It’s hard to put into words just how much I loved reading this book. I’m late to the Baldwin party, obviously, but I thought it would be important to put down some thoughts I had while reading it. Obviously, I’m going to teach one of the essays in my creative writing class–specifically, the essay he writes about his father’s death, “Notes of a Native Son.” It’s a two-part story. It eulogizes his father, who struggled with an internal disease that made him paranoid and angry. But it also eulogizes a past Baldwin, a version of himself that he’s tried so hard to come to terms with. A version of himself that was filled with anger. And that anger never left him.
I think it’s too easy for privileged white Americans to dismiss the mental and emotional effects racism can have on a person. We tend to think of individual racist events as isolated and contained, but that’s not reality. Reality is a continuum where every single racist moment builds and feeds on previous ones. Our memories preserve those traumatic experiences, and over time those experiences alter every aspect of a person’s selfhood.
Thus Baldwin grew angrier and angrier over time until it reached a pinnacle when he sat down in a restaurant that didn’t serve “colored people” and demanded to be served. This wasn’t an isolated incident. It came, instead, on the heels of a series of humiliations heaped upon him simply for wanting to eat at a diner with his friend. Baldwin writes about his anger so honestly that, as a reader, I empathized with him to the point that I found myself allowing him even his most violent fantasies toward the people who refused to serve him something so simple as food.
So I think about this essay a lot, especially when the front pages of our national newspapers are peppered with racist incidents nearly every single day. And I think now about how each and every one of those racist incidents contributes to America’s fragile 21st-century psyche, and I wonder how many victims of racism hit their breaking point with each new incident, and I think about what we’re losing as a country when this systemic oppression denies them the opportunity to live the same kind of life I live.
I remember, years ago, advising a student who was planning to transfer to UW-Madison. She was a Latina girl with incredible ACT scores–we’re talking low-30’s here, and I enthusiastically recommended Madison as her destination. She told me she wants to be pre-med. I told her she should absolutely go into the pre-med program. Then she told me it would all depend on what happens with immigration policies in the next few years. She was scared to be a Latina in our country. She was scared for her family. She was scared of our government.
And it filled me with so much anger, a different kind of anger than Baldwin felt. Because my anger is a response to the very privilege I enjoy in America, one I’m constantly at qualms with and struggling to understand its very scope because every time I think I’ve got it figured out, I come across another experience that changes my understanding.
But Baldwin’s writing helps me take a few little steps in the right direction, and if I can find ways to expend my anger in a responsible way that makes our country a little better, then I think that’s an important first step.