Re-reading James Baldwin’s writing about the nine years (1948 – 1957) that he spent in Europe, especially his 1955 essay, “Equal in Paris”, Robert Reid-Pharr argues against Baldwin’s tendency to
Re-reading James Baldwin’s writing about the nine years (1948 – 1957) that he spent in Europe, especially his 1955 essay, “Equal in Paris”, Robert Reid-Pharr argues against Baldwin’s tendency to privilege the place-based specificity of American and especially African American culture. Baldwin regularly described himself as an alien to both Europe and Africa. Moreover, he was well aware of the criticisms of expatriate African American artists, particularly Richard Wright, that their time abroad separated them from black tradition, robbing them of their ability to represent their people’s genius. For his part, however, Reid-Pharr makes the simple counterargument that Baldwin’s career (and his worldwide success) was itself an emanation of the quick paced development of international economic, communications, and cultural structures that allowed for the birth of what has now come to be known as “World Literature”. Further, though Baldwin writes passionately about his boyhood in Harlem, the truth is that that community, physically situated in the dead center of Manhattan Island, was—and is—itself a place of remarkable cultural exchange between many different peoples. Indeed like the Left Bank of Paris where Baldwin spent most of his years abroad, Harlem was largely a community of travelers and immigrants (including Baldwin’s parents) who did not so much transplant an inviolate black culture from the south as fashion new forms of “world culture” that built upon traditions born in Afro-America, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe.
The event is part of the lecture series Landscapes of Equality and is hosted in cooperation with the Integrative Research Institute Law & Society at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. It will take place online. Please register at: lsi(at)rewi.hu-berlin.de.
Robert F. Reid-Pharr is Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality as well as African and African American Studies at Harvard University. In his Academy project, about the American author and activist James Baldwin (1924-1987), Reid-Pharr is concerned less with revealing Baldwin’s psychology than with mapping the contradictions that underwrote his celebrity.
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