Christianity plays an important role in the book, in part because it is a significant part of Baldwin’s family and upbringing—Baldwin’s father was a preacher, and Baldwin spent his teenage years as a junior preacher before leaving both his home and the church. Baldwin’s view of the church is ambivalent, and his views on Christianity reflect his interest (apparent in much of his art and cultural criticism) in the complexity and ambiguity of culture. On the one hand, Baldwin sees the church as embodying many of his least favorite aspects of society: dishonesty, delusion, falsehood, hypocrisy, and artifice. To Baldwin, one of the most significant Christian hypocrisies (which he details in his essay “Stranger in the Village) is Christianity’s role in colonialism and the terrorization of enslaved people in the United States. On the other hand, Baldwin does also highlight ways in which Christianity can be a source of strength, empowerment, and identity for African Americans. At his father’s funeral, Baldwin is moved by the preacher’s words of forgiveness and by hearing one of his father’s favorite songs, which evokes a fond memory of sitting on his father’s lap in church. Baldwin also illustrates the extent to which the church—despite having given moral cover to brutal colonial regimes that destroyed African and African American lives—provides a structural foundation for black communities who have little political or economic power. Baldwin shows that the church itself is not overall an intrinsically positive or negative institution, but rather one that can be used to both just and unjust ends. This view seems to be of a piece with Baldwin’s writing on art and culture in general: he is always committed to looking at the specifics and the context of work of art or cultural phenomenon, rather than allowing that thing to be reduced through sweeping analysis.
The timeline below shows where the symbol The Church appears in Notes of a Native Son. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
...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... (full context)
...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... (full context)
The Harlem Ghetto
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... (full context)
Journey to Atlanta
...arranged by a black merchant seaman called Mr. Warde. The quartet was to sing at churches throughout the south, after which party representatives would make speeches and hand out literature. However,... (full context)
Notes of a Native Son
...not own any black clothes. His friend eventually found him a black shirt. At the church, Baldwin reflected that his aunt, who fought with his father throughout his life, was one... (full context)
Stranger in the Village
The villagers donate money to the church in order to “buy” Africans and convert them to Christianity. During the Lent carnival, two... (full context)