Why Paris? Reason #3
“There is such an absence of race hatred that it seems a little unreal..”
So Richard Wright wrote to his editor back in New York shortly after arriving in Paris for the first time, in 1946, echoing the sentiment of near-disbelief that had been expressed by James Weldon Johnson describing his arrival in Paris back in 1912. “From the day I set foot in France, I became aware of the working of a miracle in me…” Johnson had written. “I recaptured for the first time since childhood the sense of being just a human being…I was suddenly free…from special scorn, special tolerance, special condescension, special commiseration; free to be merely a man.”
Of course that was just Wright’s first impression, and one with which James Baldwin would have begged to disagree (and it would not be the only time he begged to disagree with Wright).
Baldwin pointed out that the French were perfectly capable of practicing racial hatred, but that they did so mostly with other ethnic groups. And he spoke out on behalf of Algerians in Paris in the way that only Baldwin can–with a combination of righteous rage and incandescent brilliance that stuns the reader with its irrefutable logic and its undeniable and deeply humane compassion.
But he also acknowledged that his time in Paris had freed him from the shackles that were holding him back both artistically and in terms of simple humanity.
He appreciated the way his time in Paris had changed his perspective on what it meant to him to be an American. “Once I was able to accept my role–as distinguished from my ‘place’–in the extraordinary drama which is America, I was released from the illusion that I hated America,” he wrote.
Most of all he was grateful for the way his time in Paris validated him as an artist. “The American writer, in Europe, is released, first of all from the necessity of apologizing for himself,” he said, and added, “The American writer in Europe [may] feel–almost certainly for the first time in his life–that he can reach out to everyone, that he is accessible to everyone and open to everything…in Paris I began to see the sky for what seemed to be the first time. It was borne in on me…that this sky had been there before I was born and would be there when I was dead. And it was up to me, therefore, to make the most of my brief opportunity the most that could be made.”
In more recent times Janet McDonald–Brooklynite, lawyer, author of Project Girl and other books–first studied abroad and later made her home in Paris. She too wrote about how Paris had given her the environment she needed in which to thrive both as an artist and as a human being. “The expatriate life is a voyage that has taken me home, a place whose locus is not geographic but visceral,” she wrote in her essay “X-Patriate,” published in David Applefield’s Frank: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art. “Paris brought me home to myself, and this I live daily as an inner experience of liberation and joy.” McDonald did not regard her adopted home as a paradise on earth any more than Baldwin had. She was well aware of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the French, and she stressed that what is most important about “the expatriate’s freedom is that it gives us all the possibility of discovery–of ourselves and of one another, and this applies to the ex-pat in any foreign country.”
However she added, “But I did not choose just any foreign country. I chose France, a place of magic so renowned it has become cliche but is nonetheless true. I was born in Brooklyn and came to life in France,” a sentiment that has been experienced by Americans of all ethnic backgrounds–as well as people from around the world.
We’ll explore other reasons for loving Paris soon. Stay tuned, and a bientot!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.
Entry filed under: About Paris. Tags: African-American writers in Paris, American identity, American writers in Paris, David Applefield, France, James Baldwin, James Weldon Johnson, Janet McDonald, Paris, Richard Wright, travel literature.