James Baldwin In Paris
As I’ve written, I’ve really enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blogging from his first-ever trip to Paris. Thinking about it again just now, I remembered something I posted from my own stay there last fall, from an essay James Baldwin wrote in 1955 about the shock of discovering, through a run-in with the law, that the French could be just as racist as the Americans, and that dealing with French racism was even more difficult because as a foreigner, he didn’t grasp its contours. Here’s Baldwin:
I had no grasp of the French character either. I considered the French an ancient, intelligent, and cultured race, which indeed they are. I did not know, however, that ancient glories imply, at least in the middle of the present century, present fatigue and, quite probably, paranoia; that there is a limit to the role of intelligence in human affairs; and that no people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it. This price they cannot, of course, assess, but it is revealed in their personalities and in their institutions. The very word “institution,” from my side of the ocean, where, it seemed to me, we suffered so cruelly from the lack of them, had a pleasant ring, as of safety and order and common sense; one had to come into contact with these institutions in order to understand that they were also outmoded, exasperating, completely impersonal, and very often cruel. Similarly, the personality which had seemed from a distance to be so large and free had to be dealt with before one could see that, if it was large, it was also inflexible and, for the foreigner, full of strange, high, dusty rooms which could not be inhabited. One had, in short, to come into contact with an alien culture in order to understand that a culture was not a community basket-weaving project, nor yet an act of God; was something neither desirable nor undesirable in itself, being inevitable, being nothing more or less than the recorded and visible.
You know what I wish some publisher would do? Offer TNC a book deal that would pay for him and his family to live in Paris for six to eight months, and for him to produce a book talking about their experiences, and what it teaches him about being an American, and a black American, in 21st century Paris — and, in turn, back in America. There’s nothing like foreign travel to reveal to you precisely how American you are, and what that means. Anyway, I would buy that book in a heartbeat.