Jamiya Leach: James Baldwin, Reading and Writing in Paris

In an attempt to live, James Baldwin left Harlem for Paris in 1948. He knew the reality of staying in this violent country would result in him taking his own life, or be killed by those who were taught to hate him. Thanks to the Lang Opportunity Award, I travelled to Paris this summer to study the work and life of Baldwin. I imagined reading Giovanni’s Room in the jardin du Luxembourg and drinking wine under the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t anticipate the heaviness in my chest after every class session, how the language of Baldwin would implicate me in every text, in very way I allowed myself to move throughout the city. 

One of the first essays my professor assigned was “A Question of Identity” in the collection Notes of a Native Son. Balwin discusses the American student in Paris and the lens we prepare for ourselves while going abroad. I was very much wrapped in the illusion of Paris and what I wanted the world to see while I was there. I carefully thought out my instagram posts, wanting to capture the food, the architecture, and museums. This veil soon began to drag the longer I stayed and the more I understood what my being there meant. 

There are many Africans living in Paris who came from West and Northern Africa. As a dark-skinned woman, many Parisians assumed I was Africn as well until I opened my mouth. As a black woman from the states, the discrimation I might have faced would be different from my African kinfolk. They were viewed as unwanted immigrants and I was merely a tourist. Everywhere I went, they continually asked me where I was from. Once at a coffee shop, a barista tried to jokingly refuse to give me my coffee until I told her my ethnicity. She went on naming them (Domincan, Haitian, Senegalese, etc) like all of a sudden I would say, “Yeah, that one.” This illusion of other countries doesn’t only exist in with American people, but also with the Parisians when I told them I was from New York. They went on and on about how much they loved the city, but didn’t utter one word about the current state of our nation. Except for Trump. Everyone hates Trump. Baldwin taught me that it is our job to wake up, to look at the reality of where we are and how we are complacent within it. 

Each day, I began to understand how crucial it was to read James Baldwin at this point in time where families are being separated, children are locked in cages, and everyone wants to point fingers as to who is responsible and those who want no part in it, having the privilege to disengage all together. In an interview with Kenneth Clark in 1963, Baldwin stated: 

“I am terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters.” 

I believe what Baldwin is getting at is the role each of us plays within our society and what it will take for everyone to sit with the monsters within ourselves. Only then will we have real action for change. I feel very much implicated in Baldwin’s work because there is a distance I sometimes create with myself and what’s going on in the world. By not engaging with these things, we risk the violence of allowing for these injustices to continue. I had to learn that it’s not about proving to someone that you are human, but rather that there is something terribly wrong with someone who doesn’t see me as such. 

James Baldwin returned to the US during the Civil Rights Movement. He felt that by him staying away, he was doing a disservice to his community, to Harlem, to his brothers and sisters and friends who were dealing with a white supremecist America. As a writer, he believed it was his job to be a witness to all that was going on. It finally clicked inside me, that all the years of not knowing what to say or do, that finally I understood that I need to be a witness to what is happening in the world today. I don’t mean a bystander who allows for these things to happen around them, but someone who shares the stories of those affected, who tells the world the truth and lets it be known that the world is watching, and that we must all bear witness because it is the only way to survive.

For my project, I was tasked with writing a piece in response to my experience in Paris and with Baldwin. I thought a lot about the idea of home and the homes we build away from our own. Unexpectedly, this was a heavy task for me, as I was going through many relocations in my own life and wasn’t sure where my home exactly was. My classmates on this journey were caring and helpful. They became a new home for me and I am grateful for every moment I got to share with them. This piece I wrote was a way of thanking them, my professor, and Baldwin for all the hope they’ve give me.

Baldwin Essay here.

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