Notes of a Native Son


James Baldwin

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Themes and Colors
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Theme Icon
Language, Narrative, and Truth Theme Icon
Progress vs. Stagnation Theme Icon
Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion Theme Icon
Intimacy vs. Hatred Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Notes of a Native Son, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging

Throughout the book, Baldwin explores the fraught senses of inheritance and belonging among African Americans. Baldwin argues that black Americans’ relationship to their own country and heritage is unlike that of any other people in the world because “his past was taken from him, almost literally, at one blow.” Because of the systematic erasure of African traditions and black family relationships during slavery (and in the decades after), African Americans have been denied a tie…

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Language, Narrative, and Truth

As a writer, Baldwin is preoccupied with the power of language and stories. He is particularly interested in the way in which language can be used to convey the truth lying beneath superficial and misleading ideas about the world. He argues that “Every legend… contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” With this statement, Baldwin proposes that existing narratives can contain kernels of…

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Progress vs. Stagnation

Much of the book is colored by a sense of disappointment and resentment at how little progress has taken place in the world, despite the superficial appearance of change. Baldwin illustrates this idea with the French phrase: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” meaning “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This statement is crucial to understanding Baldwin’s view of progress and stagnation. He admits that there has…

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Prejudice, Dishonesty, and Delusion

Baldwin’s emphasis on expressing truth through language is a direct rejection of dishonesty and delusion, which he shows to be major components of the system of white supremacy. One example of this dishonesty comes in the form of derogatory myths and stereotypes about black people, which have been used to justify racist oppression. Baldwin critiques the ways in which these negative ideas can be present within cultural representations of black people, such as Richard Wright’s

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Intimacy vs. Hatred

Many people believe that racism is solely a form of hatred, and that in racist societies white people exist in a relationship of alienation and hatred to racially oppressed peoples. However, in Notes of a Native Son Baldwin contends that intimacy is, in fact, also a part of racism, and that intimacy and hatred often coexist. One of Baldwin’s major arguments is that, rather than being a superfluous or compartmentalized group, African Americans are a…

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