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Perspective Through Exile: James Baldwin in France

A key figure in the fight against discrimination and for civil rights in the United States, African-American novelist James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. Fleeing racism in America, he arrived in Paris in 1948. France was where he wrote his most famous works, such as Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Just Above My Head (1979), and where he was able to gain the perspective he needed to fight against racial inequalities in the United States.

Everything began in New Jersey when James Baldwin was 22. One evening, Baldwin had been to see a movie with a friend in Trenton. The pair decided to go and have dinner after the showing, but were aggressively refused entry at two restaurants, whose owners spat: “We don’t serve blacks here.” An angry Baldwin threw a glass of water in a waitress’ face. He was quickly surrounded by a group of men, but managed to fight them off before running away. Some months later, another dramatic event once again enraged the young man. His best friend committed suicide by throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge.

“Chewed up by the city,” Baldwin said, and “chewed up” by the impossibility of being black in the city. “You look for a place to live. You look for a job. You start doubting everything. You become sloppy, that’s when you start to slip. All of society has decided to transform you into nothing.” Baldwin wanted to leave. “I knew what was going to happen to me, I’d kill or be killed… I left because I didn’t think I could survive the race problems.” The young man thought about where he could go, and finally decided on Paris. He knew his mentor — African-American writer Richard Wright — was living a peaceful life there.

Baldwin boarded the plane on November 11, 1948, leaving the United States with just 40 dollars in his pocket. As he flew over Paris, he looked out over the city and was sure he was going to be “dashed to death on the vindictive tooth of the Eiffel Tower.” When he arrived he was met by Themistocles Hoetis and Asa Benveniste, the founders of Zero, an avant-garde Franco-American journal specialized in literary reviews. The two men had already read the young writer’s work, including “The Harlem Ghetto,” which he had just published in the prestigious monthly political journal Commentary. Impressed by his writing, they wanted to offer him the chance to work together. Together they took a taxi to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, where they stopped at Les Deux Magots. They were joined in the café by several others, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Wright. Baldwin was finally happy, and Wright quickly found him a room at the Hôtel de Rome on the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

A Parisian Refuge

The young writer spent the next few months exploring the city, and came to prefer the company of French, American and African students to that of Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre and Boris Vian. Baldwin then moved into the Hôtel Verneuil, at 29 Rue Verneuil. The establishment was run by a big-hearted Corsican woman, Madame Dumont, who tolerated her guests’ unorthodox lifestyles. The hotel was a constant party, where guests would drink late into the night. One evening after the arrival of Baldwin, a party was organized to celebrate the publication of Zero. Unable to put up with the noise any longer, Madame Dumont shut off the electricity. But this made little difference to the revelers, who continued their celebrations until morning.

Baldwin slipped into a Parisian routine. With not a cent to his name, he managed to sell a handful of texts and borrow a little money. In the afternoons, he would set off to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where he enjoyed spending time at Les Deux Magots, at the Brasserie Lipp, or on the second floor of the Café de Flore. It was in these cafés that he began writing Go Tell It on the Mountain and rough drafts of Notes of a Native Son. People from the hotel would drop by, have a drink and leave. The early evenings would generally see the arrival of a group, who would then go drinking.

Baldwin and his friends would frequent Le Montana on the Rue Saint-Benoît, L’Abbaye on the Rue Jacob, or Chez Inez, a soul food restaurant run by an American, where Baldwin once sang George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” in exchange for a meal of fried chicken. These nocturnal festivities would also include trips to bars known for their homosexual clientele, such as La Reine Blanche and Le Fiacre, which the writer later described in his major Parisian work, Giovanni’s RoomBaldwin loved Paris. He remembered “walking through the markets, singing, loving every inch of France… and each other… the jam-sessions in Pigalle, nights spent smoking in the Arab cafés, ending at dawn, telling stories, sad and earnest stories in grey, workingmen’s cafés.”

Recovery and Depression

But Baldwin was not taken in by his newfound happiness. He knew there was violence in Paris, too. “I would probably have lost morale if I had made the mistake of thinking Paris was the most civilized city in the world,” he said. “I had read too much about the French Revolution, and too much by Balzac, to delude myself.” The French also harbored a number of prejudices about African-Americans, and Baldwin was regularly confronted with this discrimination. “They think that all the blacks come over from America with trumpets in hand, and that they bear such painful scars that every honor in the French Republic could not heal them.”

Baldwin also understood, through his interactions with people from colonized countries, that racism was very present in France. He discovered the demands and expectations of Africans in France, and logically compared his own condition with theirs. He wrote: “Africans have not been alienated from their own people and their past. Africans’ mothers never sang ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’” (a traditional negro spiritual composed in the United States before the abolition of slavery). Faced with this deformed reflection of himself, Baldwin asserted his own identity as a black, American man, and decided to take back his history.

Baldwin often suffered from homesickness. “At the time, there were no donuts, Coca-Cola or Martini Dry in France,” he said. “Hotels had seemingly never heard of heating, hot baths or eggs and bacon.” Accompanied by his partner in crime at the time, journalist Gidske Anderson, he decided to travel to Tangier, in Marocco, in hope of finding inspiration for his next short story. Upon arriving in Marseille, the two friends missed their connecting boat. They ended up settling in Aix-en-Provence, where Baldwin was hospitalized with a salivary gland infection. He returned to Paris, depressed and in recovery. 

He moved into the Grand Hôtel du Bac, near the Bon Marché department store, which was run by a man who “looked as though daylight would have killed him.” It was in this hotel that Baldwin received a young American man, which placed him in a delicate situation. The American was a guest in a neighboring hotel, and presented Baldwin with a set of stolen sheets. Falsely accused of theft, Baldwin was imprisoned for a week, and was only released thanks to the fact he was an American citizen. But upon returning to the hotel, he was greeted with an incredibly expensive check. Unable to cope, he attempted to kill himself. Changing his mind at the last minute, he fled to Switzerland with his friend and lover, the painter Lucien Happersberger.

Once in Switzerland, Baldwin began writing. He came down from his mountaintop village of Leukerbad on February 26, 1952, to post the manuscript for his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Several months later he received a letter from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, who was interested and wished to meet. Baldwin borrowed the money he needed to travel from his friend Marlon Brando while he was in Paris. He spent several months in New York, and left with a signed contract and a 1,000 dollar advance for his next book.

The Violence of America, the Calm of Saint-Paul

After signing his contract with Knopf, Baldwin’s life was made up of various trips. He spent long periods of time in Paris, where he wrote his second novel, Giovanni’s Room. He stayed several times in Clamart, southwest of the French capital, where he was reunited with his muse, African-American painter Beauford Delaney. While in the town of L’Ile-Rousse in Corsica, and in a state of severe depression, he attempted to finish writing his novel, Another Country.

While he never returned definitively, Baldwin spent an increasing amount of time in the United States. From 1960 onwards he also became a major player in the civil rights movement. Fighting alongside Martin Luther King, he often gave speeches and offered social commentary on the struggle in the press. While at the American Church of Paris in August 1963, he launched a petition for the release of Martin Luther King, which was signed by several celebrities, including actor Anthony Quinn. Led by the writer, a procession brought the document to the United States embassy. During the 1970s, Baldwin and French novelist Jean Genet helped to organize a group in support of the Soledad Brothers, who had been accused of killing a white prison guard. Baldwin also discussed the actions and positions taken by the Black Panther Party during numerous debates.

Faced with the turmoil that accompanied his political activism, Baldwin found peace in the village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the countryside near Nice. While there, he found friends in the guests of the hotel La Colombe d’Or, who included writer Marguerite Yourcenar, singer Yves Montand, with whom he played pétanque, and actress Simone Signoret. The latter convinced him to rent a farmhouse with sea views in the area. Baldwin lived there intermittently, wrote his novel Just Above My Head, and cultivated friendships with the landlady and the cook, whose pot-au-feu and Provençal stews delighted his guests. When he was nominated for the Légion d’honneur medal, the two women even accompanied him up to Paris.

Back in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Baldwin’s prestigious guest list grew ever longer, including Miles Davis, Toni Morrison, Bill Cosby, Nina Simone, Sidney Poitier, and Ray Charles. The farmhouse was modestly decorated, but everything was linked to America, such as photos and paintings of Harlem. As an exiled man, Baldwin never forgot his native land. The “lucidity of distance,” he thought. He passed away in Saint-Paul-de-Vence on December 1, 1987, after a battle with esophageal cancer, and his funeral was held in Harlem.


Article published in the March 2017 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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