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 to their own ancestry. At the same time, the intense racism that continues to dominate life in the United States means that African Americans are also made to feel alienated in the only country that they can truly call home. Baldwin explores his own ambivalent and highly critical feelings about America throughout the book, while simultaneously making it indisputably clear that “Negroes are Americans and their destiny is the country's destiny.”
Baldwin explores the idea of inheritance in an immediate, personal context through the essays about family and, in particular, his father. Baldwin’s difficult relationship with his father is parallel with his difficult relationship with America, even though these two relationships are also very different. Baldwin’s highly charged connections to both his country and his father make it hard for him to access the feelings of rootedness, assurance, and identity that are associated with national belonging and familial heritage. He argues that people’s “origins… contain the key––could we but find it––to all that we later become.” Just as Baldwin must make peace with his father posthumously in order to move forward with his life, the United States must reckon with its history of genocide, slavery, and racism in order to build a better future.
Baldwin further illustrates the uniqueness of African Americans’ relationship to their heritage by placing his own experience in a variety of distinct contexts. For example, he compares his sense of identity with that of the African men he encounters living in Paris. “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.’” He also contrasts the black American experience with that of Jewish people living in the United States. Although there are parallels between African-American and Jewish history and culture, the overall structure of white supremacy encourages these two groups of people to be antagonistic toward each other. Baldwin suggests that black people are hostile to Jews as a kind of proxy for white gentiles: “It is not the Jewish tradition by which [the black American] has been betrayed but the tradition of his native land. But just as a society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol.” This statement suggests that it often too difficult for black Americans to directly confront the fact that they have been excluded and persecuted by their own “native land.” As a result, they direct their resentment elsewhere.
The book can be read as an effort to help change the sense of homelessness and marginalization that plagues the African American experience. Baldwin notes that racism has meant that many African-American cultural traditions—such as the black literary canon—are denigrated as being less significant or sophisticated than their white equivalents: “The fact is not that the Negro has no tradition but that there has as yet arrived no sensibility sufficiently profound and tough to make this tradition articulate.” His critiques of novels, cinema, and politics that pertain to the African-American people are an attempt to give a sense of coherence and solidity to African-American culture. At the same time, he is merciless in his criticism, arguing that there should be high standards for the way that black people are represented in society and culture.
Of course, the book itself is a highly important item in the African-American cultural canon, and it is clear that Baldwin wrote it in the hope that this would be the case. He states: “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.” In recording his pursuit of cultural tradition and “inheritance” in writing, Baldwin deliberately shapes the trajectory of black American culture, heritage, and identity. He proposes that although African Americans have been uniquely stripped of their sense of belonging and inheritance, it is within their power to assert their own identity and traditions as significant in their own right, as well as within the larger context of American culture overall.
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging ThemeTracker
Inheritance, Tradition, and Belonging Quotes in Notes of a Native Son
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.
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.")
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.