This semester, we have been able to take a close look at how James Baldwin exposes and challenges the standing mythologies/delusions that literally and figuratively entrap the American people from justice. He challenges Richard Wright’s notion of a nation’s “native son”. He pushes back against the doctrines and practices of American Protestantism in Go Tell It on The Mountain and “Down at the Cross”. He revises the hegemonic image of an “American” through his exploration of the rich WASP character David’s queerness in Giovanni’s Room. And we can see through his engagement with the civil rights movements that he works to challenge the white supremacist historical narrative that propagates AntiBlackness and rewards whiteness. Baldwin does so much work to expose the United States’ iniquities and to call for radical change…so why leave for Paris?
Now, we’ve already talked about this a bit in class, and of course the simple answer is that Baldwin is just human. He is not meant to serve as a martyr for our liberation or out literary exploration. But it is certainly surprising that Baldwin would flee a nation to which he seemed called to bear witness, and for which he hoped to inspire positive change. I’ve sat and thought about this with some peers, and I see two possible ways to understand Baldwin’s move to Paris (in the context of the works that we have read this semester; of course there is so much more to his story than these…)
We can understand his emigration from the US as either Baldwin falling victim to a mythology that other nations in the “Old World” are free from the social consequences of imperialism and slavery. Or maybe…we can understand his emigration as the ultimate surrender to this nation’s fate: doom. I wonder if Baldwin felt that the nation could actually, feasibly, find redemption. I don’t know if I can say I can. After all the intellectual work that Baldwin has done, the issues he wrote of are still real and relevant today! So what do we do? Maybe, we go to Paris?