James Baldwin: Flaneur de couleur

Ernest White II 

USA

Illustrated by Gaurav Ogale

India

I went to Santo Domingo, a sweltering, smoggy metropolis on the edge of a half-island in the Caribbean, as part of my undergraduate university’s study abroad programme. That summer, I learned how to eat mashed plantain with onions and cooking oil drizzled on top, how to dance merengue as fast as humanly possible, how to tell the difference between bufea, bufeas, and bufeáis, which isn’t ever really used and sounds funny.

That summer in Santo Domingo, I also learned that it was possible to go unseen. To become imperceptible among a crowd of people who vaguely shared your skin tone, your gait, your style of dress, your assortment of peculiarities that rendered you indistinguishable enough from the person next to you so that you almost disappeared. The outward assumption of similarity—a superficial but vital acceptance, a belonging of sorts—outweighed any inward impostor syndrome.

“Pero, tu papá es dominicano?” they would ask. Was my father Dominican? He isn’t.

“Ah, sí, la mamá es dominicana.” No, my mother isn’t Dominican either.

“Pero alguien es dominicano en tu familia.”

Waiters, cashiers, front desk clerks, flight attendants, one-night stands, secretaries, taxi drivers, they never believed me. One woman at a literary conference I attended called her friend over and said in English, “This young man says he’s not Dominican.” The friend gave me the once-over and said, “riiiight.” I went unnoticed in the overstuffed carros públicos, riotous mini-markets, and slick discoteques of Santo Domingo. Until I opened my mouth, that is, stumbling over the unyielding Latinate grammar, the subjunctive tense as impenetrable to me as any quantum algorithm, no matter how well I trilled my Rs.

In James Baldwin’s canonical essay “Stranger in the Village”, first published in 1953, he chronicles his experience as a black stranger in a tiny village in the Swiss Alps. Contrary to my experiences of blending in, at least physically, in the Caribbean, Baldwin remains ever the sight, ever the centre of attention everywhere he goes. He writes:

“All of the physical characteristics of the Negro which had caused me, in America, a very different and almost forgotten pain were nothing less than miraculous—or infernal—in the eyes of the village people. Some thought my hair was the color of tar, that it had the texture of wire, or the texture of cotton. It was jocularly suggested that I might let it all grow long and make myself a winter coat. If I sat in the sun for more than five minutes some daring creature was certain to come along and gingerly put his fingers on my hair, as though he were afraid of an electric shock, or put his hand on my hand, astonished that the colour did not rub off. In all of this, in which it must be conceded there was the charm of genuine wonder and in which there was certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.”

Compact and dark-complexioned, with legendary eyes that took in the physical and the spiritual, writer—nay, griot—James Baldwin was anything but unseen in Leukerbad, Switzerland, to which he would retreat several times in the 1950s to write and rest. He was anything but unseen in Istanbul, that undulating adulteration of civilizations at the end or the beginning of Europe, where he lived and worked intermittently throughout the 1960s. Among black African and brown Arab émigrés, Baldwin hardly went unseen as the brilliant, wiry black American scraping by in postwar Paris, his escape from the racialised pressure cooker of the United States and entrée to a discourse of humanistic liberation at once local and global.

Baldwin unintentionally embodied the traits of that dark village stranger—mysterious, subversive, magnetic—as he intentionally defied stereotype and upended expectation with his engaging manner and disarming smile. Non-American observers of his eloquence and flair stood transfixed by a human being who looked and acted differently from any they had ever known.  He watched them closely. He learned.

I first encountered James Baldwin’s work in high school English classes, but it wasn’t until I moved outside of the United States—first to Colombia and then Brazil, Germany, and South Africa—that his impactful words, his surgical insight on race and pain and nationhood and freedom, resonated with me viscerally.

In the checkerboard communities of North Florida, I grew up noticed for appearing placeless within a historic binary of places. I always felt alienated on some level from my culture as an African-American from the South who not only possessed phenotypic traits that set me apart from the rest of my community, to which my loosely-curled ‘fro bespoke a vague Latinness, but also my affinity for geography, for maps, for classical and world music, for cultural attributes toward which any possessed leanings, my teenaged peers would be sufficiently shamed into denying: Riverdance over R. Kelly for me, any day. I suffered in the ever-increasing tension between desired and expected trajectories, and much like Baldwin, I found refuge—and for a time, escape—in books. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” Baldwin wrote. “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

It wasn’t until college and afterwards that I began to venture into terras heretofore incognitas that bristled with a familiarity and recognition of my inclinations, my incarnations, that I had not expected. At university, I learned of new and parallel types of blacknesses that included geography and maps and music—ways of being—from places beyond Motown, hip-hop, and Miami bass. I moved to Washington, D.C., for graduate school and dived head-first into the shiny bourgeois social life of the black upper-middle-class of the capital city, with its refined proclivities that easily crossed into pretence, at once suspended in an interstitial space betwixt an unabashedly American aspiration to “have it all,” a terminally ill bank account balance directly correlated with my middle-middle-class aversion to exertion, and an upbringing much more down-to-earth than my habits and diction would otherwise indicate. And much like Baldwin—tangled in the briar patch of a proud Southern-born blackness he adored, despite having been born in New York City himself, but a blackness which often pricked him with its rigid homophobic Christianity and plantation-reared anti-intellectualism—I started searching for an elusive freedom that allowed me the space to be all of me without the self- and societally-imposed categories. James Baldwin fled New York for Paris in 1949, after one of his personal heroes jumped to his death off of the George Washington Bridge, a casualty of roiling internal turmoil and crushing external racial discrimination. Baldwin ran to the freedom—the anonymity—of France, a place whose libertine cultural proclivities and postwar economic ruin allowed for the type of creative loafing and aimless intellectualism that enlivened the travelling expatriate artist:

“This freedom, like all freedom, has its dangers and responsibilities. One day it begins to be borne in on the writer, and with great force, that he is living in Europe as an American. If he were living there as a European, he would be living on a different and far less attractive continent.”

In Paris, the Negro James Baldwin became the American James Baldwin, a distinction both primary and primal in the United States rendered almost trivial once oceans and borders were crossed. Baldwin took his well-trained cultural eyesight, hewn by two decades of traipsing up and down the grid of Manhattan, and systematically decoded the populations he encountered: the French, “who consider that all Negroes arrive from America, trumpet-laden and twinkle-toed, bearing scars so unutterably painful that all of the glories of the French Republic may not suffice to heal them,” as well as his escapist, expatriate brethren—black and white—and that segment of the Parisian underclass comprised mostly of the unintended consequences of French colonialism, those vibrant, desperate strivers from Africa, the Caribbean Basin, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia come to the imperial capital for opportunities denied back home.

Baldwin’s understanding of, and his connection with, the disparate factions of 1950s Paris, “from pimps and prostitutes in Pigalle to Egyptian bankers in Neuilly,” seem, in fact, to speak to his conspicuousness, his New World need to “be liked as a person” and not as a representative, an engaging interlocutor vis-à-vis Parisian “indifference:” “I love to talk to people, all kinds of people, and almost everyone, as I hope we still know, loves a man who loves to listen. This perpetual dealing with people very different from myself caused a shattering in me of preconceptions I scarcely knew I held.”

Baldwin spoke. He listened. He observed. He wrote.

“Having first waded through intermittent anonymity in the Dominican Republic a few years before, it was during the end of my tenure in Washington that I began to experience the very useful erasure of nondescript brownness. In Paris, I had been mistaken for métisse, Maghrebi, or peninsular Arabian. In Caracas, I hailed as easily from the inner barrio of Sabana Grande as the outer barrio of Santa Cruz del Este, so far as most caraqueños were concerned. In Havana, I was confused for a local slab of beef by a pink and lusty European tourist and initially refused entry into my hotel, which barred Cuban guests. I dwelled in a liberating averageness when I travelled to these places, a cloak of invisibility that—so long as I didn’t speak—shielded me from any preconceived notions of American travellers and allowed for stealthy movement into back streets and intimate spaces. I could observe and even participate undetected and unexposed, a flâneur de couleur.

What was more, my forays into shape-shifting began as the seeds of Chocolate City’s gentrification began to sprout and flourish. In fact, I moved overseas shortly after a black friend and I were harassed by four white police officers for sitting in my car on O Street and laughing about a previous time that same friend and I had been harassed by the cops.”

“[T]he French,” Baldwin had often said, “left me alone.”

“To be a stranger is to be looked at, but to be black is to be looked at especially,” wrote Teju Cole in an absorbing examination of Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village.”  In Cairo, a soldier at the Egyptian Museum joked while pointing his rifle at me that I had an Egyptian face. In Mumbai, rickshaw drivers spoke to me in Marathi and people in Delhi asked if I was NRI—non-resident Indian. In Cape Town, I was asked indignantly why I didn’t speak Afrikaans. In São Paulo, I was sent to the service elevator when I arrived at an apartment building for the first time to teach a private English class. In Barranquilla, I was once asked, in English, why I wanted to be a “black nigger” when I mentioned that I wasn’t Latino.

In that moment, and a few others, I had a choice to make: to speak and be seen, losing my camouflage and the privilege of anonymity, or to remain quiet and acquiescent to attitudes that had, in part, sent me and many others of my kind, out into the world in search of personal utopias. This was the price of the ticket. And on that journey, I observed, I learned. I learned that many people, most people, in the world who looked like me often didn’t think like me. I learned that the comfort found in going native relied explicitly on an official, if unacknowledged, foreignness, backed by one of the world’s most powerful passports, which would allow me to abort the entire mission at once and at will, should the fire get too hot. I learned that for all the running, all the passing, I carried my origins—the legacies of Baldwin and Baker and Du Bois and Wright and Dunham and Bechet and so many others included—everywhere I went. I was abroad, then, when I learned, discovered, what it meant to be an American:

“This is a personal day, a terrible day, the day to which his entire sojourn has been tending. It is the day he realises that there are no untroubled countries in this fearfully troubled world; that if he has been preparing himself for anything in Europe, he has been preparing himself—for America. In short, the freedom that the American writer finds in Europe brings him, full circle, back to himself, with the responsibility for his development where it always was: in his own hands.”