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Victimized People in James Baldwin’s Essay Collection “Notes of a Native Son”

Updated November 13, 2021
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Victimized People in James Baldwin’s Essay Collection “Notes of a Native Son” essay

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Victims in any circumstance can be described as a person or people that are hurt or taken advantage of. They are subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment and suffer from the consequences. The person or party is exploited and the trauma they experience materializes as a result. Although most scenarios confirm this understanding, in some instances, the role of the victim is abused. It becomes dangerous when people choose to play the role of the victim throughout their lives. By identifying with this role, it provides a substitute and an escape for misdirected anger (“Victim Mentality”). It grants them the ability to project the cause of their misfortunes onto others, relieving themselves of the blame.

Many who adopt this attitude illustrate an innocence and naivety to the world. They assume that the world should be fair and become overwhelmed when wronged (Wagele). In regards to the characterization of African Americans as a “victimized people”, James Baldwin disavows this attitude in his essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. On its surface, this collection of essays may appear to be a critique on other activist writings and a biased commentary on white oppression, but upon closer look, Baldwin recognizes the impracticality of adopting a victim mentality. He complicates the relationship between white and black Americans by analyzing the roots or ‘truth’ behind prejudice and illustrates that both oppressed and oppressor are at fault for preserving America’s racist standards.

Notes of a Native Son is driven by Baldwin’s sentiment for the prejudice in America and complements the motives of the Civil Rights Movement. Before the movement came about, racial segregation in all aspects of society had overwhelmed the country. Politically, socially, and economically, African Americans were discriminated against and given a disadvantage. Despite the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment, giving African Americans political equality and the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, segregation continued to grow. Acts of discrimination like the Jim Crow Laws, which enforced racial segregation in the South, ensured African Americans to continue to live in conditions of poverty and inequality (Luders).

These unfulfilled promises of freedom and equal rights would allow the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. To bring about change throughout the country, the Movement engaged in law reform, non-violent civil disobedience, and African American militancy to combat inequality. Not only did the Movement engage in reform politically and socially, but it also asserted the need for equality through the arts. From the time of the Harlem Renaissance, the rebirth of African American arts in the early twentieth century, artists, writers, and intellectuals alike voiced their beliefs to contribute to the Movement.

Works such as ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou and ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ by W.E.B. Du Bois assisted in the campaign for equality. Baldwin was another well-known contributor towards the Movement. He was renowned for his exploration and expressiveness on the subject of race. In many of Baldwin’s essays, he addresses American race relations by expressing the complexity of black experience in America. His work explored the elements of social, racial, and class components and reshaped the nation’s understanding of them. Similar to other marginalized writers during this time period, Baldwin addresses the racial problem in the country. However, unlike them, he redefines the attitude of playing the victim, searching for the truths responsible for sustained discrimination. In an article written by the New York Times, it quotes a statement from Baldwin, noting that he rejected the labels of ‘leader’ or spokesman’ and rather described himself as ‘one whose mission was to bear witness to the truth’ (Daniels).

Baldwin begins his search for truth in the first group of essays of Notes of a Native Son. He analyzes primarily on pro-equality artists and their depictions of the African American identity. In each essay, he evaluates prominent works of art, highlighting places in which racial identities are misrepresented and racial superiority is reinforced; from investigating the simplified image of African Americans portrayed in Richard Wright’s Native Son to the preservation of stereotypes and prejudiced constructs in an all-black theatrical production of Carmen Jones. Furthermore in “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, Baldwin criticizes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s acclaimed Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel written during a time when African Americans were continued to be considered property.

Revered and respected, Stowe’s novel not only portrayed powerful arguments against slavery, in which it changed the attitudes of many white Americans but also aided in provoking the start of the Civil War. As Abraham Lincoln once said at a meeting with Stowe, ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War?'(Gordon-Reed) The novel’s narrative follows the journey of a hardened African American slave named Uncle Tom. His journey depicted the reality and the horrors slaves endured, allowing many to sympathize with Abolitionist Movement.

Although Stowe’s writing continues to be celebrated as a symbol of progress and a milestone of racial equality, Baldwin disagrees with Stowe’s depersonalization of African Americans. He recognizes that Stowe’s work aided in the advancement of equality for African Americans, but identifies the shortcomings in her depiction of them. Baldwin suggests that her writing continues to preserve the notion of virtue linked to whiteness, illustrating a continued ideology of racial superiority. Stowe’s purpose was to present the slave only as a victim, rather than portraying the reasons behind the horrific actions of the white man in the novel. Additionally, through his description of Stowe’s devaluation of the black man, in the case of Uncle Tom, he criticizes:

“In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity一which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves一we are diminish and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity … can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves. It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims” (13).

Baldwin’s beliefs are displayed in this statement alone. Through his process of examining influential pieces of work, he discovers a truth and responds. Recognizing other authors use of literature as only a liberating tool, he disavows this use, committing to his exploration of the truth on the complexities of the individual. From his analysis on other works, he uncovers the nation’s conscious ignorance and denial of the complexities the black man holds. Regarding the oversimplification and misrepresentation of African Americans and their troubled history as the victim, he attributes this acceptance as a factor for the continuation of racial inequality in America. Instead of reinforcing this misconception, he advocates a realistic, sophisticated representation of all people is needed for progress to occur and highlights the importance of removing social constructs, the role of the victim, to elicit real progress.

In the second group of essays in the collection, he investigates the socio-political scene in the United States, concentrating on illustrating the false progress and shortcomings of his own people. In “The Harlem Ghetto”, he indicates that African Americans are also at fault for their limited progress towards equality. He uses Harlem as a metaphor to illustrate the condition of black lives throughout the country. Like the failed and superficial progress of Harlem, compared to the rest of the city, it demonstrates the black community’s facade of change over time. In his observations he notes:

“Just as a mountain of sociological investigations, committee reports, and plans for recreational centers have failed to change the face of Harlem or prevent Negro boys and girls from growing up and facing, individually alone, the unendurable frustration of being always, everywhere, inferior … so there seems no hope … without a change in the American pattern” (52).

Baldwin’s assessment of the African American community’s stagnancy implies the marginalized contribution to racial inequality. He highlights the faults in their attitudes, demonstrating their emphasis on victimizing themselves and conferment to an inferior position. Understanding the toxicity and impairment in which this attitude carries, he advocates a change of perception to improve and advance racial equality.

Throughout his life, Baldwin was marginalized not only for his race as an African American but for his sexual preference. As a gay, black man, Baldwin suffered from the effects of discrimination to a greater degree than the average black man. To escape the prejudice, Baldwin became an expatriate in Europe for many years, living in Paris and traveling to other various countries (PBS). The last group of essays culminates his experiences. A couple of these essays, ‘Stranger in the Village’ and ‘A Question of Identity’, gives the reader insight into Baldwin’s own understanding of America and his alienated feelings of home.

During his personal experiences in exile, it enables him to view and recognize the racial problems in his home country without feeling its effects. He regards this when he states, ‘Hidden, however, in the heart of the confusion he encounters here that which he came so blindly seeking: the terms on which he is related to his country, and to the world. … From the vantage point of Europe, he discovers his own country’ (100). From his time abroad, Baldwin is able to understand that only through exile can one discover their country. To elaborate, he realizes that by eliminating the factors that led to his alienation, the rampant discrimination in America, could he truly uncover an accurate sense of himself and his country.

Additionally, from his travels abroad, he further uncovers the reality of white America’s desire to return to an innocence. The desired innocence, similar to the innocence of Europeans from a history of slavery, whereby absolving them from accepting African Americans as members of their country. In an interview at the National Press Club, he asserts, ‘The price they pay for living is to pretend that I’m not here, and the price they pay for that is not being able to see the world in which they live’ (Gevinson). He is able to discern the inability of all Americans to perceive the reality of their situation. This inability, he observes, is due to the neglect of truth among all Americans and stagnates the advancement of equality.

The truth that all Americans, regardless of race, purposefully continue to maintain its prejudice by upholding the titles and attitudes dictated to them. He sheds light on the underlying roots of America’s racial issue, justifying that many either choose to ignore or are ignorant due to the constraints of society. In doing so, he complicates the perceptions of all Americans.

Throughout all of Notes of a Native Son, one can note Baldwin’s tone of animosity directed at the lack of progress towards equality. In his examination of the superficial change in Harlem, oversimplified representations in art and the emphasis of racial constructs in society, he recognizes how each contributes to the stagnation accepted in America. Instead of playing the ‘victim’ of discrimination, he complicates the perception of racism by putting blame on society as a whole for the lack of progress. As a major voice during the Civil Rights Movement, his language and understanding of the truth behind discrimination exemplified the purpose behind the movement. By elucidating the motives behind prejudice, it influenced and urged all African Americans to fight against long-standing injustice. In an article by the New York Times regarding Baldwin’s death in 1987, it notes:

“Some critics later said his language was sometimes too elliptical, his indictments sometimes too sweeping. But then, Mr. Baldwin’s prose, with its apocalyptic tone … and its passionate yet distanced sense of advocacy, seemed perfect for a period in which blacks in the South lived under the continual threat of racial violence and in which civil-rights workers faced brutal beatings and even death.”

Baldwin’s collections of essays, Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time represented the emotions and discontent throughout the country by the marginalized. His literature was a mission to witness and determine the truth behind prejudice. Notes of a Native Son encapsulates and demonstrates Baldwin’s search for the truth. His convictions allow all to understand that society should not be dictated by social constructs and inferior attitudes. In playing the role of the victim, we as a society allow ourselves to fall into a false sense of justification and lose sight of who we are as an individual. Succumbing to these titles, we remove the complexities that make us human and allow injustice to govern our society. Baldwin realizes this and understands that a call to attention by all is necessary in order to achieve true equality. By recognizing instances of injustice can society adapt and make way for true progress.

Work Cited

  1. Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. Literary Classics of the United States, 1998.
  2. Daniels, Lee A. “James Baldwin, Eloquent Writer In Behalf of Civil Rights, Is Dead.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 1987, movies2.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-obit.html.
  3. Gevinson, Alan. James Baldwin at the National Press Club, December 10, 1986. www.loc.gov/rr/record/pressclub/pdf/JamesBaldwin.pdf.
  4. Gordon-Reed, Annette. “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and the Art of Persuasion.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 12 June 2018, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-persuader-annette-gordon-reed.
  5. I HAVE A DREAM – National Archives. www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.
  6. “If a Woman’s Place Is on the 20.” The New York Times, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/03/18/putting-a-woman-on-the-20-bill/harriet-beecher-stowe-and-the-power-of-the-word.
  7. “James Baldwin.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 10 Mar. 2017, www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/james-baldwin-about-the-author/59/.
  8. Luders, Joseph E. The Civil Rights Movement and the Logic of Social Change. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  9. “Victim Mentality.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/victim mentality.
  10. Wagele, Elizabeth. “What Does Calling Someone a ‘Victim’ Mean?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-career-within-you/201104/what-does-calling-someone-victim-mean.
Victimized People in James Baldwin’s Essay Collection “Notes of a Native Son” essay

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