In “Notes of a Native Son”, James Baldwin talks about living in a segregated 1940s America. He speaks of his father, who was a bitter, cold, intimidating man. Doctors had said that he died of tuberculosis, but Baldwin understands that he died from his own bitter rage and misery for having lived a life of second-class citizenship and blatant racial discrimination. Baldwin, as a child, did not understand why his father was the way he was. He did not understand his father’s controlling nature and his distrust in white people. As an adult, Baldwin becomes the same man his father was, filled with rage and speaking with a “casual sharpness” (Baldwin 593). This theme of toxic, self-consuming hatred and rage in response to prejudice is the theme of Baldwin’s narrative.
There is rich imagery in the essay, and the contrasting appearances of Baldwin’s father. As Baldwin remembered him during his youth, he saw a beautiful “African tribal chieftain” (Baldwin 588), formidable and tall. The hatred Baldwin’s father had inside, however, soon took control and later ended his life. Upon his death, the man no longer resembled the stalwart Nubian king he was before, but “a [wrinkled] little black monkey” (Baldwin 598). Hatred is what consumed Baldwin’s father, but he was only one person among the many other Americans who were also dominated by hatred. Whites disenfranchised the blacks, and the blacks loathed the whites, and sometimes themselves, for it. Baldwin’s father’s death was also symbolic because his funeral was on the same day as a violent race riot. In sharp contrast to the hatred and death that led to and followed the father’s death, Baldwin’s newborn sister–a symbol of purity and hope–was born. Hatred is also a defining aspect of Baldwin’s Harlem neighborhood, which he says “To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need…[and] the members of the ghetto [smash each other]” (Baldwin 602). At his father’s funeral, Baldwin remembers how his father told him that bitterness is a mistake, that “blackness and whiteness did not matter. Hatred…never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law” (Baldwin 603). This line is especially powerful because it is a moment of self-realization, when Baldwin realizes that it was wrong for him to acquiesce to the hatred that destroyed his father. Baldwin declares that one must never be complacent in response to injustice, and in order to fight back one needs to purge all thoughts of hatred and despair.
UPDATE 9/30: Here’s an interesting little piece I found online about what hatred does to us psychologically and emotionally. It fits right in with Baldwin’s theme that hatred is toxic and destructive: http://io9.com/5070226/how-hatred-transforms-your-brain