A review of Native Sons by James Baldwin and Sol Stein

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Native Sons
By James Baldwin and Sol Stein
One World/Ballantine Books
2004. 217 pages. $24.95. ISBN 0-345-46935-6.

James Baldwin’s essays contain a sophistication that is a great achievement: without abandoning his own experience or the particulars of American and African-American history, he claimed the inheritance of the world. He expanded the authority of an African-American intellectual and writer. That made Baldwin an exception and a model. There are, of course, various forms of art and philosophy that are not created by African-Americans but touch on issues of concern to African-Americans. Some of these works go unrecognized by many blacks. When African-American intellectuals pay attention to some of these things—for example, Nietzsche’s repudiation of religion; Joni Mitchell’s introspection (the affirmation of the private self); feminism; Robert Mapplethorpe’s lustful looks at black men (black men as desirable objects)—they are sometimes seen as cultural traitors. Why doesn’t the authority of black intellectuals typically extend beyond black subjects, so that thinkers are seen not merely as followers but as defining master-critics? (Or, so that thinkers can become master-critics rather than marginal commentators?) Is it possible for African-Americans to determine directly the value of a cultural object? What kind of cultural authority do black critics wield? These are questions that strike me as valuable; and yet, too often, African-American intellectuals are called on only for personal testimony, as racial emblems, or articulators of social science analysis. Baldwin, in both his essays and his fiction, attempted to draw new connections, new correspondences: and in books such as Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, two novels, he presented individuals, not tribes. Baldwin, now gone, is often cited in sentimental ways that do not acknowledge his provocative challenges to culture or thought.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) wrote some good short stories: “Sonny’s Blues,” about a conservative teacher’s response to his drug-addicted musician brother; “Previous Condition,” about a young black actor’s trouble in finding work and home; and “Come Out the Wilderness,” about a black secretary’s involvement with a white painter and her opportunity to work with a black professional who might help her. These stories are about individuals; and social criticism, while implicit, does not seem their reason for being. Baldwin’s plays “The Amen Corner,” about a woman minister and her familial and moral conflicts, and “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” about the murder of a black man and racial conflict in a small town, are addressed, with varying success, to community; and these plays are a fulfillment of theater in way that fiction is usually not (we watch plays with others; we read, usually, alone).

The claim of the book Native Sons on public attention is centered on a previously unpublished short story, “Dark Runner,” and a play, “Equal in Paris,” both the result of collaborative writing between editor Sol Stein and writer James Baldwin in the late 1950s. This pleasantly disappointing book contains an introduction by Sol Stein, who edited Baldwin’s essay collection Notes of A Native Son (1955). Stein talks about Baldwin being late in delivering his work and the editorial process they shared; and it’s hard not to hear in these words Stein’s self-aggrandizement. Especially as Native Sons is an unnecessary book: Baldwin is one of the rare writers who told us what we need to know about himself, his philosophy, and his work. While this book Native Sons is not despicable, one wonders why it was published. Native Sons is a very minor contribution to Baldwin scholarship (it shares written correspondence between the two men during the preparation of Notes of A Native Son).

Baldwin’s excellent essay “Equal in Paris” is about an incident in which a friend’s stolen sheet landed him and his friend in a French jail. Stein and Baldwin first gave the essay a twenty-seven page fiction treatment, in a story “Dark Runner,” before writing the play Equal in Paris: and neither story, nor play, which focus on a character named Billy, not Jimmy, are remarkable. It’s telling that Stein apologizes for something that gives these treatments what interest they have: Billy’s relationship with a woman. Baldwin’s essay “Equal in Paris” captured not only incident but also consciousness and it is that consciousness—of hopes for creativity and political refuge, of youthful frustration and ignorance, and of the formal, indifferent workings of old-world power—that make the essay significant. In Paris, Baldwin learned that to be equal was not necessarily to be free or happy: it is to be subject to the same conditions as others, to power as well as chance. It is consciousness that is the hardest thing to make vivid in a play, or in a hurriedly written story that exists merely to give one direction in writing a play. What Stein gives us here is mostly unfocused work. Where is The Welcome Table, the play Baldwin finished before dying?

Why not expand Baldwin’s corpus with something new, rather than simply go over old ground? Why do we accept—why do we too frequently insist on—a narrow range for African-American and American writers and artists? Why do we only seem to want our already established, and too narrow, assumptions confirmed? Those questions occur to me now, they occurred to me when I first read Native Sons, and also months ago while mourning the loss of Susan Sontag—and then stumbling again on the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s book of essays, The Black Interior, and seeing a similarity between the dense studies by Sontag and Alexander’s detailed work. Alexander’s subjects include Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, Denzel Washington, and Rodney King; and I’m not at all claiming Sontag influenced Alexander (Alexander dedicates her book to women such as Barbara Christian, June Jordan, and Toni Cade Bambara, among others). But I recalled that essays made (novelist/filmmaker) Sontag’s reputation, and I wondered how much more celebrated the essays in The Black Interior would be if they carried Sontag’s name. Out of curiosity and pleasure, I have written about a wide range of subjects—among them, art, literature, music—and I have reviewed international and independent and Hollywood films, including films featuring African subjects (Lumumba, Moolaade, Proteus, among them) and African-American subjects (Akeelah and the Bee, Woman Thou Art Loosed). I reviewed an American film I (Love) Huckabees about an environmentalist’s relationship to a capitalist and their encounters with existentialism and Buddhism. The environmentalist asks, Who am I, of what value is my work, and how can my politics become effective? An African-American writer, I found this film entirely relevant to my life—but I don’t think the film requires a personal or provincial defense (which are often the defenses black intellectuals are asked to make). The film is about ideas, spirit, and values; and seems well worth considering. Is it possible for African-Americans to determine directly the value of a cultural object? What kind of cultural authority do black critics wield? I think of Cornel West relating in his introduction to the now deceased film and literary critic James Snead’s book White Screens, Black Images that he and Snead used to talk about why more African-American critics did not write about Baldwin: I think the answer is that James Baldwin is challenging—and challenging not because he and his materials are obscure but because they are all too clear.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in American Book Review, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Offscreen, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.