“How Does It Feel To Be a White Man?”: William Gardner Smith’s Exile in Paris

Adam Shatz in The New Yorker:

n 1951, the novelist Richard Wright explained his decision to settle in Paris after the war. “It is because I love freedom,” he wrote, in an essay titled “I Choose Exile,” “and I tell you frankly that there is more freedom in one square block of Paris than in the entire United States of America!” Few of the black Americans who made Paris their home from the nineteen-twenties to the civil-rights era would have quarreled with Wright’s claim. For novelists such as Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin, for artists and musicians such as Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and Beauford Delaney, Paris offered a sanctuary from segregation and discrimination, as well as an escape from American puritanism—an experience as far as possible from the “damaged life” that Theodor Adorno considered to be characteristic of exile. You could stroll down the street with a white lover or spouse without being jeered at; you could check into a hotel or rent an apartment wherever you wished so long as you could pay for it. You could enjoy, in short, something like normalcy.

Baldwin, who moved to Paris in 1948, two years after Wright, embraced the gift at first but came to distrust it. While blacks “armed with American passports” were rarely the target of racism, Africans and Algerians from France’s overseas colonies, he realized, were not so lucky. In his essay “Alas, Poor Richard,” published in 1961, just after Wright’s death, Baldwin accused his mentor of celebrating Paris as a “city of refuge” while remaining silent about France’s oppressive treatment of its colonial subjects: “It did not seem worthwhile to me to have fled the native fantasy only to embrace a foreign one.”

More here.