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 truth, but that it is only by understanding the power and importance of language that this truth can be drawn out.
One of the most important recurring ideas in the book is the notion that black Americans have been restricted from telling their own stories, and that it is vitally necessary that these stories be told and heard. “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.” In this argument, Baldwin isolates two separate problems surrounding black peoples’ ability to control their own narratives. On one hand, there have been few opportunities for black people to tell their own stories; on the other, there is a resistance among white people to believe these stories and take them seriously. Throughout American history, the power of narration has been almost exclusively in the hands of white people. (This can be traced all the way back to the banning of African languages under slavery and the denigration of African-American English dialects, which Baldwin explores in his essay on Carmen Jones.) Baldwin proposes a sense of dual responsibility when it comes to the future of narrative control: black people must tell their stories truthfully, and white people must be prepared to listen.
At the same time, Baldwin does not suggest that conveying the truth through language and storytelling is a simple matter. One of the most important and distinctive attributes of Baldwin’s writing is his emphasis on complexity and ambiguity. He argues: “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.” For Baldwin, this does not just mean exposing blatant untruths. It also means pushing through every oversimplified, misleading, or clichéd ideas in order to uncover the complex and difficult reality lying beneath.
One of the ways that Baldwin explores the difficulty and complexity of communication is through his account of his time in France. When he gets arrested, Baldwin misunderstands what the French authorities say to him—not because he doesn’t comprehend the literal meaning of the words, but because, as a non-native speaker, he doesn’t have access to the full nuance and complexity of the way French is used. Similarly, when he is in the village in Switzerland, the children shout “Neger!” at him as he walks passed. Although the sound of this word is deeply painful, Baldwin also reminds himself that it has a different meaning in a Swiss village than it would have in America. He argues that by shouting “Neger,” the Swiss children are really identifying him as a stranger. In America, when white children shout “Nigger,” it does not mean “stranger” but is rather an explicit racial insult intended to reinforce the lower status of black people within white supremacy. The fact that the meaning of language changes in different cultural contexts confirms the importance of historical specificity, and the idea that people’s “inheritance”—whether linguistic, cultural, or historical—is vital to understanding who they are.
Baldwin also examines silence as an oppositional force to the power of language and narrative. He claims that “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.” Baldwin’s advocacy for breaking through this silence through language and storytelling, then, is an attempt at liberation and accessing truth. However, he also considers that there can be powerful forms of silence that stand in opposition to false and incomplete narratives: “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.” Here Baldwin suggests that it might even be necessary to confront the “void” of a language-less, story-less silence in order to access the truth. At the very least, it is vital that people do not cling to false narratives in order to insulate themselves against this silence. Through constructing his own narrative, which honors the power of language and complexity of truth, Baldwin does his own part to rectify the problem of false stories.
Language, Narrative, and Truth ThemeTracker
Language, Narrative, and Truth Quotes in Notes of a Native Son
There have been superficial changes, with results at best ambiguous and, at worst, disastrous. Morally, there has been no change at all and the moral change is the only real one. "Plus ça change," groan the exasperated French (who should certainly know), "plus c'est le même chose." (The more it changes, the more it remains the same.) At least they have the style to be truthful about it.
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.
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.
I want to be an honest man and a good writer.
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.
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.