the mother-daughter "nerdventure" to James Baldwin's village in the South of France
like so many other African Americans who come to Paris, i’ve been chasing James Baldwin. i’ve been on a mission to read all of his books in order. earlier this year, i read the first section of his first novel, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” in the very café where he reworked it over 50 years ago.
Baldwin wrote about the intricacies of America’s racial problem. but even in the Paris, with its reputation of love and light, and later in the South of France, where people presumed he lived in exile among beautiful orange trees and beaches, he never forgot his lived history of being a black man in this world. he was keenly aware of what he labeled as a “civil war” between whites and blacks back in the states, but also how France treated its own people of color.
this is the legacy of what it means to be a conscious black traveler: you will never have the same privileges to "forget" and "relax" fully.
sure, Baldwin enjoyed privileges as an American in France he never could have back in Harlem, and as a creative, that is important. but, he did return to the states during the Civil Rights movement to “pay his dues” and work on “The Fire this Time,” a collection of essays designed to explain black life and identity in America during the 60s.
ultimately, perhaps with much more weight upon his narrow shoulders, he returned to France in 1970 to live in Saint-Paul-de-Vence for the rest of his life after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, MLK, and Malcolm X. among some of his most famous guests were Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitiers, Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Miles Davis and Ray Charles.
interview between Robert Chrisman, founder of The Black Scholar and Baldwin for the December 1973 edition:
Chrisman: “Brother Baldwin, how do you see yourself as a black man here in the ‘sunny hills of southern France’ and your relationship to black people who are struggling all over the world against racism and exploitation?”
Baldwin: “The south of France is not as sunny as people think it is...
Baldwin (cont'd)"...You have to remember, first of all, that the world is very small, and it is no longer possible for an American, certainly not an American black man, or an American black writer, and certainly not James Baldwin, to leave America.
"...The important thing is the work. The world’s judgment is something I have to live with. I learned how to do that a long time ago. In the meantime, I’m working. I can’t do more than that and I am not in exile and I am not in paradise. It rains down here too.”
my mother and i were eager to get a glimpse of the grounds where Baldwin once existed before the plot of land gets turned into condominiums as projected.
we arrived only to find an active construction site at his home, which rests at the base of a presumably wealthy village--only expensive restaurants and galleries to be found. a tangible aspect of Baldwin's legacy being destroyed for condos.
"The thought that one of the most gifted and munificently alive writers of the twentieth century, the quintessential black American in France, would soon be rid of his only geographical footprint, that his only genuine home—like those of so many nameless black families who never get to pass on a legacy—would now be wiped away, struck me as unbearably sad."
-Thomas Chatterton Williams for The New Yorker
“Well. Since we live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal, I have been making as much noise as I can, here in Europe”
-James Baldwin's Letter to Angela Y.Davis
my mother and I slinked past the construction workers, who looked on but kept working. we’d come too far, literally and figuratively, to not make noise and be disruptive. we read aloud the James Baldwin article, "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?", written in this town and perhaps on those very grounds.
"The love and the laughter come from the same place: but not many people go there”
- James Baldwin, "If Beale Street Could Talk"
traveling across France will be one of the most coveted memories of my 20s. i tailored this trip just for us--not everyone would get a thrill out of relaxing and doing little more than basking in the opportunity to occupy the same grounds one of the greatest literary minds.
“Love forces, at last, this humility: you cannot love if you cannot be loved, you cannot see if you cannot be seen.”
- James Baldwin,"Just Above My Head"
traveling for the sake of existing in a historical space is absolutely is near the top of my favorite reasons to travel. i left the South of France knowing i'd traveled the same path Baldwin had and that's better than any tangible souvenir.
if you're able, travel with your parents! as i've gotten older, my mother has become more of a friend. it's amazing to now be able to take her around and plan trips for us, as she used to do the same for me when i was little. cheers to the role reversal!
joy--this is really the ultimate travel destination. i had such an amazing time in this place with my mother, and i would do our adventure again in a heartbeat. but i felt an overwhelm of anxiety the entire time--something i'm working to control. this inspired a post about traveling with anxiety. check it out here.