Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Memoriam: James Baldwin's Paris

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James Arthur Baldwin
(August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987)
1982 © MDCArchives

James Baldwin and Richard Wright were the two most famous African-American expatriates to have lived in Paris in the post-World War II era. Though they both critically examined social issues in the U.S. and abroad from France, their lives in the French capital were quite dissimilar. Wright was a central figure in the African-American community in Paris, while Baldwin was peripheral to it. Wright achieved fame prior to moving to Paris while Baldwin did so afterward. Wright became increasingly cynical and embittered during his years in Paris, while Baldwin evolved as a writer and a man in embracing aspects of his nationality and sexuality that eluded him in America. And while Wright maintained a self-imposed exile from the U.S. during the civil rights era, Baldwin returned home to experience firsthand those turbulent times and to chronicle them.

Baldwin moved to Paris in the winter of 1948 at the age of 24. Never swayed by the myth of a colorblind France that attracted many African-American expatriates of that time, his life and his writing were profoundly influenced by his experiences there nonetheless. Upon his arrival, he spoke almost no French and had few friends and very little money. His first acquaintances (besides Wright) were white American students and artists. He befriended African students and frequented Arab cafés before he enlarged his circle of African-American acquaintances and wrote essays invoking these encounters to earn money to support both himself and his New York family. He reworked his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), in the upper room of the Café de Flore – one of Paris’ most famous literary cafés. And he transformed the ground floor apartment of a French friend into the suffocating abode that he describes in Giovanni’s Room (1956).

Café de Flore
© Discover Paris!

Wright’s Café Tournon crowd overlapped little with Baldwin’s entourage. Baldwin’s friends included painter Beauford Delaney, composer Howard Swanson, dancer Bernard Hassell, and writer Ernest Charles “Dixie” Nimmo. Their favorite nightspots were the Montana on rue Saint-Benoît, Gordon Heath’s L’Abbaye on rue Jacob, and Inez Cavanaugh’s Chez Inez on rue Champollion.

Invitation Card for Gordon Heath’s L’Abbaye

Another preferred spot was Johnny Romero’s Les Nuages on rue Bernard Palissy in Saint Germain des Prés.

Beauford Delaney (left), James Baldwin, Johnny Romero (center), and friend
at Les Nuages
© Discover Paris!

Baldwin’s coverage of the 1st Congress of Black Writers and Artists for Encounter magazine in 1956 was a watershed moment in his career – it inspired him to return to the U.S. to contribute to the struggle for racial equality. He became a passionate and eloquent spokesperson for the movement, roused by the injustices that he witnessed firsthand in his travels throughout the South. He brought this passion back to France, staging a march on the American Embassy in Paris in support of the March on Washington just one week prior to Dr. King’s historic event. He filled the void created by Richard Wright’s untimely demise, achieving renown as the leading African American that the French press sought out for comment on racial issues around the world.

Though Baldwin was often critical of the French in his prose, he frequently depicted their land – and particularly their capital – romantically in his fiction. Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962), and Just above My Head (1979) among other works, all feature Paris as a setting. Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Montparnasse, and Les Halles figured prominently in Baldwin’s own life, so it is not surprising that many of his characters find themselves in these localities as they grapple with the issues Baldwin gave them to resolve.

Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and Just above My Head are perhaps the best tributes that Baldwin left to the City of Light.


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Romero's nephew said...

Johnny Romero was my uncle. I also lived in Paris after US Army and hung out with most of the people in this story. Les Nuages (the clouds) was a great place to meet people like Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, MalcomX (he didn't drink) and a lot of European actors. Johnny let me live in his studio for a while. I faked playing piano well enough to eke out a living. I live in California now but truly miss Johnny,

About Beauford Delaney said...

Romero's nephew,

Thanks so much for posting here and on the Paris Reflections article! What wonderful memories you must have of mixing and mingling with the likes of Sidney Poitier and Malcolm X!

I'd love to interview you for the blog. If you'd be interested, please send an e-mail message to me at info(at)discoverparis(dot)net.


Rob Ussery said...

Baldwin's sojourn in Paris still fires the imagination in so many ways. I love that account of his brief period in Paris jail in December of '49? Equal in Paris.

It's one of the best renderings I've ever seen. Look forward to hearing more.

Unknown said...

Ernest Charles Nimmo was my great uncle, its nice to find a little insight into what he did and the people he knew