On this day in American history, in 1982, my father passed away, at the age of 56, a week and a day after he reached that age. I always think of my father as a Native Southern Son. When I learned from an older cousin that my father was an aspiring writer, I think that he would have been influenced by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Given that, I think a perfect title for his book would have been, Notes of a Native Southern Son.
As much American history as I have read (and lived), I can still not imagine my father’s life growing up in the Jim Crow South, serving in the segregated U.S. Army as a teenager during World War II, migrating (or fleeing) from the South and landing in Brooklyn, living in Bed-Stuy in the 1950s, traveling South every year, not like a criminal, but returning to the scene of one of the greatest crimes in the annals of history (American slavery, segregation, lynchings). And I’ll never forget, because I couldn’t imagine my father’s coming of age story in the segregated South, where malevolent forces still existed and floated freely in the Southern air when I was born, why my father took solo trips to the South almost every year around the Fourth of July, where my paternal roots are firmly planted, and never took me on his Southern road trips. I perfectly understand now, and how the first ten years of my life, during the Decisive Decade, it was not safe to be a Black man or Black man-child in America, especially in the Southern states. Still, I think all Black fathers owe their sons one thing: the truth about the world in which we have been born.
My father’s story began long before he was born, and I now see that my story is simply a continuation of his. The science of DNA has revealed so much about our ancestry, though it’s still hard to get to the root of Black folk’s existence in these here United States. What I do know, on my paternal Southern tree, probably that poplar tree from which many Black people were hung, is a root from 1805 – that’s as far back as I’ve been able to DNA time travel. The Southern states can be accused of many things as it relates to Black folk, but they did a meticulous head count of Black folk in those bleeding Black blood states, for purposes of the census (read the Constitution and the provision about representation in the House of Representatives being based on the size of the population). So, in 1805, the Southern fruit on my paternal tree is a mullata – probably the fruit of rape, that is, a white male raping a Black female.
Billie Holliday first sang and recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939, when my father was 13. I know my father loved Ray Charles, another native Southern Son, but I wonder if Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” was a refrain in his mind when he was growing up and when he traveled South every year? I wonder if he witnessed a lynching. He certainly had to have heard about one…or more.
The more I think about my father, I think that I would be the James Baldwin to his Richard Wright. Yesterday I recommended Native Son. Today I recommend James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. I know I took the long way to get here, but American stories with Southern themes are convoluted, one reason why William Faulkner is so confusing, and challenging to read.
James Baldwin was simply a masterful writer. His prose is composed, so composed he is only one of two writers where I literally hear music and melodies in their prose. My favorite short story of all time is Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” In my last year of college, the year my father died, I wrote a paper for a political science class using “Sonny’s Blues.” All these years later I remember the title of the paper I wrote, which impressed the professor. For this course we had a number of texts, including: Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents; Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars; and a Marx & Engels reader. Looking at Marx’s theory of alienation, I wrote my final paper for this class, entitled, “’Sonny’s Blues,’ Or the Alienation of a Black Man in a White Male-Dominated Society.” In Baldwin’s works, methinks he touches on this sense of alienation.
From Native Son to Notes of a Native Son to what could’ve been, Notes of a Native Southern Son, and perhaps I am well on my way to writing Son of a Native Southern Son.
Eric! What a profound gift this post is to us! Your dad as an aspiring writer……the aspiration passed on to you, his “Northern Son.” Yes!! The “Northern Son” of a “Native Southern Son,” brings me back to Richard Wright and the exploration of North as the new home for those who fled the horrors of the South~only to find Northern horrors! I have to read “Sonny’s Blues”–thanks for that tip!! And oh–how I wish you could find that essay written 40 years ago! There’s so much here to reflect on~ THANK YOU!!!!!
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Your description of James Baldwin’s writing style deeply resonated with me. His “The Fire Next Time” changed my perspective of the world, and like you described, I could hear the rhythm in his words long after I put the book down. I have been meaning to pick up another one of Baldwin’s works, and your most has placed “Notes of a Native Son” on the top of that list.
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And read Baldwin ‘s short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” It’s a great “Jazz” piece.