Continental Drifters; the Greatest Cultural Shift of the 20th Century Was the Influx of Black American Intellectuals into Europe. Their Legacy Is Still with Us, Writes Jonathan Derbyshire

Article excerpt

In June 1950, the back American writer James Baldwin wrote a piece entitled "The Negro in Paris" for a journal called the Reporter. He had arrived in the French capital two years earlier, on a one-way ticket and with no intention of returning to the US (thought the articles he filed home, especially those published in the Part-san Review, would soon make his name in the country of his birth). Baldwin had been welcomed in Paris--at Jean-Paul Sartre's favoured cafe Les Deux Magots, to be precise--by the novelist Richard Wright, who had himself left American for Europe in 1946, a little over half a decade after the publication of his landmark novel Native Son, the tale of a wretched inhabitant of Chicago's "Black Belt" who goes to the electric chair for the murder of a white woman.

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Baldwin and Wright would subsequently fall out when the former, in one of the articles that he sent back to the PR, criticised Native Son in the strongest terms for reproducing a debilitating and distinctively American "fantasy" of "Negro life". Because Wright saw novel writing as a form of "social struggle"--rather than a means of transmuting the motley of personal experience into art, as Bldwin regarded it--his protagonist, Bigger Thomas, lacks any "discernible relationship to himself", let alone other people. He is, instead, instead, an entirely "mythic" creature--mythic because Wright abstains from any treatment of the complex reality of African-American life, with its shared traditions as well as its internal differences.

What Wright's portrayal of Bigger misses--because it is smothered by the character's inarticulate rage--is any sense of the endless "paradoxical adjustments" that are required of the black American. The essays that Baldwin wrote in Paris (later collected in an anthology entitled, in deference to his former mentor, Notes of a Native Son) attempt to register the complexities he found so catastrophically lacking in Wright's novel.

In his Parisian exile, Baldwin came to see that he was "a kind of bastard of the west". The monuments of European high culture--Shake-speare, Bech, Rembrandt--were not really his; yet, he wrote, there was "no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use. I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe." The predicament wasn't peculiar to Baldwin, however. As a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool shows, it was the situation in which many of the most important artists and writers of the black diaspora found themselves from the early 1900s onwards. "Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Allantic" takes its cue from Paul Gilroy's groundbreaking work of cultural history The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, which argues for the importance of that black diaspora to 20th-century art and literature.

"The Negro in Paris" offers a particularly vivid account of one African American's fraught identification with western modernity. He distinguishes there the situation of "Negro entertainers" (jazz musicians and singers) ion Paris from that of their "non-performing coloured countrymen", most of them former servicemen studying abroad thanks to the provisions of the GI Bill. The latter tended not to enjoy the "comradeship" of

other black Americans, but lived in a kind of unsplendid isolation. "The American Negro in Paris," Baldwin writers, "is very nearly the invisible man."

On the rare occasions that he is noticed, it is by Frenchmen who see America--and all Americans, black or white--through the prism of its own self-aggrandising myth-making. Thousands of miles from home, the "non-performing" black American "finds himself involved ... in the same old battle: the battle for his own identity". And it is a battle that is made more intense still by his encounters with black Africans from France's colonies, who for all their bitterness at their condition, at least have an unambiguous relationship with their home land. …