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 the attitudes and behaviors of inferiority. When he returns home for his father’s death and sister’s birth, he is filled with...
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