A great collection of short stories by James Baldwin. Generally (if not all of) these stories are near perfect, and a good reminder of how much I really like listening to short story collections on audiobook. The opening story “The Rockpile” is one of those perfect stories (I think “Sonny’s Blues” and “Going to Meet the Man” are the obvious others), begins us with a boy watching his step-brother defy all order to stay in the house and goes to the neighborhood rockpile where there’s a large brawl, and the boy is minorly injured. The issue of course comes into the story when the stepfather shows up and tries to assess damage and blame, and some lessons about manhood are learned. In “Sonny’s Blues” we meet a man dealing with the untimely death of his brother. It’s in “Going to Meet the Man” where James Baldwin has written one of the most perfect politically-charged story I’ve read. We spend the bulk of the story in two consciousness (both in third person omniscient narration). One is a white sheriff’s deputy in a Southern town. It’s a regular day: he patrols, he fights off the heat and a hangover; he thinks about having sex or raping a Black woman to get off (he struggles to get aroused by his white wife), and he thinks about the Black man currently jailed in town. The consciousness moves on to the man’s son as he witnesses the lynching of the Black man and the role his father has in the event and what he seems to get from it. It’s a truly devastating and knife-sharp look at white male masculinity.
Notes of a Native Son
Baldwin’s first collection of essays built off the success of a handful of truly great, classic essays (Notes of a Native Son, Stranger in the Village, for example), and several very good essays on top of that. For one, this provides a reading of the limits of Richard Wright’s Native Son (and this is not in this collection’s title essay), a novel I struggled to process and place in my mind. Another involves a review of a not very good and fadingly famous movie Carmen Jones, which Baldwin feels so sad about because of the ways it flattens and neuters Black experience, and worse Black sexuality to being nil in the movie, and worse, has bad singing.
The title essay and “Stranger in the Village” are the standouts because of the ways in which they really nail and precisely dissect race and masculinity in the United State (“Stranger in the Village” by moving James Baldwin out of the US). Another curious essay which also provides the same kind of contrast when James Baldwin gets arrested “for trafficking stolen goods” (he’s accidentally stolen bedsheets from a hotel), and it provides a real sense of contrast when French jail is terrifyingly lacking information and due process, but also lacking the specific cruelty of oblivion found in the US penal system.
This is the second time I’ve read this collection and it remains a simply wonderfully distilled understanding on a range of topics.