, he is assisted by an American patent attorney for whom he had previously worked. At Baldwin’s trial, people in the courtroom laugh at his story, a fact that makes Baldwin uneasy.
Baldwin begins making yearly trips to a small village in the Swiss mountains, which he is the first black person ever to visit. The little children in the village shout “Neger! Neger!” at him as he walks past, and other villagers touch his body out of curiosity. One woman proudly tells him that the village has a tradition of “buying” native Africans in order to convert them to Christianity.
Baldwin reflects that because of the history of imperialism, Europeans are not “strangers” anywhere, yet can maintain a privileged sense of naïveté about black people and racial oppression. He notes that contrary to popular belief, American ideals did not originate in the United States but rather in Europe, and that the most important of these ideals is white supremacy. White Americans remain desperate to go back to a place of “innocence” free of the existence of black people, but clearly this is impossible. The desire for this fantasy of innocence causes great harm in the world, but eventually white people will have to give it up. Baldwin concludes that the world will “never be white again.”