On a recent trip to Paris, I felt compelled to trace the footsteps of the novelist James Baldwin. I wanted to walk where Baldwin walked on the Left Bank of that great city. To see Café de Flore, where he bussed tables and wrote in his spare time. I wanted to see Rue de Verneuil where he rested his tired body and the various Cafés like the Brasserie Lipp and Jazz clubs like Le Montana where he restored his soul.
Like so many African American writers and artists during the middle decades of the twentieth century, Baldwin left the United States for Europe, weary of America’s pervasive racism and heartbroken about its reign of terror on black bodies. He would say that all he remembered of his life in America was “terror” – a terror that simultaneously must be and cannot be remembered.
In 1948 when Baldwin arrived in Paris, the St. Germain-des-Pres area had since the 1930s been a thriving community of artists, actors, philosophers, intellectuals, and writers, as well as a major hub for the expatriate community. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior were there. Albert Camus was there. And Richard Wright was there. Baldwin took to it like water to parched earth and in a very real sense never returned to the country of his birth.
It was significant that I took my journey through Baldwin’s Paris in light of the murders by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, St. Louis; Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; and John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio. (With the memory of Travon Martin still lingering in our national consciousness.) These murders helped me understand Baldwin’s choice. I think I now understand why he left the USA. More importantly, I understand why he stayed away. He left in protest and disgust. He stayed away in order to feel safe from injustice and harm. The year 1948 was a dangerous time to be black, but the painful truth is that 2014 is no different and quite possibly worse. (plus-ça-change) It is just as dangerous if not more so to be a black male now as it was during the Truman administration. There were only 2 known lynching in 1948 (as compared to 8 a decade before) and Truman became the first American president to ever take serious action against mob violence. As it was in 1948, so it is in 2014. A black male body is simply not safe in the USA.
So, Baldwin left.
His primary purpose for leaving America was to finish his now-classic novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, the story of another “leaving” of sorts. Having grown up in a fundamentalist black church, Baldwin wrote the novel to “exorcise,” as it were, the demons of his past and as a critique of fundamentalist black church culture. A call to ministry quickly followed his dramatic conversion at age 14 and he became a “child preacher” at Mother Horn’s Pentecostal Assembly in Harlem. By age 17, however, Baldwin had concluded that his church and most others in the USA were loveless monuments to indifference and that they conspired against the most basic of human impulses. They conspired against life itself. In the voice of John, his semi-autobiographical main character, Baldwin proclaims, “There was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair . . . . When we were told to love everybody, I had thought they meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did.” So Baldwin left the church (without ever being free of its influence on his craft) for the life of the mind and of the heart.
This being the 90th year of Baldwin’s birth, there has been a revival of interest in reading his novels to match to the robust scholarship on his work that has never waned. There could be no better place to start than with Go Tell it on the Mountain. Not only does Baldwin show unquestionably his facility for deep theological thinking in this novel, in it he also pairs his critique of a government that terrorizes black life with a critique of an American church that has largely been powerless to withstand the force of that tyranny. For that reason, it is perhaps his most important book.
In a time when black life is seemingly decreasing in value, James Baldwin beckons us. He beckons us to embrace our humanity and each other in true society. For black Americans, perhaps particularly black males, his call is to recognize – and per chance to manage – the rage. He knew all-too-well that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” For white Americans he simply calls for some acknowledgement on their part that they “are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” A government should prioritize its people over all else, and churches should think more about what they “believe in” than their “beliefs.” And for all of us, perhaps it is time we reexamine our “gods” and our concept of God. The most daring statement Baldwin ever made about God and the church is still his most prescient and remains his most relevant. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can not do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
Few other black American writers saw this country so clearly for what it is and for what it could be. Only in leaving it for Paris could Baldwin’s voice truly be heard. We need that voice now. Now more than ever.