French Like Me (Part 7)
The high school wasn’t mine but I still felt nostalgic. The cafeteria, the auditorium, the gym and, finally, the library of Clinton High School up in the northwest Bronx weren’t that different from what I remembered of my own Truman High on the borough’s northeast side. I speed-walked through the halls of Clinton sweating in my grey suit from the heat, searching the five-story building for an event celebrating one of its most famous graduates, the late James Baldwin.
Being an African-American man interested in the ins and outs of black French culture, I couldn’t escape Baldwin if I wanted to, and I didn’t want to. I read through all of his essays and novels in toto back when I was finding my voice, like scores of other young black writers. His command of words and intellectual reasoning always left me in the dust, an elusive standard to chase, knowing all the while I’d never catch up. Days ago I was assigned to review a book of correspondence letters between Baldwin and his old editor Sol Stein; the two had also been teenage classmates at Clinton. The publisher invited me to this lecture featuring Stein and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. with some of the Baldwin family expected to show, on the eightieth anniversary of his birthday. And I was late.
C-SPAN cameramen were already filming from the back of the library when I got there. Dr. Gates stood at the podium addressing the few dozen people seated in foldout chairs, giant placards of book covers erected in the background—Nobody Knows My Name, Notes of a Native Son. I skimmed these recently, looking for Baldwin’s thoughts on blacks in Paris, reading them during late-night downtime at the firm.
Baldwin left Harlem in 1948 and lived in Paris for eight years, setting a few of his novels there and becoming the most well-known black American expatriate, except for maybe Josephine Baker. Black Americans in Paris were deliberately isolated from each other, he said, because they didn’t want to be reminded of what they left behind. The French Africans, on the other hand, were empowered by sticking together because of their common culture and a shared longing for the emancipation of their countries. (Baldwin wrote all this years before most of French-colonized Africa won independence.) If what Baldwin said back then was still true, my two weeks with Christine were hardly enough for me to have any idea. From what I saw, Africans had assimilated into the French way of life a whole lot more.
I found a seat in the last row. The audience was already laughing at something Gates said as he launched into a story about interviewing Josephine Baker twenty-nine summers ago on Baldwin’s ten acres of land in the south of France.
“I was twenty-two years old, a London-based correspondent for Time magazine, and I felt like a mortal invited to dine at Mount Olympus,” Gates began, reading from notes. His Baldwin postage stamp lapel pin caught glints of light as he spoke. “My story for which Time magazine had agreed to fund my trip was to be on the black expatriates in Europe. And one of my principal subjects was James Baldwin. Another one was Josephine Baker, who, being a scenarist to her very heart, put one condition on her meeting with me. I was to arrange her reunion with James Baldwin, whom she hadn’t seen since she left France many years before to live in Monte Carlo.
“Now I don’t know what she made of me, with my gold-rimmed, cool-blue sunglasses, and my bodacious two-foot-high Afro. You know Cornel West’s Afro? Cornel West’s Afro looks like a crew cut next to my Afro! I looked like a ball of black cotton candy walking down the street. It was combed out, I had my Afro Sheen on it, it was smokin’, boy. But I was received like a dignitary of a foreign land who might just well be a long-lost son.
“So we set out in my rented Peugeot bearing precious cargo from Monte Carlo to Saint-Paul de Vence in Provence, going to chez Baldwin. But in case I was in any danger of forgetting that Josephine Baker, a living legend, was my passenger, Baker’s fans mobbed my car every time we stopped at a traffic light. Invariably she responded with elaborate grace, partly playing the star who expects to be adored, partly the aging performer who is simply grateful to be recognized.
“When Jimmy chose Saint-Paul de Vence for his home, it was a quiet village surrounding the tiny, ancient walled city in the alpine foothills that rise from the Mediterranean Sea. His house, which is still there and still owned by the family, is situated among shoulder-high rosemary hedges, acres of peach and almond orchards and fields of wild asparagus and strawberries and grape arbors. And it was under one such grape arbor at one of the long harvest tables out in the garden that we dined that night. The line from an old gospel song, a line Baldwin had quoted toward the end of his then latest novel, inevitably suggested itself to me: ‘I am going to feast at the welcome table.’ And feast, ladies and gentlemen, we did.
“At that long welcome table under the arbor, the wine flowed, the food was served and taken away, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker traded stories. They gossiped about everyone they knew and many people they didn’t know, and they recalled the details of their marvelous lives. They had both been hurt and disillusioned in the United States and had chosen rather to live in France. They never forgot or forgave. At the table that long warm night, they recollected the events that led to their decisions to leave the country of their birth, and the consequences of these decisions: the difficulty of living apart from home and family, of always feeling apart in their chosen homes, and of the pleasure of choosing a new life, the possibilities of the untried. A sense of nostalgia pervaded that evening. For all their misgivings, they shared a sense, curiously, of being on the winning side of history.”
Soon the floor was opened for questions. A familiar face from college stepped to the microphone: Trevor Baldwin, son of Wilmer Baldwin, the brother of James. Down at Morehouse, I halfway expected Baldwin’s nephew to be cut buddies with classmates Ennis Cosby and Thomas Giovanni (the sons of Bill Cosby and Nikki Giovanni), but I’m sure they weren’t. Trevor acknowledged his parents in the audience, then asked Gates to share a candid story about his celebrated uncle. I approached afterwards with a preview copy of my book in hand.
“Hello, my name is Miles Marshall Lewis— ”
“Hello Miles,” Dr. Gates said.
“How you doing? I’m a writer, actually, I have a bound galley of my first book and it’s coming out in September.” The audience clapped. I got the sense they thought I was much younger, and just happy to applaud a dredlocked young brother who didn’t aspire to be an MC.
“This is your moment on TV! What’s your book called?”
I told him, explaining that Baldwin partially inspired my essay collection.
“Thank you. And incidentally, I’ve relocated to France also—”
Wry laughter filled the library. They might have thought I was joking.
“Well, you need a place to stay, go down to Saint-Paul, man.” More laughs.
I asked my question (something about the humor in Baldwin’s essays), Gates granted a scholarly answer, and before long the C-SPAN cameras stopped rolling. Flipping channels at Dad’s place months later, I caught the whole telecast on Book TV. People got up and slowly gathered around Gates and Sol Stein, as well as Wilmer Baldwin and Paula Whaley, two of James’s eight siblings. I sought out Paula, a Baltimore-based doll designer, right away, showing her a Baldwin quote in my book.
Having placed myself inside the drama of the event just by asking my question, I was approached by a few well-wishing folk also. I spoke briefly with Trevor, and Carol, a woman I met years ago at a writer retreat. The last person in the small group surrounding me was a coffee-complexioned woman in a clingy T-shirt wearing a kinky curly Afro. She nervously introduced herself as Alva, a recent American exile in Paris. Alva told me her grandmother had a bit part in director Melvin Van Peebles’s La Permission, an interracial romance between an American soldier and a Parisian shop clerk. She lived in Paris as a child, with James Baldwin somewhat of a family friend, and her intention was to direct a documentary about her late grandma’s own interracial marriage in 1960s France. We traded cards while students folded up chairs around us. Time would tell that I’d traveled all the way back to my hometown to make my first friend in Paris.