By José Orduña
When I was fourteen I was admitted to one of Chicago’s most prestigious college preparatory schools. The tuition was double what my parents paid for rent, and at times decisions had to be made about what necessity we would go without in order for me to continue attending. One autumn it was gas, and while I walked the school’s grounds, which had the ornate and sprawling quality of an Old World palace, I carried with me a secret: for weeks my morning showers were taken at the public park near our apartment. At about this time I started keeping a journal in which I wrote short descriptions of the objects that signified the extreme disparity between my private and public life. One entry was a description of the main hallway in which photo montages of each graduating class hung chronologically. At the south entrance, frame after frame was occupied almost exclusively by white men. A few frames down, a lone dark figure surrounded on all sides by what were now supposed to be his peers. I remember staring at his dark skin and into his inexpressive eyes, feeling that I knew something of the solitude he felt even though the peppering of color had become denser toward the end of the hall where my face would eventually hang.
That year in English class we read a coming-of-age novella by a Mexican-American author, and although I recognized many of the objects and situations in the book, I could not identify with the copacetic tenor. It wasn’t until a friend gave me a copy of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son that I felt that mixture of exaltation and injury ignited by a work of literature that, in its essence, seemed to speak directly to me. It was the 1984 edition, published a few years before his death, and I vividly remember feeling fortified, as though I’d been armored, as I read the following lines from the preface:
Not once have the Civilized been able to honor, recognize, or describe the Savage. He is, practically speaking, the source of their wealth, his continued subjugation the key to their power and glory. This is absolutely and unanswerably true in South Africa—to name but one section of Africa—and, as to how things fare for Black men and women; here, the Black has become, economically, all but expendable and is, therefore, encouraged to join the Army, or, a notion espoused, I believe, by Daniel Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, to become a postman—to make himself useful, for Christ’s sake, while White men take on the heavy burden of ruling the world.
The audacity in Baldwin’s essays, the clarity of the analysis of his own experience, his gestures of love, his inclusiveness, the precision of his meandering sentences, and his turning toward a complexity that most other authors would simply reduce for the sake of tidiness are the qualities that made reading Notes of a Native Son a kind of awakening in my development as a human being.
So many of his ideas—rendered not just with the intellect, but also with a depth of emotional intelligence that can only be attributed to a well-worn soul—made absolute sense to me. “The Harlem Ghetto” contains a landscape, both physical and intellectual, that was, since the first time I traversed it, utterly recognizable. As a young brown man in Chicago, with a just-burgeoning writing habit, James Baldwin became my apothecary, his essays my materia medica. His were expressions unlike anything I’d ever seen on the page, notions I’d always felt, but until then was not ready to try my hand at expressing. I have a habit that I’ve come to understand (through many late night conversations) is shared among writers. Many of us have the need to carry certain books around with us wherever we go, whether or not we intend to read through them, let alone open them. The roster of books I carry with me changes quite a bit; the only one that is a constant is my tattered copy of Notes of a Native Son.
José Orduña was born in Córdoba, Veracruz and immigrated to Chicago with his mother when he was one-and-a-half years old. In December of 2010, while attending the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, he applied for naturalization, and in July of 2011 he was sworn in as a United States citizen. He lives and works in Iowa City, where he is writing a memoir for Beacon Press about race, class, identity, and his path to US citizenship.