Baldwin and Experience in “Native Son”

In James Baldwin’s “Notes on a Native Son,” the concept of experience drives his autobiographical account. As a writer, Baldwin mission is to put “distance” “between himself” and the social issues concerning the African-American community (6). To do so means that he has to examine his past experiences, which are bleak and drum up a significant amount of bitterness in how he grew up (6). When Baldwin’s father dies, he holds a lot of resentment towards his father for how “contemptuous” his father lived (86). His father’s past is filled with “ruin” and “rage” and becomes a part of Baldwin’s identity; he struggles with these painful aspects for years (87-88). When his father is close to death, Baldwin did not want to visit his father because he’d rather hold on to the hatred he felt, “because…once [the] hate is gone…[he] will be forced to deal with pain” (101). Baldwin’s experiences are constituted with pain and the notion of making himself deal with it.

In Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography, experience can be interpreted on how the writer “reflects on the very act of ‘reading’ his own past” (242). Baldwin’s recollection of going to “the ‘American Diner’” in New Jersey with his friend and being turned away from service due to the color of his skin is a moment among many where he feels extreme exclusion and resentment toward white society (95). He walks back onto the street and is overwhelmed with the people walking near him; he believes these “white” strangers are all “against” him (95). So, when he walks into the next diner and is refused again, he takes out his fury and aggression by throwing a mug and shattering a mirror (97). Baldwin expresses his torn identity after this experience as a situation in which he could have been “murdered” and he was “ready to commit murder” (97).

He seems to be always wavering between extremes: he is an American but not treated the same as a white American; he is an African-American but “despise[s]” other African-Americans; he is an American writer but Western culture and literature does not belong to him (6-7). His experience is unique, and as someone mentioned in class, his anger and bitterness come through due to his honesty.

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