‘My Dungeon Shook’

It’s been difficult to write about Paris, about how beautiful it is or how much fun I’ve been having, while at the same time watching the news from home. First it was the pool party, where young children were first subject to racial slurs and then to unnecessarily violent arrest for the crime of attending a pool party in an affluent neighborhood. Then of course the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where they still fly the confederate flag over the state capitol even as the community morns the loss of life. It seems like almost every week there’s another violent racist incident in the States.

There’s something very poignant about watching these incidents from afar, while at the same time studying the works of James Baldwin, Richard Wright and other African Americans who moved to France. It’s a bit depressing actually, so much of their writing could have been written yesterday and in response to things that are happening right now. It’s depressing to know that I’m experiencing the same sense of frustration, anger and helplessness that my literary ancestors had back in the ’50’s and ’60’s. To know how little has actually changed since then.

There’s a sense among many of the African American expats here, especially the younger ones that the best course of action is just not to go home. While France does have it’s own issues of injustice, particularly with regards to African and Islamic immigrants, there’s still a certain cache in being American, regardless of your race, that seems to shield you from the worst of it. Certainly in Paris you’re never concerned that a busted tail light might cost you your life.

Still, I’m on the fence about this idea. Perhaps because I come from a family of activists, the idea of just giving up on an entire country just doesn’t sit right. I still have so many loved ones in the states, in particular my little nephew who’s only about 5. Remaining abroad while leaving them in ‘hostile territory’ feels like abandonment somehow. Skipping country seems like giving in to a sense of hopelessness, a sense that the US will never be safe for black people.

I took a class last semester on the playwright Lorraine Hansberry and her contemporaries. We also read a little Baldwin, of course, and I got the chance to re-read his essay ‘My Dungeon Shook’, a letter to his young nephew. There was a line there that struck me as particularly meaningful: “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it,” he said.

It was particularly interesting for me because I knew that Baldwin had been driven from his home. He had left the US at the age of  24 and lived the rest of his life in France, rather than return to the country of his birth. Yet here he was telling his nephew, and other young African Americans not to follow in his footsteps. To fight for their home and not give in to the media representations of who they were, or the violence that they were subjected to. The violence that this community is still subjected to.

I don’t have an answer as to what needs to be done to fix the mess that is American race relations, some days it seems like such a monumental task. I don’t even really have an answer as to what I’m going to do, as far as ultimately living in the states or escaping the madness to live elsewhere. I’m not even sure there is a place to go to have a life free of violence and injustice.

But I do know what kind of life I want for my loved ones: A life where they are not just safe, but happy. A  life where they can attain their dreams and even use said dreams to make the world better for others.

I don’t know how exactly to make this life come about, but I do know that it will take all of us to make it happen.

Je arrive à Paris…

I arrived in Paris on the morning of May 28th and have had the worst case of jet lag ever since. It seems distinctly possible that someone may have turned me into a vampire on the plane, which I suppose is fitting in some funny way.

Most of what I’ve seen of Paris thus far has been at night or in the early morning, but still it’s beautiful. Terribly cliche I know, but it’s something you have to see to believe. There’s simply nothing like it in the States, with the possible exception of my much beloved New Orleans.

photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/83081720@N00/6829403516">Fresh veggies at the market</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>
Fresh veggies at the market.

Anyone who knows me is probably not surprised by that comparison, but what you might be surprised by is that I feel Paris is somehow even more beautiful. Grander, I guess. NOLA on a larger scale. Coming from me, that’s saying something.

The second thing that I’ve been feeling in my first few days is a profound respect for folks who immigrate to a country with little to no knowledge of the language. My French is terrible, much worse than I originally thought, though almost everyone in Paris seems to speak at least a little English so I’ve been able to stumble along thus far.

The younger generation (my age and younger anyway) seem to be totally fluent, not to mention vaguely irritated with my butchering of their language. Which of course has made me even more embarrassed by my inadequate high school French.

We really need to get on the second language bandwagon America…just saying.

It’s a rather isolating experience really, not being able to understand what’s going on around you or make yourself understood to others, particularly as a writer. So much of being a writer is observing and expressing the happenings in the world; not being able to do that adequately is a disconcerting experience, at least for me. Though I suspect it’s a good time for self-reflection. Personally I’m learning how introverted I become when I’m not able to communicate well.

In keeping with the theme of my visit, I’ve been wondering what it would have been like to visit Paris in the ’40’s and ’50’s. Would most everyone have spoken English then as well? Or is that a more recent development? I’m going to hazard a guess that most American expatriates of the time period, particularly African American ones, didn’t speak a word of French when they got here. I wonder how they communicated when they needed to get groceries, or make their way around town.

I wonder if they ever went to the market and stared at the meat counter wondering how many kilos of chicken they needed…

That sense of strangeness, of not quite fitting in, may have been why so many of the expatriate writers of the age hung out together, regardless of race, class and sexuality. There’s something about that kind of isolation that breaks down barriers really quickly, Baldwin even mentions it in his essay Equal in Paris. Folks who might never have even crossed paths back home become close friends overseas, in large part because they share a common sense of being out of their element.

That said…if you’re in Paris and you need some chicken, feel free to stop by my place. Especially if you speak English.

À bientôt

Call for Submissions

The IndieGogo campaign is over but the project is still moving forward!

We’re now looking for writers to contribute to the project. If you’re an African American writer who has lived in Paris for more than a year, please submit to us!

What I’m looking for from writers for the Footsteps of Baldwin Anthology is 500 – 3000 (flexible) words on either:

  • The experience of being African American in Paris, or
  • The impact of expatriate African American artists (especially writers) on you and your work.

These categories are broad intentionally in order to get a wide variety of responses. Some questions to get you going might be: Is France still a mecca for black art? How has Paris influenced your work as a writer? Who has been the most influential expatriate black writer for you? Is/was Paris truly “color-blind”?   Feel free to ignore these and go your own way as well.

The pieces can be fiction, nonfiction or poetry, it’s totally up to you. Also, this is a paid opportunity!

If you’re still interested once you’ve read all this, great! Just email your submission to footstepsofbaldwin at gmail with ‘Submission’ somewhere in the Subject line.

The deadline is August 1st.

What is the Footsteps of Baldwin Anthology Project?

In the 1940’s and ‘50’s there was an exodus of African American writers, artists and thinkers, whose intention was to escape the constraints of a pre-Civil Rights America. Many of them ended up in Paris, where they were able to finally be just themselves. Many of these artists received extensive support and recognition for their work, so much so that we now consider them to be seminal to the African American experience.

There is still a strong expatriate African American presence in Paris to this day. My goal with this project is to meet with artists from this community and talk with them about their reasons for deciding to spend their lives abroad. Are these artists there to follow in the footsteps of their creative forefathers, or are they escaping similar cultural constraints and oppression?

The outcome will be a collection of original works by contemporary African American expatriate artists, and this blog, your multimedia window in the creation process.

Help this project succeeed by visiting our Indiegogo Campaign Page donate, share and spread the word!