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 had eluded him in America. Moreover, while Wright maintained a self-imposed exile from the U.S. during the civil rights period, 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 nonetheless profoundly influenced by his experiences there. His first acquaintances (besides Wright) were white American students and artists. He had befriended African students and frequented Arab cafés before he enlarged his circle of African-American acquaintances.
To support himself and his New York family, Baldwin wrote essays invoking his encounters with these people. 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. Further, he transformed the ground floor apartment of a French friend into the suffocating abode that he describes in Giovanni’s Room (1956).
Wright’s circle of friends 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. Among their favorite nightspots were Gordon Heath’s L’Abbaye on rue Jacob and Inez Cavanaugh’s Chez Inez on rue Champollion.
Baldwin’s coverage of the First 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 spokesperson for the movement and 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, becoming 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 – 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. These narratives are perhaps the best tribute that he left to the City of Light.
“James Baldwin in Paris” is an Entrée to Black Paris walk.
Monique Y. Wells