For the entire month of June, I travelled to Paris with 13 other classmates to read and discuss the work of novelist and cultural critic James Baldwin. We analyzed his fiction as well as his nonfiction and looked at works related to Baldwin’s such as Bob Swaim’s film Lumières Noire (2016), Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2016), and Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (1940). We also had the privilege to hear from guest speakers such as Maxine Gordon, Jake Lamar, and even Baldwin’s nephew Tejan Karefa-Smart, all of whom have a great knowledge of Baldwin, writing in general, and African American lives in America. At one point in the trip we enjoyed a walking tour of notable spots for Baldwin and writers alike, which ended at Baldwin’s favorite restaurant, Cafe de Flore. Possibly my favorite part was when we visited the “Le modèle noir” exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, which showcased artists such as Matisse and Gericault and explored how black models have been historically portrayed in European art. After deeply studying not only Baldwin’s writings, but also his life and philosophies, I wrote a creative piece which concerned itself with internalized trauma and rage, a common theme in Baldwin’s work. Through all of these aspects of the program, we were exposed to the black experience in America as well as Paris, addressing the different ways in which racism manifests and how it affects the culture and the people.
Initially heading into Paris to study the teachings and writings of James Baldwin, I had no idea of the emotional toll our class discussions would have on my psyche. I was eager to read his fiction and delve into his poetic literature, having admired Baldwin’s work since I first learned about him in my high school junior year writing course. I read our first assigned reading, Giovanni’s Room, under the shade in the gardens of the Rodin Museum on my first day in Paris. Revisiting Baldwin’s work for the first time is like visiting an old friend–familiar but ripe with new, hidden secrets. This time, instead of rushing through his work and missing the rich details like I would have in high school, I took my time with each line, reading and rereading, allowing my mind to chew and digest each sentence. The main character in the novel has come to Paris from America in a form of escapism, I couldn’t help but feeling like I could relate.
Upon our discussion on our first day of class I could tell this would be unlike any other writing course I had taken. We weren’t simply grasping at surface interpretations by identifying figures of speech or thematic patterns. The work required an intense awareness as it forces the reader to also regard the political, social, and historical context. We weren’t just observing the brilliance of his work, but really engaging with the literature by confronting our own realities, challenging the safety from which many of us normally function and critically analyzing our own ideologies, fears, and daily struggles. With the help of my professor and through the guidance of peers, our group gained a profound understanding of not only Baldwin and his work, but also of race, sexuality, relationships with home, and our own identities.
I continued to grow outside of campus as well, on the streets of Paris. The city acted as a kind of classroom, as I roamed the city encountering all types of people and having experiences I never would back home. Being from a small beach town in California, moving to New York City had been a huge change and provided a transformation I will always be grateful for. However, there is something about leaving the States that changes you in a much more sincere way. Leaving behind the security of your fluent language, country-wide similarities, and a familiar culture can be daunting, but is so necessary. From outside the context of home, I was able to accurately dissect the social tensions of my country and genuinely reflect on my life in the States. This allowed me to reach a kind of honesty in my writing I had formerly been incapable of.
This Lang study abroad program was invaluable in numerous ways, and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to turn twenty in. In the short amount of time I was there, I met a diverse group of friends, developed a thriving relationship with food, gained a new sense of independence, and discovered a knowledge of things I had yet to consider. I came back to America with a new understanding of this place I call home, an understanding that doesn’t come from living here your entire life, but from leaving it behind and indulging in the unknown.