essay canon dispatch no. 4 — “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin (50’s)

detroitriots
detroit, 1943. image found here.

[CN: white supremacy, anti-black violence]

There is rage in the blood.

It was a mild tuesday morning when i was reading our next stop on the CNF essay canon reading mission on the bus ride to class, which can be read HERE or HERE [this one’s a little too gaudy for me]. On my mind was Baltimore, the white violence that led to it, and the urban uprisings all across the globe, which haven’t stopped since the turn of the millennium, and dont promise to stop any time soon.

In “Notes of a Native Son” James Baldwin recounts the death of his father, which coincides with the birth of a sister, and the Harlem riots of 1943. Building on Du Bois and Richard Wright, he uses memoir to bear witness on a public story of white violence and black resistance (the third part of Cedric J. Robinson’s BLACK MARXISM which im currently reading ties together Du Bois and Wright with C.L.R. James in its historiographic analysis.) We can see the historical shifts that have taken place after Richard Wright’s autobiographical essay, and we are also back in the totally-not-racist North. The boom of the military industry is a major sculpting force — black people moved to cities like Detroit to find work in this wartime climate, leading to the riots there in 1943, a proper race riot, since it was instigated by angry white supremacists.

Aside from labor there were other unanswered questions and outrages. How can black folx be expected to gift their lives to the state fighting in WWII, liberating the world from fascism, when at home they are economically, socially, and physically marginalized and tortured, from the policies on high to the cops who cruise through the ghettos?

Baldwin is so huge in my reading of black intellectual framework. In my last post on Camus i mentioned the idea of “whites choosing whiteness” to the benefit of the capitalist class. This is really JB’s notion. It lies at the heart of being a race traitor: the white race does not exist beyond the status and privileges granted by society based on the exploitation of black and PoC, and we must commit to abolishing whiteness in all of its structural forms. In his essay “On Being White and Other Lies” he calls whiteness a “moral choice.” The choice is an illusion of security over humanity.

JB didn’t get on well with his father. He was a preacher, a hard man, and later in life struggled with mental illness that brought on paranoia and painful acting-out.

he was very black — with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful.

And when Baldwin does come to terms with his resentment, it only leads to a worse revelation of “the weight of white people in the world.” That “the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.”

The discrimination and harassment and power wielded by white amerika instills a rage that JB characterizes as a disease:

a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. …one can never really be carefree again, for the fever, without an instant’s warming, can recur at any moment.

When the snapping point is finally reached, and one outrageous act of torture by the cops sets a torch to generations worth of kindling, as in Baltimore, the rage that was in the blood is acted out. But Baldwin’s description of the riots in Harlem is actually less climactic than the scene of his father’s funeral. He’s a little drunk (it is also his birthday) and his mind is “busily breaking out with a rash of disconnected impressions.” Memories and emotions that are often complete opposites crashing together — this is the central theme that he builds to in the final paragraph, an incredible tension between resignation and anger.

The rage of Harlem in that summer feels perfunctory to Baldwin has he narrates. The triggering moment was a black soldier being shot by a white cop while defending a black woman, apparently a sex worker (JB shows some whorephobia here). He doesn’t see a point in the destruction:

the first time the word wealth ever entered my mind in relation to Harlem was when I saw it scattered in the streets.

Unnecessary. Yet righteous. There is a good reason why white people flip the fuck out when it comes to property destruction. Never mind the obvious double standards of valuing stuff over black life, or saying “violence shouldn’t be tolerated” while the violence of the state for white benefit rolls on. Liberals will say “rioters are not part of the protest,” and they’ll be right in the sense that the people re-appropriating wealth are not with the organizers of Black Lives Matter actions. But smashing cop cars, smashing windows, and stealing shit is protest, and it is of a logical and wholesome kind, because so much of white identity is invested in private property.

Property damage is not only a nihilistic outcry against the anti-black law and government, but a refusal to recognize whiteness. It reveals “private property,” the staple of white liberal humanism, for the illusion that it is. White comfort is as fragile as a storefront window, and “private property rights” can disappear the moment someone who has had enough of this bullshit picks up a trashcan. And i realize im performing with how im responding, straying out of my non-black PoC lane. Nobody who is non-black knows what it is like to be black in Amerikkka; no one outside the cities of high prices and no resources, the killing fields of the police, knows how it is just to try to survive. im a student of intellectual history — i dont have answers, and answers should not be coming from the academe anyway.

To get back to this essay, JB’s voice is lofty at times (he was a preacher himself for a little while) but always direct. He brings you into his world all the way to the final sentence, which is so devastatingly sad. im also curious about the title. It seems to be in dialog with Richard Wright, who wrote a novel called NATIVE SON. These men were viewed by whites as monsters, but they were born and raised in the US; they are undeniably products of the American 20th century. In 2015 i took the title even more literally; that black people have a claim to being indigenous, taken against their will from their homeland and condemned to servitude (ongoing today) in a settler state.

That intolerable knot of feelings in JB’s soul that he describes so effectively, the chronic pain of hatred, violence, and terror from whites, is a silent outcry that will never be heard. bc choosing whiteness is to decide that rights and demands are for human beings only, and the only human beings they recognize are themselves and maybe non-black PoC, when the reality is the exact opposite. Baldwin’s writing is working through the despair of facing the sheer scale of anti-blackness in the world, and the scale of the violence necessary for white peace.

For the excerpt, im choosing a scene in which Baldwin chooses to act out on the rage in his blood.


“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin

My last night in New Jersey, a white friend from New York took me to the nearest big town, Trenton, to go to the movies and have a few drinks. As it turned out, he also saved me from, at the very least, a violent whipping. Almost every detail of that night stands out very clearly in my memory. I even remember the name of the movie we saw because its title impressed me as being so patly ironical. It was a movie about the German occupation of France, starring Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton and called This Land Is Mine. I remember the name of the diner we walked into when the movie ended: it was the “American Diner.” When we walked in the counterman asked what we wanted and I remember answering with the casual sharpness which had become my habit: “We want a hamburger and a cup of coffee, what do you think we want?” I do not know why, after a year of such rebuffs, I so completely failed to anticipate his answer, which was, of course, “we don’t serve Negroes here.” This reply failed to discompose me, at least for the moment. I made some sardonic comment about the name of the diner and we walked out into the streets.

This was the time of what was called the “brownout,” when the lights in all American cities were very dim. When we reentered the streets something happened to me which had the force of an optical illusion, or a nightmare. The streets were very crowded and I was facing north. People were moving in every direction but it seemed to me, in that instant, that all of the people I could see, and many more than that, were moving toward me, against me, and that everyone was white. I remember how the faces gleamed. And I felt, like a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut. I began to walk. I heard my friend call after me, but I ignored him. Heaven only knows what was going on in his mind, but he had the good sense not to touch me — I don’t know what would have happened if he had — and to keep me in sight. I don’t know what was going on in my mind, either; I certainly had no conscious plan. I wanted to do something to crush these white faces, which were crushing me. I walked for perhaps a block or two until I came to an enormous, glittering, and fashionable restaurant in which I knew not even the intercession of the Virgin would cause me to be served. I pushed through the doors and took the first vacant seat I saw, at a table for two, and waited.

I do not know how long I waited and I rather wonder, until today, what I could possible have looked like. Whatever I looked like, I frightened the waitress who shortly appeared, and the moment she appeared all of my fury flowed toward her. I hated her for her white face, and for her great, astounded, frightened eyes. I felt that if she found a black man so frightening I would make her fright worthwhile.

She did not ask me what I wanted, but repeated, as though she had learned it somewhere, “We don’t serve Negroes here.” She did not say it with the blunt, derisive hostility to which I had grown so accustomed, but, rather, with a note of apology in her voice, and fear. This made me colder and more murderous than ever. I felt I had to do something with my hands. I wanted her to come close enough for me to get her neck between my hands.

So I pretended not have understood her, hoping to draw her closer. And she did step a very short step closer, with her pencil poised incongruously over her pad, and repeated the formula: “…don’t serve Negroes here.”

Somehow, with the repetition of that phrase, which was already ringing in my head like a thousand bells of a nightmare, I realized that she would never come any closer and that I would have to strike from a distance. There was nothing on the table but an ordinary watermug half full of water, and I picked this up and hurled it with all my strength at her. She ducked and it missed her and shattered against the mirror behind the bar. And, with that sound, my frozen blood abruptly thawed, I returned from wherever I had been, I saw, for the first time, the restaurant, the people with their mouths open, already, as it seemed to me, rising as one man, and I realized what I had done, and where I was, and I was frightened. I rose and began running for the door. A round, potbellied man grabbed me by the nape of the neck just as I reached the doors and began to beat me about the face. I kicked him and got loose and ran into the streets. My friend whispered, “Run!” and I ran.

My friend stayed outside the restaurant long enough to misdirect my pursuers and the police, who arrived, he told me, at once. I do not know what I said to him when he came to my room that night. I could not have said much. 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 to me but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.

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