Friday, May 02, 2008

Notes of A Native Son--Part 4

Scene from Carmen Jones (See Part 3)
The next essay was "The Harlem Ghetto", out of which I marked 2 sentences as of particular interest. The first was "The American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible". I think it is the American ideal, and the ideal of most societies and power-wielding organizations, that everyone accept the legitimacy of the prevailing hierarchy and the rules and values that the top of it imposes as much as possible, accesion to which I suppose results in curtailing most people's range of personality and and action and making everyone seem more or less alike. This effect may be more pronounced in America than in other places because of the nature of the society and the culture; the mechanisms of individual character formation being rather more free-flowing and wholly dependent on the individual's personal parts than elsewhere, submission and conformity may cause him to be stripped of distinguishing characteristics more completely. The other one was about Jews covering their own vulnerability by frenzied adoption of the customs of the country, i.e. discrimination and appalling treatment of blacks. I am not really sure what I wanted to say about this. Something about reconciling competition between groups of people--of which racial division is but one of many differentiations, albeit perhaps the most important one--which appears to be endemic to the human character, with some standard of justice to ease the bitterness of the one side or the other that must inevitably lose. The scale of America makes this kind of bitterness, it seems to be, all the more difficult to overcome in a historical sense because the size and power and wealth of the country give its particular racial problems a more universal and intractable aspect than when they are confined to a backwater of minor global significance; also in a less historical sense the rewards for being really successful are so apparently extragavant and out of proportion to what is left for even comparative failures that it is inevitable more people will be likely to consider themselves one.

The next essay "Journey to Atlanta" is about a trip two of Baldwin's brothers got cajoled into taking to that city as part of a singing group intended to help canvass for a political party. The trip was a fiasco; the organizers were corrupt, the aristocratic white woman who was the chairman of the local party took offense when the group begged off from singing a fifth song at a reception due to the hoarseness of their voices and cut them off, at which the group was abandoned and forced to find their own way home to New York, several of them by working at a construction company for ten days. It is one of the more vivid essays. The difficulty the group had in getting any food, not to mention the apparent lack of any planning for this eventuality, even before they were abandoned, from their nominal sponsors, is astounding.

It was noted in this essay that at this time in Atlanta black policemen (of whom there were five) of course could not arrest whites. This is the sort of detail that tends not to occur to me when trying to contemplate Big Issues but which in its way gives a clearer impression than more sensational sorts of atrocities. I found myself at one point wondering what Frank Sinatra thought about all this. He came to mind because I began to feel that if one did not have satisfactory solutions to social problems that would please everybody, worrying about them could drain all the charm and wit out of your personality. This doesn't seem to have happened with Frank. He never conflated the outer world's troubles with himself, and certainly his popularity did not suffer by it.

The title essay, the central one of the collection, was next. The main subject is Baldwin's father, or the man who he thought was his father (and who raised him) at the time, though apparently he found out in later years that the man was not actually his biological father. The father was born in New Orleans and had known Louis Armstrong as a young man. There was a sentence I found funny: "My father never mentioned Louis Armstrong, except to forbid us to play his records; but there was a picture of him on our wall for a long time." Given the terrible communication problems between the father and son in these writings, as well as similar anecdotes that have come down through my own family history, I wondered if child-rearing, or at least connecting, had gotten easier due to prosperity, or what was the cause? The fathering style, when there is a father anyway, seems to have become so different, though certainly the jury is still out on their overall effectiveness where raising boys is concerned, given the general level of dissatisfaction people express with most men under age 50 or so, who traditionally have been the shapers and assessors of character in society, not the assessed.

"This inability to establish contact with other people had always marked him." I underlined this twice, so I assume I must have been identifying strongly with the concept.

On his father's fear of being robbed: "I didn't fail to wonder, and it made me hate (!) him, what on earth we owned that anybody else would want."

"He spent great energy and achieved, to our chagrin, no small amount of success in keeping us away from the people who surrounded us, people who had all-night rent parties to which we listened when we should have been sleeping, people who cursed and drank and flashed razor blades on Lenox Avenue." I believe these people are Mailer's hipsters, are they not?

All right, I am interrupted again. It may be two more days before I could finish this, though I could do it with 20 minutes of silence at a time of day when I am half-awake. It doesn't look like I am going to have that though.

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