Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Notes of a Native Son--Part 3
I have been out of town for a week; and before I was out of town I couldn't seem to write anything. Re the essay "Many Thousands Gone":

In this the author speaks of collective national guilt, primarily white of course, which Baldwin considers to be an absolutely real burden that has been "reinvested in the black face" in which "time has made some changes" whenever an attempt is made to wash it of the past (as whites have done, rendering their faces "blank"). As to the guilt, while it is certainly a pervasive feature of one strand of the national character, and a fairly significant and influential one, it doesn't seem to me to be at present a defining element of most non-black people's psychological makeup. Real historical guilt I would think could only truly be felt through deep suffering and humiliation that the guilty party is convinced he somehow deserves. Cataclysms such as this have been frequently predicted for the American populace, but they never seem to come off quite all the way.

A few pages later he makes the claim, which is often made, that blacks know whites better than whites know blacks, and even better than whites know themselves. Perhaps this is true as far as attitudes, matters of justice, indignity, etc, specific to race relations are concerned, but of course this does not constitute the whole of any man's knowledge, or thought, or being, or at least not any man who would be a subject of general interest. I know that this is not exactly what is meant by such assertions, but that is what is always suggested to me by the words, that a man's knowledge of life is wholly contained within the limits of his racial attitudes.

The conversion of the American slaves to the Christian religion, and the seemingly enthusiastic acceptance of the same by many black Americans down to the present time, is, as Baldwin remarks upon somewhat in passing here, really a very odd phenomenon, however black of an identity is given to Jesus and the church. It does, I think, demonstrate one of the central characteristics of Christianity, which is that it appeals most strongly wherever people despair of getting anywhere desirable in this life but at the same time feel they cannot really ever abandon, or escape, their hopeless course. I have read a lot of commentary over the years, most of it not I believe consciously Marxist in its intent, which opines that the black church is not generally good for black people, that too many ambitious black men take up preaching instead of more demonstrably empowering professions, and so on.

The critique of Native Son in this essay is good, though I still do like that other book as a piece of literature. Clearly there is something in it that appeals to very white people such as myself, and has since it came out; one doesn't exactly care for Bigger Thomas too much, not enough to feel than anything much could ever have been done for him, but the hopelessness of his whole situation, the sense of the forces that are arrayed against him, is conveyed as starkly as anything else I have read. The world presented is half our utterly familiar American urban world of newspapers, police, movies, cars, sloe gin fizzes, etc, and half something inaccessible buried within that, which is very fascinating (Baldwin by contrast maintains some psychological link to the whiter world at nearly all times). Here are some Baldwin quotes regarding the book:

"Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people--in this respect, perhaps, he is most American--"

"...that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life."

"it is not his love for them or for himself which causes him to die, but his hatred and his self-hatred; he does not redeem the pains of a despised people, but reveals, on the contrary, nothing more than his own fierce bitterness at having been born one of them."

The next essay is a critique of the 1955 film Carmen Jones, a version of Carmen directed by Otto Preminger using an all-black cast and set in a much-sanitized interpretation of a contemporary Chicago ghetto. It starred Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey and apparently was a complete artistic disaster. I didn't expect it would be in print anymore but of course two days after I read the essay I noticed my local quasi-bohemian independent video store had a brand new copy on DVD. I have not been tempted to get it however.

My only notes on this chapter were: Has consuming passion declined because people have more options? (not betas), and Oh, to have sexuality! which I was relieved to find was not entirely a commentary on myself, but referred to the quotation "What is distressing is the conjecture this movie leaves one with as to what Americans take sex to be."

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