The difference between an MC and a poet? The braggadocious MC has everything all figured out, never doubting himself. The poet admits his uncertainty, attempting to make sense of the world without assuming he knows answers before asking questions. James Baldwin (1924–1987) crossed this line early in his career, the preacher within him overtaking his voice in essays written after his involvement with the civil rights movement. As an account of the creation of 1955’s Notes of a Native Son (the pre-MC Baldwin’s first essay collection), his editor and former Bronx high school classmate Sol Stein compiles their transatlantic correspondence into Native Sons.
Baldwin’s comments on the Cold War (“America and Russia are battling for the domination of the world. . . . What else have nations ever battled for?”) and on the cultural dominion of the minds of men are noteworthy. Yet the book’s length could easily have been cut in half. Many of its communiqués postdate the publication of Notes, belying the purported premise of Native Sons. Of the 11 letters they write each other, only five of Stein’s and three of Baldwin’s predate the book’s November ’55 release. Of these, most are not lengthy or particularly revelatory.
Filling out Native Sons‘ anemic content are two previously unpublished collaborations between Stein and Baldwin, a short story and play, both variations on Baldwin’s “Equal in Paris” essay about his introduction to expatriate life. Neither, unfortunately, offers any greater insights than the excellent original. “Much has been made of Baldwin’s having been a teenage preacher,” Stein says. “Not enough has been made of his early mastery of the writer’s main task, putting to paper what other people only think.” Despite the potential of unearthed Baldwin missives, Native Sons does less than expected in exposing either Baldwin’s mastery or methods of creation.