In “The Creative Process,” an essay that appears in The Price of the Ticket (1985), Baldwin says, “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.” This quotation aptly describes one of the main threads of Baldwin’s literary career, a thread that is clear in Notes of a Native Son as well as in the body of his fiction, drama, and prose. One main effect of this collection is to reveal the United States to itself from the special position Baldwin was able to occupy in the original publications, speaking to both white and African American magazine readers about African American life.
Baldwin ends “Autobiographical Notes” with this statement: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” In this essay, he makes clear the main barriers he had to overcome in order to achieve these goals, barriers having mainly to do with race. Although much has been written about “the Negro problem,” in fact very little is known about African American life and consciousness. The best way to reveal this little-known life is through works of art. To be an artist requires some distance from the arena of social reform and protest writing, but becoming an African American writer subjects one to a great pressure to be active in this arena. This situation occurs, in part, because the history of African American life is so painful that few want to look into it seriously, and those who study it become so angry that they rarely can attain the artistic distance necessary to create works of art. To be an honest man and to know who he was, Baldwin had to look seriously into the past, his own and America’s. To become a good writer, he had to be able to stand back from the horrors of that history. In his later writings, Baldwin shows that he eventually concluded that in the process of learning to stand back from the pain of his personal and social history, he learned to accept suffering and to learn from suffering to love all of struggling humanity. Speaking on the same subjects in “The Creative Process,” Baldwin said that in the particular aloneness of artistic creation and perception, “one discovers that life is tragic, and therefore unutterably beautiful.”
“Notes of a Native Son” shows Baldwin moving through a cycle of this process as he contemplates the death of his stepfather. Several important events occur close together in the summer of 1943: his father’s death, his youngest sister’s birth, his father’s funeral, his nineteenth birthday, and a race riot in Harlem. The coincidence of these events helps to make clear to Baldwin what sort of world he will have to make his way in and what resources he has available. He explains that his father reared him in a very protected environment, as separated as possible from white people, who represented to David Baldwin the evil of the outside world against which he preached in his small Harlem church. Although his father protected the children, he showed them little affection, and as he succumbed to mental illness, he tyrannized over and restricted them. When James leaves home after high school to work in a defense plant, he is ill-prepared to get along with the white people he then has to work among. He is used to associating with people on an equal footing, so he does not adjust easily to...
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the attitudes and behaviors of inferiority. When he returns home for his father’s death and sister’s birth, he is filled with rage at his society for branding him and at his father for failing to love him. At the funeral, however, he begins to see some of the ways in which his father really had loved him, however imperfectly, and he realizes that despite his anger toward and even hatred of his father, he also loves the man. He learns that life and death matter, but color really does not. He learns that hatred always destroys the hater. He sees the paradox that he will haveto hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance . . . of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never . . . accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
He learns that this fight must be fought first in one’s own heart by keeping it free of hatred and despair: “This intimation made my heart heavy and, 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.” These realizations complete perhaps the first important cycle of learning in Baldwin’s artistic life, in which he begins to see how to step back from his ambivalent feelings for his father and accept them, learning in an important way how to love the terrible world about which he would write.
In addition to coming to terms with his personal history, Baldwin also had to come to terms with his social history, with the history of African Americans in the United States. He repeats in several essays that Americans, perhaps more than other people, are reluctant to know themselves as products of their history. They cultivate ignorance of their culture and history and so fail to know themselves. A major difference between white Americans and African Americans on this issue is that white Americans believe that their ancestors voluntarily surrendered their European backgrounds in order to become Americans, while African Americans believe their history was removed and hidden by force.
In “Stranger in the Village,” one of his best-known essays, Baldwin offers a view of how the history of the United States has created unique cultural identities for whites and African Americans. His extended stay in an isolated Swiss village, where no one had ever before seen a black man, provides him with a base from which to measure how Europeans and Africans have changed during three centuries of living in North America. The Swiss villagers at first are filled with wonder at his physical differences from themselves. Their innocent behavior strikes him as culturally loaded because he is the product of the American experience. When children call him “Neger,” they only announce the presence of this strange being, while in his memory the word “nigger” echoes with all of its cultural freight. When a kindly woman explains how their village “buys” Africans by giving money to the church for their missionary conversion, what seems a generous and sacred act to her reverberates with horrors for him. When he has remained longer, he sees evidence of their beginning to make use of him as a cultural other, to connect his color with the European mythology in which blackness is associated with evil, death, and hell.
The constant he sees between these “innocent” white Europeans and his fellow Americans is the idea of white, Christian superiority over black, African pagans: the foundation of white supremacy. The main difference he sees is that the fundamental morality of American democracy has always conflicted with the main American consequence of white supremacy. The convenient beliefs that Africans were less than human and that they could be made slaves contradict the fundamental tenet of American political morality, that all people are created equal before God and the law. The trend in this long conflict of values has been toward honoring the ideals of democracy and abandoning, however violently and grudgingly, the ideas of white supremacy. One result of this uniquely American struggle has been the creation of “a new black man . . . and a new white man.” Baldwin notes, “It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” He sees the United States as destined either to realize a multiracial, multicultural civilization or to destroy itself. He believes the former to be more likely.
Written in the middle of the twentieth century and in Baldwin’s youth, these essays seem mature and prescient in their understanding of Baldwin’s self and culture. They show a young artist finding himself in his world, becoming an honest man and a good writer.