James Baldwin: A Prodigal Son?

I found James Baldwin’s reflections on the tumultuous relationships with both of the father figures in his life in “Notes of a Native Son” and later in “Alas, Poor Richard” to be some of the more powerful pieces we have read thus far. It is especially striking to consider the similarities between his stepfather David Baldwin and mentor Richard Wright, as they both had profound impacts on the life and work of James Baldwin long after they passed. 

To say the least, Baldwin did not have a picturesque relationship with either of these individuals. Baldwin recalls only one time in all his life with his stepfather David in which they had really spoken to one another. Baldwin adds that he cannot remember a time when he and his siblings were happy to see their father return home (79). He experienced a similar distancing with Wright, noting that their dialogues “became too frustrating and acrid” (265). Tragically, Baldwin reconciled with neither paternal figure in his life before they died. 

I would argue that Baldwin saw a bit of himself in both David and Richard, and this realization of similarity is part of the reason for their tense relationships. By this I mean, Baldwin watched how qualities of these father figures eventually led to their deaths, in a physical sense for his stepfather and a metaphorical one for his mentor as an author. I think he feared that, because of their likeness, he might face a similar fate. Baldwin explains that David “lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit” that frightened him “to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be” and it was now his (65). In a similar vein, of Wright Baldwin says, “They despised him… It was certainly very frightening to watch. I could not help feeling: Be careful. Time is passing for you, too, and this may be happening to you one day” (266). For Baldwin, David and Wright are comparable not only in their relationship to him as some sort of distorted father figure but also in that they serve as a warning. Yet, despite the turmoil they caused him, he longs for their presence. Baldwin laments, “Now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now” (84). Similarly, he speaks to Wright: “Whoever He may be, and wherever you may be, may God be with you, Richard, and may He help me not to fail that argument which began in me” (258). This desire for reunion with David and Wright evokes for me the image of the prodigal son… has he returned home?