This is such a great book. Love James Baldwin, and I’m happy I reread Native Son right before reading this because his critique of monstrosity in the novel makes a lot of sense in terms of Baldwin’s own American identity. His father, someone who Baldwin says he barely ever spoke to though they lived together along with his mother and his 8 other siblings, would have aligned more with Richard Wright or Bigger Thomas in that he escaped the Jim Crow south. Baldwin didn’t understand his father much while he was still alive, but he nevertheless had to figure himself out as a member of the next generation in Harlem, a place he both loved and hated.
Baldwin’s travels outside of the U.S. play an important role in his self-discovery. He writes about going to Paris as well as a remote Swiss village where he was likely the first black person to ever visit. He’s out and about in Paris, trying to write but often getting distracted. Then, with all it’s seclusion, he’s able to put his head down and work in Switzerland. There, he goes through the process of people getting used to his existence. Being known, getting known. It’s in that village where he muses about how black America truly is, mostly in its preoccupation with black people. He has similar thoughts during his arrest in France for receiving stolen property (hotel bed sheets another American gave him). After a week in jail, the case gets dismissed. People in court kinda laughed about how ridiculous the charges were. He said that that bothered him because “this laughter is the laughter of those who consider themselves to be at a safe remove from all the wretched, for whom the pain of the living is not real.”
In both places, he thought he was escaping his home life, but traveling actually forced him to think more seriously about his place in the U.S. and thus the world. There’s a time in south Jersey where he throws a pitcher of water towards a waitress for telling him they don’t serve black people. He realized then that there’s a Bigger in every black person in America.