France is no longer needed
Sean Jacobs | January 20th, 2014


Pratt Institute professor Ellery Washington writing in The New York Times:

In the spring of 1984, during an interview for The Paris Review, a nearly 60-year-old Baldwin was asked why he had chosen to live in France, to which he replied: “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France — it was a matter of getting out of America.” The problem of racism in America was for Baldwin so consuming and, to his mind, deadly that he feared he wouldn’t have survived it if he’d stayed, let alone been able to isolate himself enough to write. And yet upon arriving in France, he had no illusions that Paris was among the “most civilized of cities,” nor did he consider the French among the “least primitive of peoples.” During those early years he stayed in France because, as a black man, he perceived that the ruling-class whites there simply left him alone, unlike those in America, and that’s what allowed him to develop as a writer.

… Baldwin himself pointed out the changes in French feeling toward all minorities after the furious battle of Dien Bien Phu, signaling the loss of colonial Vietnam, and the brutal Algerian war. Over the years this change has grown in step with the influx of blacks and North Africans from France’s former colonies and outer departments, including Guadeloupe and Martinique.

As the French historian Michel Fabre noted in his book “From Harlem to Paris (Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980),” France may have served as “a place of shelter from what Baldwin called, ‘the American madness,’ ” but that time has clearly passed. No longer a haven for American blacks, France is no longer needed.

* The image, from the All Things Baldwin tumblr, is from Baldwin’s extended stay in Turkey between 1961 and 1971.

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Sean Jacobs

Otherwise known as Hasan Wasan.

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