This article is a close analysis of Baldwin’s voice in the essay
“Notes of a Native Son.” Much has been written about
Baldwin’s themes, but without his singular voice, the power of his works
would not endure. Through his use of diction, repetition, alliteration and
assonance, scene selection, and even punctuation, Baldwin provides the reader
with a transformative experience by rendering his own experience accessible. The
political and the personal are inextricable, a truth made unavoidable by the way
Baldwin writes as much as by the subject he chooses. Examining how he crafts his
voice allows us to understand more deeply the power of “Notes of a Native
This essay proposes that we turn to James Baldwin’s work to assess the cost of, and think alternatives to, the cultures of traumatization whose proliferation one witnesses in contemporary U.S. academia. Beginning with some recent examples, the essay briefly places these cultures into a genealogy of onto-ethics whose contemporary forms arose with the reconfiguration of diasporic histories in the idioms of psychoanalysis and deconstructive philosophy in 1990s trauma theory. Baldwin speaks to the contemporary moment as he considers the outcome of trauma’s perpetuation in an autobiographical scene from “Notes of a Native Son.” In this scene—which restages Bigger Thomas’s murderous compulsion in Native Son—he warns us against embracing one’s traumatization as a mode of negotiating the world. In foregoing what Sarah Schulman has recently called the “duty of repair,” such traumatized engagement prevents all search for the kind of “commonness” whose early articulation can be found in Aristotle’s query after “the common good” (to koinon agathon). With Baldwin, the present essay suggests the urgency of returning to the question of “the common good”: while mindful of past critiques, which have observed in this concept’s deployment a sleight-of-hand by which hegemonic positions universalize their interests, we should work to actualize the unfinished potential of Aristotle’s idea. Baldwin’s work on diasporic modernity provides an indispensable archive for this effort.
accident grounds for contempt.
James Baldwin, NotesofaNativeSon (1955)
The young, highly sensitive teenager most keenly resented the racist abuse he suffered at school and on the streets of Bromley, rather than its paucity of imagination and opportunity. Confiding in his journal, he tried to put his predicament into perspective: ‘Punished for my brown body, Pakistani father, English mother I felt
, ‘The Discovery of What it
Means to be an American’, in J. Baldwin, Nobody Knows
my Name: More NotesofaNativeSon (New York: Dell,
1961), p. 17.
F. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
(London: Pluto Press, 1986), p. 112; D. Macey, Fanon: A
on the value of personal anecdote and
experience, blending memoir with often detailed and cogent
anti-racist critique to create a kind of anti-racist life writing
that has a long history in African American literary culture. 2 One need only think
of James Baldwin’s NotesofaNativeSon (1955) and
Malcolm X’s Autobiography (1965), for example –
or Frederick Douglass
, Cuba one and Haiti eight.
Présence africaine , 8–10
(1956). See also James Baldwin, ‘Princes and powers’, in
his Nobody Knows My Name: more notesofanativeson (London:
Michael Joseph, 1964).
See David Macey, Frantz Fanon (London