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 fundamental part of American history, culture, society, and identity. The United States would not exist as it does today without African Americans, and it does not make sense to think of white America without simultaneously thinking of black people. White and black Americans thus have an inextricable connection that in some ways resembles a kinship relation. Baldwin writes: “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.”
Importantly, the fact that love and intimacy exist alongside hatred does not make the hatred any less severe. The book is filled with examples of intense hatred which are in no way mitigated by the intimacy that is sometimes also present at the same time. Indeed, Baldwin explores this idea in more detail through the microcosm of his family. Baldwin harbors feelings of hatred for his father which are made more rather than less intense by the fact that they are family. Baldwin is inextricably tied to his father and has particular hopes and expectations for their relationship that he would not have for someone to whom he was not related. Yet the difficulty of his relationship with his father is intensified by these expectations, rather than being eased by them.
While white people’s hatred of black people may be the most obvious example of hatred in a racist society, Baldwin also explores black people’s feelings of hatred at length. For example, he argues that black people identify with Jews, yet also resent and distrust them, and even come to hate Jews because of their identification with them: “When the Negro hates the Jew as a Jew he does so partly because the nation does and in much the same painful fashion that he hates himself.” Once again, hatred and intimacy coexist, making the experience of hatred even more severe. Baldwin also shows that a lifetime of being disappointed and mistreated by white people creates a bitterness in African Americans. This is illustrated in the following interaction between Baldwin and his father: “He became more explicit and warned me that my white friends in high school were not really my friends and that I would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep a Negro down. Some of them could be nice, he admitted, but none of them were to be trusted and most of them were not even nice.” Note that Baldwin’s father does not warn his son about racist strangers or bullies, but rather about his friends. Again, the coexistence of intimacy and hatred is shown to make racist hatred even more painful.
While Baldwin is sympathetic to the reasons why black people become suspicious and hateful toward white people, he makes a strong case against giving in to this hate on the grounds that it is self-destructive. After Baldwin throws the glass of water at the white waitress, he reflects: “My life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.” Note that Baldwin doesn’t feel regret because he pities the waitress, but rather because he knows that continuing to harbor such intense feelings of hatred will ultimately only harm him, and may even lead to his death. Elsewhere, he argues: “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” Overall, Baldwin implies that it is more important (and prudent) to deal with this pain than to let one’s hatred fester, because that hatred has deadly consequences.
Despite emphasizing the coexistence of hatred and intimacy, Baldwin also proposes that there can (and should) be love and intimacy that flourish without hatred. However, he does not suggest that love is the only answer to racism, or even that love for white people is a realistic feeling for black people to access. He argues: “In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind––and the heart––that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose. But this does not mean, on the other hand, that love comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that.” Ultimately, Baldwin emphasizes that black people must rid themselves of hatred as a form of protection against the self-destructiveness that hatred causes. This does not mean that love for white people will automatically follow, yet this matters less than the fact that letting go of hatred will allow black people to love themselves.
Intimacy vs. Hatred ThemeTracker
Intimacy vs. Hatred Quotes in Notes of a Native Son
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.
I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
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.
Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.
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.
I felt, in the oddest, most awful way, that I had somehow betrayed him. I lived it over and over and over again, the way one relives an automobile accident after it has happened and one finds oneself alone and safe. I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.
The Negro’s real relation to the white American…prohibits, simply, anything as uncomplicated and satisfactory as pure hatred. In order really to hate white people, one has to blot so much out of the mind––and the heart––that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose. But this does not mean, on the other hand, that love comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that. One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one's own reactions are always canceling each other out.
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.
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.