On the threshold of the Civil Rights Movement, author and social critic James Baldwin (1924>–87) gained a widespread following in America—among whites as well as blacks—for his lacerating accounts of black suffering and American injustice. But Baldwin did more than rage. He also reflected deeply—and deeper than most commentators, then and now—on the relation between American blacks and the white Western world into which they have been forcibly inserted.
In this selection, from his collection of essays Notes of a Native Son (1955), Baldwin first describes his experiences living as the only black person in a Swiss mountain village, where he is an object of wonder and curiosity. Then, in the excerpts reproduced here, he uses that experience of being a stranger to reflect more generally on why blacks are alienated in the West altogether and in America in particular. What, according to Baldwin, is responsible for the special difficulties that black people—and white people—face in America because of their historical relationship through the institution of slavery? How do African American slaves and their descendants differ from other slaves in human history, and also from other black people throughout the world? What does Baldwin mean by saying: “At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself”? Do you think he is right? Toward the end of the selection, Baldwin seems to imply that the black-white experience in America also holds out a great promise for America. What is that promise? Is he right?