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 been much change in society, and that there are many signs that suggest racial progress is taking place. However, these superficial indications belie the reality that the fundamental issues of white supremacy, inequality, and prejudice remain in place. Baldwin argues: “In America, it is true, the appearance is perpetually changing, each generation greeting with short-lived exultation yet more dazzling additions to our renowned façade. But the ghetto, anxiety, bitterness, and guilt continue to breed their indescribable complex of tensions.” This statement suggests that the superficial appearance of progress may in fact worsen existing problems by deepening the feelings of bitterness and guilt among black people who have been told that things are improving, yet who do not see evidence of this progress.
Baldwin explores the bitterness that exists among many black people, treating it as symptomatic of the enduring oppression that they face. He notes that it is common to hear residents of the black neighborhood Sugar Hill complain: “Our people never get anywhere.” Similarly, he explores the widespread distrust of politicians (both white and black) that exists within African-American communities. Baldwin notes that sometimes people get excited about hearing the politicians’ promises of progress, but that most of the time they are predisposed to believe these promises will amount to nothing. Of course, this sense of bitterness and pessimism is a distinct contrast to the conventional narratives around American people and the American dream. Particularly at the time Baldwin is writing, the United States is widely considered to be a land of hope, ambition, and belief in progress. Yet his writing suggests that such sentiments are at odds with the experience of black Americans. Ever since the abolition of slavery, African Americans have lived in hope that their country will transform into a fair and welcoming place, yet this hope continues to be dashed.
At the same time, Baldwin shows that the same stagnation of racial progress that plagues the United States also takes place in Europe. In “Stranger in the Village,” he notes that it doesn’t matter how many times he returns to the small village in Switzerland: he will always be a stranger there, simply because of the fact that he is black. On the other hand, Baldwin also uses this essay to emphasize the fact that, as elusive as progress may prove to be, it is impossible for the United States to reverse back into a time of “white innocence.” By this, he means that certain racist white Americans seem to harbor a longing for a (mythical) time at which the white population simply had no contact with people from other races—as is true in the village in Switzerland before Baldwin arrives. Yet unlike in parts of Europe, this fiction of white nationalism was never true in the United States. In this sense, racists’ desire for a purely white nation and progressives’ desire for racial equality have created a situation of stagnation, with both sides working against each other and thus maintaining a form of limbo. Baldwin stresses that only once people accept that “this world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” will this stasis be broken and true progress be achieved.
Progress vs. Stagnation ThemeTracker
Progress vs. Stagnation 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.")
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.
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 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.
No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.
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.