"Notes of a Native Son" is James Baldwin's true account of his experience as an African-American. Written in 1943, it describes what society was like at that time and what place the African-American person had at that time. Most notably, the society of the time was one where African-Americans were separated from white people. Baldwin's essay describes his process of realizing his place in society and coming to terms with it. In short, it is an essay about a man realizing that he lives in a racist society and how this impacts him. As well as showing Baldwin's own experience, the essay also shows the experience of his father. It is also seen that there is a significant gap between Baldwin and his father, with this representing a division in the black community. By the combination of these three issues, "Notes of a Native Son" becomes an in-depth look at the psychological effects of racism. This includes the effect on Baldwin, his father, and the black community as a whole. Each of these issues will now be considered in turn.
One of the main factors that impacts on James Baldwin's experience is that he is initially unaware that he lives in a racist society. He describes this in his essay saying,
I knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated Negroes and how they expected them to behave, but it never entered my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way (Baldwin 56).
This shows that Baldwin did not initially have any idea that he would be the subject of racism. Instead, he viewed racism as something of the past that had no direct link to his own life. The most important point in regards to the psychological effects of racism is that Baldwin's response is based not just on dealing with racism, but on realizing that he is not considered equal. Baldwin's first response to the realization that he is being discriminated against is to challenge the situation in an act of defiance. This is seen where Baldwin describes how he reacted when he realized he was not present in certain places that were considered white places. His response was to want to go to all these places where he knew he was unwelcome. This seems to be Baldwin's way of getting back at the society that has rejected him. Most importantly, this is not something that Baldwin does to try to get society to accept him. Instead, it is more like he is reacting in defiance because it is not a situation he cannot control. In this way, Baldwin is partly responding as a person who has realized he has no power in society. The white people have determined the role for the black person and they have made the decisions that keep Baldwin an outsider. Baldwin becomes powerless and cannot change these rules. The only way he can react is to break the rules in an act of defiance. These actions by Baldwin also show the first stages of his anger. As Baldwin's initial defiance gives way to anger, he describes it as a disease saying that once anger is contracted "one can never be really carefree again, for the fever, without an instant's warning, can recur at any moment" (Baldwin 57). This anger is also partially caused by Baldwin's lack of power, since it seems that there is nothing he can do to change the situation for himself. He feels wronged by society, but unlike most problems, there is not action he can take to right the situation. The anger he feels builds until it reaches breaking point. This is clearly shown in the situation in the restaurant, where Baldwin suddenly focuses his anger on the white waitress. Baldwin describes himself thinking that "if she found a black man so frightening I would make her fright worth-while" (Baldwin 58). This is an example of Baldwin transferring his anger towards white society and placing it on one person. In short, the white waitress represents white society and thinking about hurting her is Baldwin's way of thinking about getting back at the society that seems to hate him. This shows that racism initially leads Baldwin to become defiant, with this then turning into rage. The next important point is that after this initial response, Baldwin's reaction changes. He becomes aware of his own anger and realizes that it is destructive. He is then able to make a conscious decision to control his anger. Baldwin describes himself realizing that "my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart" (Baldwin 59). With this realization, Baldwin commits himself to controlling his own actions and behavior. At the same time, he continues to note the racism occurring. This creates an ongoing struggle for Baldwin, which he describes where he says that he realized he most accept the injustices but also "fight them with all one's strength" (Baldwin 67). Baldwin expands this idea by saying that "it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair" (Baldwin 67). This shows that Baldwin has found a way to gain control in the situation. This control though, is not based on actually changing society, but changing how he responds to it. In making this decision, Baldwin becomes more empowered and gains some control over the situation. This becomes a positive force for Baldwin and allows him to live with the situation without becoming consumed by anger. It is important to note though, that the anger and sense of injustice still remains on some level. This just becomes something that Baldwin is able to cope with and manage.
This leads to a consideration of Baldwin's father and his psychological response to racism. Baldwin's father is considerably different than Baldwin because his level of hatred remains strong. Baldwin describes this at one point where he describes how this father always told him that his "white friends in high school were not really my friends and that I would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep a Negro down" (Baldwin 56). This shows that Baldwin's father has an attitude of intense hatred for white people. Unlike Baldwin himself, there is no real conflict in this hatred. Baldwin's father simply sees white people and black people as completely separate. He does not view himself as operating in a white society, instead seeing himself as rejected completely by it. Baldwin's father's sense of hatred and separation is also so ingrained that he does not question it. He simply accepts that he has been rejected. It was noted earlier that Baldwin responded to his rejection by acting out against society as a way of being defiant. Baldwin's father can be seen as acting in a similar way, where he reacts to his rejection by also rejecting the white people. At the same time, there is high degree of anger towards the white people that remains with him. In comparing Baldwin and his father, it can be seen that they both experience anger. The way that they each deal with this anger is significantly different. Baldwin reacts outwardly, wanting to take out his anger on the white people. When he realizes the danger of this to himself, he makes the decision to control his anger. Baldwin's father does not take his anger out on the white people. Instead, his anger is directed inwards. Without any release, it becomes a lifelong rage that controls his life. It is also important that Baldwin lived at a different time to his father. Baldwin was essentially born into a white society and considered himself part of that society. Baldwin's father was born into a white society also, but always considered himself as separate to that society. Unlike Baldwin, he did not have the experience of thinking he was accepted, only to later realize he was rejected. Instead, he was always aware he was rejected. This explains why Baldwin's father seems to accept his place in society more and not fight it like Baldwin does. He has been rejected by society for as long as he can remember and so there is no surprise factor for him. This explains why he has a quiet acceptance, where he hates the white person. At the same time though, it also seems that Baldwin's father does not take his place in society personally. This can be explained by recognizing that he views separation as more complete, where black society is separate from white society. This is a larger view of the separation and does mean that Baldwin's father sees himself as personally rejected. In contrast, because Baldwin considered himself accepted and then learned he was not, he took the rejection more personally.
The next consideration is the impact of racism on…