Paris: Safe Haven, but Not Utopia

France has long been considered one of the most romantic and enticing places to visit and live, particularly for African Americans. There has been a long history of African Americans moving to France, and particularly Paris to escape persecution and be seen simply as a person, and not as a Black object. African American artists and writers, in particular, have flocked to Paris as a safe haven to explore their art and escape from segregation. I will briefly describe Richard Wright and James Baldwin’s experiences with France before focusing on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s description of his experience in Between the World and Me.

 

Baldwin Paris Ebony
James Baldwin in Paris (Photo Credit: Ebony Magazine)

Both Richard Wright and James Baldwin refused to accept the standards under which African-Americans were subjected and their writing represents this frustration. They both also fled to France to escape the situation in America. Wright’s well-known love of France is displayed in a brief monologue called his “Love Letter to Paris.” He briefly explains how French culture has created a safe haven for African Americans. “There is no race tension or conflict. Men are not prejudged here on the basis of their skin color and nationality and I have never heard a Frenchman tell anybody to ‘go back where you came from….’ Yes, here in Paris, even men are looked upon as works of art, not as things to be feared and pushed around.” [1] Clearly, Wright found a safe have and new battleground for race issues in Paris, but Baldwin did not share Wright’s romanticized view of the city; he went to France out of necessity. In a 1978 interview for the Paris Review, he explains, saying “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York.” [2] Baldwin went to France to escape racism, but “upon arriving in France, [Baldwin] had no illusions that Paris was among the ‘most civilized of cities,’ nor did he consider the French among the ‘least primitive of peoples.’” [3] They differed on the correct portrayal of Paris, but both agree that it saved them and allowed them to continue the fight through their writing in their separate ways.

 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates delves into issues of black identity in America through a letter to his son, detailing the struggles and tribulations he has seen and how they are still being seen today. He briefly describes his trip to France, the “safe haven.” He struggles with the different identity he is allowed to take on despite his instincts that have been necessary to survival throughout his life.

“In America I was part of an equation—even if it wasn’t a part I relished…. For the first time I was an alien, I was a sailor—landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before—that I had never felt myself so far outside of someone else’s dream. Now I felt the deeper weight of my generational chains—my body confined, by history and policy, to certain zones.” [4]

He struggles with the need to break himself and his son of these old chains, but at the same time knows that these chains were there for good reason, that the fear was necessary. Although France is different and provides a freedom, Coates soon realizes that it has its own chains, its own history of oppression and cautions his son against this.

African Americans in Paris
Image Credit: Virginia Commonwealth University

“We will always be black, you and I, even if it means different things in different places. France is built on its own dream, on its collection of bodies… its national project of theft by colonization…. We were not enslaved in France. We are not their particular ‘problem,’ nor their national guilt. We are not their niggers. If there is any comfort in this, it is not the kind that I would encourage you to indulge…. Remember that you and I are brothers, are the children of trans-Atlantic rape. Remember the broader consciousness can never ultimately be racial; it must be cosmic.” [5]

 

France may not treat blacks the way America does, but the history is still there and affects people and their identities today, which needs to be remembered. Coates’s final thoughts on France bring the problem very much to the present with the reminder of Trayvon Martin. “I realized that I accepted that there is no velocity of escape. Home would find us in any language.” [6] Racism was and is still present in France, although not in the same intensity as it is in America.

France has long been sought out as a safe haven against American racism, and for good reason, but even if it is better, it is not a perfect safe haven. The French still have their own history and their own forms of racism, even today. These three African-American writers all experienced France’s safe haven for and at different periods of time and had different, and yet similar experiences.

[1] Quarles, Philip, “Richard Wright’s Love Letter to Paris,” WNYC, January 28, 2013, originally published in “Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project,” accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.wnyc.org/story/192767-richard-wright/

[2] Elgrably, Jordan, “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78,” The Paris Review, Spring 1984 No. 91, accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2994/the-art-of-fiction-no-78-james-baldwin

[3] Washington, Ellery, “James Baldwin’s Paris.” The New York Times, January 17, 2014, accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/travel/james-baldwins-paris.html?_r=0

[4] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 124-125.

[5] Ibid. 127-128.

[6] Ibid. 129.

19 thoughts on “Paris: Safe Haven, but Not Utopia

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Cassidy! It is really interesting to look back on Coates’s advice to his son in light of this move–especially after he urges his son not to take comfort in the relative better treatment he may receive as a black man in France (they have their own problems). This seems like responsible advice, especially since most African Americans do not have the option of picking up and leaving for France.

      1. Kate thank you for bringing out the fact that France had its own issues when it came to race and gender! I really loved the topics for this week and I couldn’t help thinking as I read through it that people have very different experiences in France and it depended on what part of the country you were in.

  1. Sarah, I loved how you included things we talked about in African American Art. You are completely correct in stating that even the French safe haven of Paris is no Utopia. In the past couple of years, Islamophobia and Ultranationalism have begun to grip many members of French society. I think this just goes to show how every culture, even the most progressive ones, have issues that they must face.

    1. Thanks Luke! I really wanted to get into those topics in depth, but I always underestimate the amount of space in a blog post! Looking forward to some good discussion in class.

  2. Great connection to Richard Wright and James Baldwin! It hadn’t even occurred to me as I was reading “Between the World and Me” that Coates was following in the footsteps of his fellow activists. Paris must truly be a haven. It is very surprising to me that France is so different from America, and that it seems a better alternative as an escape from America than English-speaking Britain. I wonder why this ostensibly western country has developed in such a way that is so much more welcoming to people of African descent?

    1. There’s an interesting bit about that in the This American Life story Sarah linked. It’s an interesting, and kind of disturbing, story about how France is welcoming to African-Americans, but not Africans.

    2. So, the main reason behind this change is a different outlook on identity and the melding of identities. Averie explained it perfectly last night in African American Art (gotta cite her some great info that really helped me understand this!) when she said that while America is the melting pot, France is more like a salad. America attempts to blend all the different identities and assimilate people into what is considered the “American identity.” France really focuses on pluralism and universalism where they take a little bit of everything from each separate culture. After the French revolution, the idea of identity became closely tied to you as a person and nationality, not characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. However, starting as early as the 80s (but most definitely in the 90s) it took a a turn for the worse. There is a huge stigma against the African populations immigrating illegally into countries like Italy and France. The link I put toward the end of the post goes to a podcast where an African American woman talks about her time in France and she received more discrimination after she became more fluent in French and lost her American accent. She was seen as simply American but then people assumed she was on the other side of the spectrum after she lost her accent.

  3. I think this blog really summarizes a lot about what we have been learning about this semester, especially when you pull from different readings and classes. You definitely made me want to go back and read more of Wright and Baldwin in order to compare and contrast their works with Coates’.

  4. Sarah, wonderful post. I also found your ties to earlier class material helpful. I find it really interesting that we can see through the semester how artists and intellectuals of today are being influenced by the work and places of past writers. I think often it seems a little disheartening that we (as a society) are dealing with the same issues that Wright and Baldwin wrote about but I think that it makes reading works like Coates that much more important.

  5. The long history of African Americans moving to Paris to escape racism is very interesting. I wonder why Paris, if there is something specific about the place. Reading Coates’ reaction to Paris, I was glad to see that he addressed some of the negative aspects of french culture. It’s important to remember that although he felt freer in Paris, there are others who feel the same oppression and danger that he felt in America.

  6. Coates work reminded me greatly of James Baldwin’s work as well. I loved how you were able to connect the two works through the lens of Paris. What I really love about your blog article as well is simply because individuals have the same experiences, does not mean she or he will have the same thoughts or feelings about the places or events. It is important to read both Baldwin, Wright, and Coates because they each have a different perspective of being a black man in the world; each perspective is valid and important to know to get a more comprehensive view.

  7. Sarah your connection between Coates and Baldwin was fantastic. By highlighting the experiences, it shows how individuals react differently and create their own views about events. This blog post focuses on perspective of the individual and how one can never generalize a population based off a share trait. Each story is different and together we start to see a bigger picture as we learn more stories and experiences.

  8. Like others have said it’s great that you point out some of the things we’ve learned in African American Art! By reading each of these works, we have gained a much fuller perspective and are reminded that no matter what we look like, or characteristics we share, every person has a different experience in life. We haven’t talked much about international black identity, and it’s definitely relevant to this week’s discussion.

  9. Learning about the history of Paris and the French treatment of African-Americans versus immigrants from Africa, has me thinking about Western oppression, generally. I think it was Malcolm X who said that you can’t have capitalism without racism. If this is true, does that mean that these oppressive tendencies are only a result of the system? Can changing the system fix these issues, or are other cultural factors at play here?

  10. Great post Sarah, it is indeed a fascinating pattern to see these renowned authors that we have read and pondered over in class take refuge in France. It adds an added dimension to the parallels we can draw between the two. And your insightful analysis on racial prejudice in France and its clear American vs. African parameters is something people must realize and not forget in looking at race and other countries in the West. So many issues of racism and prejudice are disregarded in looking at these nations simply because it is not the first thing that comes to mind, and your post is a great service in bringing this to our attention.

  11. Your post is amazing, Sarah. I wonder what it would be like to have this reading and Baldwin’s in the same class (like have them assigned for the same week). To compare and contrast their approaches and writings would be compelling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s