Not long ago I read Conversations with Chester Himes, and confess I noted down a few places to visit in Paris, notably the Café Tournon, where he would often meet up with Richard Wright and/or James Baldwin and Ollie Harrington among others.
Little did I know (and writing this brief blog has become a lengthier experience than expected):
the Tournon is largely considered the place where the St.-Germain neighborhood jazz scene got its start, providing the stage where Duke Ellington made his Parisian debut.
—James Baldwin’s Paris, The New York Times
How cool is that? Yet there is no mention of any of that when you get there, only a note in the menu that in this building resided Joseph Roth — a good guy, a good writer, but c’mon, Himes, Baldwin, Wright AND Duke Ellington?
They might well have pulled up to a spread like this one (gorgeous, if a little big for one — that was a serious mistake. And I confess my aversion to pâté, which seems to me to need some serious spicing up):
I imagined them enjoying the summer sun from safely in the shade.
Of course, there were other key places of African-American refuge here like the more famous café Les Deau Magots, whose upstairs room saw James Baldwin writing much of Go Tell it on the Mountain. We didn’t manage to get there in the end, or the equally famous Café de Flore opposite, as I had them marked down as second tier, the more tourist-trap kinds of places — favourites of Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and the ubiquitous Hemingway. Thus full of a different kind of literary tourist.
Baldwin’s article, ‘The Lost Generation’, published in Esquire in 1961, has some pretty brilliant descriptions of Paris — and why so many Black writers went there after the Second World War as a matter of life and writing and death:
it is from the time of my friend’s death that I resolved to leave America. There were two reasons for this. One was that I was absolutely certain, from the moment I learned of his death, that I, too, if I stayed here, would come to a similar end…From the time of this death, I began to be afraid of enduring any more. I was afraid that hatred, and the desire for revenge would reach unmanageable proportions in me, and that my end, even if I should not physically die, would be infinitely more horrible than my friend’s suicide.
This is hard to believe now, a good reminder of those luxuries we so take for granted now:
Paris, from across the ocean, looked like a refuge from the American madness; now it was a city four thousand miles from home. It contained-in those days-no doughnuts, no milk shakes, no Coca-Cola, no dry Martinis; nothing resembling, for people on our economic level, an American toilet; as for toilet paper, it was yesterday’s newspaper. The concierge of the hotel did not appear to find your presence in France a reason for.rejoicing; rather, she found your presence, and in particular your ability to pay the rent, a matter for the profoundest suspicion. The policemen, with their revolvers, clubs, and ( as it turned out) weighted capes, appeared to be convinced of your legality only after the most vindictive scrutiny of your passport; and it became· clear very soon that they were not kidding about the three-month period during which every foreigner had to buy a new visa or leave the country. Not a few astounded Americans, unable to call their embassy, spent the night in jail, and steady offenders were escorted to the border. After the first street riot, or its aftermath, one witnessed in Paris, one took a new attitude toward the Paris paving stones, and toward the cafe tables and chairs, and toward the Parisians, indeed, who showed no signs, at such moments, of being among the earth’s most cerebral or civilized people. Paris hotels had never heard of central heating or hot baths or showers or clean towels and sheets or ham and eggs; their attitude toward electricity was demonic-once one had seen what they thought of as wiring one wondered why the city had not, long ago, vanished in flame; and it soon became clear that Paris hospitals had never heard of Pasteur. Once, in short, one found oneself divested of all the things that one had fled from, one wondered how people, meaning, above all, oneself, could possibly do without them.
This is still true, of London at least:
One soon ceased expecting to be warm in one’s hotel room, and read and worked in the cafes.
Yet the distinction from America is stark:
In my own case, I think my exile saved my life, for it inexorably confirmed something which Americans appear to have great difficulty accepting. Which is, simply, this: a man is not a man until he’s able and willing to accept his own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others.
What Europe still gives an American–or gave us–is the sanction, if one can accept it, to become oneself. No artist can survive without this acceptance. But rare indeed is the American artist who achieved this without first becoming a wanderer, and then, upon his return to his own country, the loneliest and most blackly distrusted of men.
Himes had written:
Here a Negro becomes a human being. There’s nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There’s nothing unnatural. (127)
France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don’t think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)
We passed by the street where he once lived:
Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas. (Francois Bott, 1964)
Pretty sweet, especially when it also contained Melvin van Peebles. Himes would move on to Valencia, in Spain, but Richard Wright stayed and died here in Paris.
I haven’t yet hunted down any words of what this city meant to him. For the next trip perhaps.
It is curious to put this freedom found by American Blacks alongside the lack of freedom experienced by members of French Colonies — particularly Arabs, particularly Algerians during this period. But I will save that discussion for elsewhere. In its place just a reminder of France’s own history of race, slavery and colonialism:
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