For years I have been telling myself and my friends that my favorite city is Paris, France, but the fact is I have never been there. Yet I have this strange memory--as false as a five-dollar bill with a grinning jack-o-lantern where Abraham Lincoln's noble beard should be--that likes to surface every now and then and insist it is real.
The memory is of a cool day early in May 1946. Much of the talk in Paris is about the fact that Richard Wright, the famous author of Native Son and Black Boy, who lately has been very vocal about his needs for greater intellectual freedom and political flexibility, will soon arrive in the city of lights with his wife and daughter for the first time.
To prove just how false this persistent memory is, in 1946 I was not even "a glimmer in my father's eye," as the saying goes, and at least another decade would pass before I would become such. Nevertheless, I imagine myself one of those African-American soldiers who remained in France after World War II and explored ways to make a life for myself there, taking advantage of the new G.I. Bill to go to school, and setting up a small jazz supper club called The Hot Fried Piano. My little place, The Hot Fried Piano, is one where the great international diva Josephine Baker might drop in to enjoy her native "soul food" when she feels like it and maybe to enchant other customers with a song or two. Afterwards, I would take to the mic and recite my own brand of negritude and surrealist poetry. The Hot Fried Piano, it seems, is somewhere in the Latin Quarter and attracts just enough clientele to keep the music going and the menu half full.
Wright arrives on a train on the 8th of May and it is my intention to help him make his way through the crowds at the Gare Saint-Lazare station to a waiting taxi. It turns out, however, that the reigning queen of North American expatriates in Europe, Gertrude Stein, has already arranged for Douglas Schneider of the American Embassy to meet the great author and take him back to the Trianon-Palace Hotel in a first class limousine. Fortunately for me, the hotel is also in the Latin Quarter so I am able to ride along and enjoy the look of thrilled satisfaction on Wright's face as the limousine rolls through the city down the wide avenue of the Champs Elysees, goes gliding through the Place de la Concorde past the culture-stuffed Louvre and along the Left Bank where new schools of philosophy are born and debated on the lips of passionate souls every ten minutes.
I am more than a little thrilled when I hear him say, just as Douglas Schneider has recorded in Souvenir de Richard Wright, "I had no idea that one city could contain in so little space so many treasures, so many flowers, so many grey stones, all beautiful...so very beautiful."
In the days and nights that follow, his time is absorbed by a series of receptions: he meets his champion Gertrude Stein, in whose work he has discovered such eerie connections to his own; he greets the legendary Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore fame, the woman whose patronage helped make the literary legacies of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway a celebrated reality. The publisher Gaston Gallimard and literary titans Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, and many others all come to lend encouragement and empowerment as he considers moving permanently--as in exiling himself--to Paris. His presence in the city seems somehow to make it less important that times are difficult economically, that power gets turned off for several hours every day, or that food is rationed and gas often not available at all. He is like a black flame come to intensify the spark of hope for cultural rebirth and spiritual renewal after the long suffocating nightmare of Nazi occupation that humbled and terrorized the city.
Although I am not of the league of the literary elite, I am one of those about whom Wright has written extensively in his fiction and essays and this allows us to greet each other with genuine enthusiasm when we run into one another on the boulevard or he drops by The Hot Fried Piano for a taste of the United States in Paris. Then it so happens one afternoon that while taking a break from The Hot Fried Piano I am enjoying a table to myself at a sidewalk café on the Left Bank when I look up and see Wright crossing the street, coming towards me. The hat pulled down to his brow and the scarf around his neck and chin make it appear almost as if he is trying to disguise himself. Therefore, I do not say anything when he walks past me and goes inside the café. Then he steps back out a minute later with a bottle of water in his hand, sits down across from me, and says, "Hey man."
The Seine River beneath a cloudy Paris sky.
I avoid choking on my coffee and dropping the cup. He tells me that in some of my poetry he detects strong journalistic tendencies which will later serve me well as I begin to write in other genres. He adds that he has also heard heavy allusions to magic which could make poetry dangerous.
"But when," I ask, "is the last time anything or anyone has been ‘safe' in this terrified world of ours?"
For some reason this makes him laugh louder than I have ever heard him laugh before.
"She's been a wonderful hostess and haven, hasn't she?" he asks, looking out at the broad slow flow of the Seine River.
He glances sideways to see if I understood everything he meant by the question and I am astonished when I realize I do understand he is not speaking merely about the relief from racial tensions and the pleasure of celebrated cultural diversity we have been able to enjoy as individuals. He is speaking of the many black American writers and artists and educators, men and women, who came to Paris before us and because of it were able to slow their panicked breathing long enough to discover and preserve their voices as committed creative artists and social activists.
The Great Josephine Baker, author James Baldwin, jazz saxophonist
Charlie Parker, and Sydney Bechet are among those African Americans
who took extended retreats in Paris. (image from Discover Black Heritage.com)
The writer Victor Sejour may have been born a free black man in the United States during the early 1800s but it took the move to Paris for him to gain an education and evolve into a celebrated playwright and novelist. The painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, educator Anna Julia Cooper, author Jean Toomer, author Langston Hughes, sculptress Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller and scores of others made the journey just to hear themselves think as singular individuals without the skull-cracking roar of racial oppression defining every impression or perception. Simply by allowing its darker-hued brothers and sisters to openly discuss ideas without having to constantly justify, defend, or survive the color of their skin, whether in classrooms of the great Sorbonne or while walking un-hunted down a boulevard, Paris made a crucial contribution to what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance and to the legacy of African-American intellectual traditions in general. An actual community of American blacks had formed in the city just as after World War I and, fluctuating population figures notwithstanding, have been there ever since.
"Genius will do whatever it must to survive, won't it?" I ask without really expecting an answer.
He smiles and is about to respond when a well-dressed man with an equally well-dressed woman beside him approach us and says loudly, "Oh, there you are, but Monsieur Richard we are late for your lecture and must now hurry. Hurry, hurry, hurry!"
After that moment, the memory grows fuzzy: I suspect because the more responsible side of my mind insists that I acknowledge this is much more of a dream than a memory. The inner-confession makes me laugh out loud and silently wonder because there are other cities--London, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Berlin among them--where I actually have sat down and enjoyed moving conversations with inspiring writers. How Paris has come to cast such a powerful spell of desire and nostalgia from thousands of miles away remains an enigma. I'm thinking it may have something to do with the magic which Wright said could make poetry dangerous.
© by Aberjhani
23 October 2009
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