This is a selection of a few of our favorite writers from the many who have passed through Paris, lived or exiled in Paris, or otherwise inspired by their time in the city of lights.
In discussing the writers and radical thinkers who have been in or through Paris, Richard Wright is by far the most prolific, complex, and intriguing. He was the literary father of James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, and many others who chose to exile himself in France from racism and discrimination in America, once suggesting Paris as “a place where one could claim one’s soul”. With only a 9th grade education, he read his way out of Mississippi to literary fame. He recounted that getting access to read as a youth often involved forging notes to the librarian with the inscription: "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?" After stints in New York and Chicago, Wright left the United States and settled in France.
In France, he quickly gained wide aclaim and became the colleague of celebrated existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and others such as Albert Camus. In the process, Wright became part of the legend of Café Tournon where he held court with his black expat jesters, among them James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Ollie Harrington, William Gardner-Smith, Richard Gibson, and others.
But even there, the tentacles of a powerful American intelligence apparatus cornered the pen which was most viceral in its critical opposition to racism and segregation in America. US intelligence sowed seeds of intrigue and mistrust among the expats who surrrounded Wright, some of whom were suspected of becoming agents of the US government, which inturn had them spying on each other while isolating Wright. Paradoxically, the American government suspected him of still harboring communist sympathies, at a time when he was simultaneously being denounced by the French communist press. English poet Christopher Logue who was a friend of William Gardner-Smith said of the atmosphere at the Tournon in the late 50s, “Everybody thought everybody else was spying on someone or other for somebody”.
This culminated with 'L'affaire Gibson’, in which Richard Gibson (supposedly with knowledge of William Gardner-Smith) published an article in Life magazine, critical of French colonial practices in Algerian and signed Ollie Harrington’s name to the document. (Harrington was a communist who would later make his life in East Germany). However, at that time in Paris, Harrington was just about the only member of the expat-writer community whose friendship with Richard Wright was free of suspicion. Others such as his former protegé, James Baldwin, had come to be viewed by Wright as treacherous. The 'Gibson-Smith' article was aimed at triggering the host French government to deport certain individuals, in particular Richard Wright, on the basis of interfering with French internal affairs, hence giving credence to the widespread rumor that Richard Gibson and others were on the payroll of the CIA.
The plot failed as Richard Wright and Ollie Harrington disavowed the document and denied any involvement. William Gardner-Smith denounced his friend Richard Gibson who after being rounded up by the French security forces, eventually admitted his role in the episode and was 'encouraged' to leave France, thereafter settling in England.
From the grave, Richard Wright’s intentions to expose the waning years of the glory days of the black expat community in France, came to light. Island of Hallucination, though set in North Africa depicted the characters straight out of ‘Ile de France’ and the treachery which engulfed their existence while heaping to the ash pile, the romantic notions of camaraderie during the fabulous 50's Paris.
Barbara Chase-Riboud, another Paris (and Rome) expat, is the award-winning sculptor who in 1965 became the first American woman of any race to visit the People's Republic of China after the revolution. She gained notoriety in 1979 for unveiling the true story of one of the first African Americans in Paris, Sally Hemings. Hemings was the half sister of the wife of then American Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, as well as the inherited property of the Jefferson Family. “Dashing Sally” as she was called, was a pretty woman who escorted Jefferson’s daughter to Paris and then became his concubine, eventually bearing him some six children.
On their arrival in France, the French frowned upon the American Minister bringing his “American dirty laundry” to their enlightened country, which had by them outlawed slavery. Realizing they were free in France, Hemings’ brother James, who was also there as Jefferson’s valet, demanded a salary which he received along with French tutoring for both he and his sister Sally. Hemings and her brother left freedom in France to return with Jefferson to slavery in America, on Jefferson's promise to free her siblings and offsprings.
The white establishment and historical societies debunked Chase-Riboud’s conclusion of the relationship until a DNA study in 1998 showed a match between the Jefferson male line and a descendant of Eston Hemings. This forced the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in Monticello, and the National Genealogical Society, to accept the findings that Jefferson did indeed father Hemings’ children, thus vindicating Chase-Riboud’s pioneering book on this significant historical event.
James Baldwin once wrote, "If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can't do that, it's time we got rid of him." Baldwin was as known in Paris for his homosexuality as for his writing. Given the climate in America, he fled to France in 1948 after becoming disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and against homosexuals.
While members of the Niggerati (Harlem Rennaisance) such as Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes were rumored to have been gay, none, except for openly gay bohemian Richard Bruce Nugent led gay lifestyles. Where Thurman, Hughes, Zora Neale-Hurston, and others intended to use their magazine Fire!! as a medium to explore issues in the black community that were not in the forefront of mainstream African American society such as homosexuality, black leaders of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Talented Tenth, viewed this as ‘decadent and vulgar’ as they felt that content relating issues such as homosexuality was ‘degrading’. It is therefore clear that being gay and black in 1940s and 50s America was in many ways an untenable situation, which would eventually drive Baldwin away.
A chance meeting with Beauford Delaney gave Baldwin his first realization that "a black person could be an artist”. Meeting Richard Wright earned him the attention of an established mentor. Still deeply religious and a man who once thought himself destined to become a preacher, James Baldwin ceased the opportunity to leave the United States, in a desire to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and to flee the hopelessness which had succumb many young African American homosexual men like himself in the United States.
In Paris, he was soon involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank along with his mentor Richard Wright, whom Baldwin called "the greatest black writer in the world”, and who by then was quite established in Paris. “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Notes of a Native Son”, and “Giovanni's Room” are some his most famous work.
Unlike Wright who had no intention of returning to the US, James Baldwin returned to the US in 1957 to partake of the civil rights movement. He affiliated himself with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was able to obtain a personal audience Attorney General Robert Kennedy to appeal his case personally. Along with his friends Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, writer Lorraine Hansberry, and Marlon Brando, he paticipated in the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. For a time, he had traded the comfort of Left Bank intellectualism to re-enter the dungeon of black struggle for equality in America.
After being beaten into confessing to a crime he did not comit, Chester Himes used the 7 years spent in prison to hone his skills as a novelist. He published a series of stories, “YESTERDAY WILL MAKE YOU CRY” while in prison. Establishing himself as an author on his release by being published in notable magazines such as Equire, was still not enough to gain acceptance in pursuing his craft. Rejection followed rejection.
In 1950, Henry Holt verbally accepted to publish his book but when Himes showed up to sign the contract and it was discovered that he was black, the offer was rescinded. Separately, his career as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers was terminated when Jack Warner heard about him and said "I don't want no gotdamned niggers on this lot."
Continued racism and discrimination followed Himes in America which led to his choosing exile in Paris (and later in Spain) where he flourished to a legacy of now being mentioned as the literary equal to the likes of Raymond Chandler. Himes is most remembered for novels encompassing many genres including crime, mystery, politics, and exploring racism in the United States. His series of Harlem Detective novels featuring New York City police detectives “Coffin Ed Johnson” and “Gravedigger Jones” also made him a household name.
The reaction to her arrival at a party with a Senegalese friend made Maya Angelou one of the few writers of her time to quit France as a result of racism which left her disillusioned. In addition to Paris and Europe, Maya Angelou has seen Africa and the Middle East, including Cairo and Accra, Ghana, among the many places she has lived and flourished. After a childhood of trauma which at one point left her mute as a child, she rose above it to become an aclaimed author, palywright, actress, dancer, producer, and poet laureate.
Angelou toured Europe with the opera Porgy and Bess, and she even recorded a calypso album. She danced with Alvin Ailey and Ruth Beckford, and her friends included other notables such as Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, and Abbey Lincoln. She was an associated editor of the Arab Observer in Cairo in the early 1960s, a feature editor for The African Review in Ghana, a freelance writer for the Ghanaian Times, and she wrote and broadcasted for Radio Ghana. She organized the legendary “Cabaret for Freedom” in the US to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the civil rights movement, and she was named SCLC's Northern Coordinator. She knew Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (who asked her to organize a march in 1968), and she regarded Malcolm X as her brother. After meeting Malcolm in Ghana, she returned to the US to help him build a new civil rights organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In 1969, she wrote her first autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. This established her as a writer. Since then, she has never ceased making history, including being a recent recipient of Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ralph Ellision is best known for his novel “Invisible Man”. An early disciple of Richard Wrigh, he would later step out of Wright’s shadow to write black characters who were educated, articulate, and self-aware. “Invisible Man” was the product of Ellison’s disillusion with the Communist party which he quit in disgust after coming to believe that the party had betrayed black America. His writing embraced the strength, courage, endurance, promises, and above all, the uniqueness of the black experience in America. Ellison was a true intellectual who went on to receive France’s highest literary honor – being made Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and also the recipient of the highest literary awards in America. In 1969 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters, was made a permanent member of the faculty at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, serving from 1970 to 1980, and in 1986 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Angela Davis, Cover Newsweek Magazine October 26th 1970
Angela Davis is an African American political activist, scholar, and author who ended up the third woman on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List in 1970. She once famously said, “Revolutionaries must be realists”. It was from Paris where she received news of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, committed by the members of the Ku Klux Klan, an occasion that deeply affected her, because, as as wrote, she was personally acquainted with the young victims. After 18 months behind bars in California for having purchased a gun which was used in the murder of a judge and others, she was acquitted of all charges but was continually hounded by the authorities. But she was not daunted. In the aftermath, she visited her fellow activists and black nationalist Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, and Assata Shakur in Cuba. Today, she is one of the primary founders of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to building a movement to abolish the prison system which she describes as America’s "Prison-Industrial Complex". She is an established feminist who is still challenging the political structure and the status quo.
Brought to you by Paris-based African-American painter Ealy Mays