Notes of a Native Son

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Notes of a Native Son Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. His family was very poor, and he struggled under the cruel treatment of his stepfather (to whom he refers to as his father in Notes of a Native Son). As a teenager, Baldwin began to realize he was gay. During this time, he became a junior minister, before abandoning the church at 17. At age 24 he left the United States to live in Paris. He spent most of the rest of his life in France, with periods spent in Switzerland, Turkey, and back in the USA. Over the course of his life he wrote numerous essays, several novels, stories, poetry, and two plays. He is one of the most celebrated African-American authors in history and he played an important role in the Civil Rights/Black Liberation movement of the 1960s. He died of stomach cancer at the age of 63 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and was buried in New York.
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Historical Context of Notes of a Native Son

Baldwin wrote the book during a time at which the Civil Rights/Black Liberation movements were gathering momentum, in part due to the legacy of the Second World War, which he explores in Notes of a Native Son. During the war, many African-American men experienced a taste of the freedom and equality they were denied in American civilian life through their service in the military and travel through Europe. For some African Americans, Europe and other places beyond the United States became a model for a different way of structuring society, one that was not so strictly segregated along racial lines. Grassroots campaigners, along with larger organizations such as the NAACP, began engaging in strategic activism aiming to dismantle Jim Crow and other systems of segregation, end economic exploitation, and secure legal rights for black people. Meanwhile, less organized forms of agitation were also taking place, such as the race riot in Harlem Baldwin describes in the book.

Other Books Related to Notes of a Native Son

Notes of a Native Son is one of the most important works in the genre of African-American autobiographical criticism, which began with slave narratives in the 18th and 19th century and includes texts such as W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and—in more recent years—Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Margo Jefferson’s Negroland. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, although a novel, also drew on Ellison’s real-life experience in order to explore the pain and alienation associated with being a black person in 20th-century America. It’s also worth noting that the title Notes of a Native Son references Richard Wright’s canonical work of African-American literature Native Son, which Baldwin critiques in an essay in Notes of a Native Son. As a cultural critic who draws on personal experience, Baldwin can also be compared to the essayists Joan Didion, Vivian Gornick, and Hilton Als.
Key Facts about Notes of a Native Son
  • Full Title: Notes of a Native Son
  • When Written: 1948-1955
  • Where Written: New York City, France, and Switzerland
  • When Published: 1955
  • Literary Period: 20th century African-American Nonfiction
  • Genre: Autobiographical Criticism
  • Setting: USA (particularly Harlem), Paris, and an unnamed village in Switzerland
  • Climax: When Baldwin throws a glass of water at the waitress in the whites-only restaurant.
  • Antagonist: The antagonist of the book is not a person, but rather the phenomena of delusion, prejudice, and oppression
  • Point of View: First person from Baldwin’s perspective

Extra Credit for Notes of a Native Son

Star power. Baldwin was a close friend of several of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century, including Marlon Brando (whom he mentions in the book), Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.

On the big screen. A documentary about James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro was released in 2016 and was a major critical and commercial success.