James Baldwin’s home in France will, apparently, be destroyed after all. Socri, the owner of the property, plans to put up an apartment complex in its place, to be opened by June of 2019.
The effort to preserve Baldwin’s house, which he had lived in since the late 1940s, was a noble undertaking, but despite the warmth and respect with which the expatriate American was received by the French, there was, evidently, not enough sentiment among the people to preserve his place. It would have been a good idea to start a writer’s and artist’s colony on the property, as some preservationists intended. Now, there will be nothing there but another monument to progress that will last barely a decade.
I don’t even know whether to hope for a marker of some kind near where the house stood. There should be one. It ought to stand, not necessarily for Baldwin himself (he would be the first to acknowledge that he was merely a man), but for his words and the burning clarity of his thoughts.
He wrote about race relations in every line, but what distinguishes him from the present generation of social justice warriors is that his prose was inclusive. He knew, in his bones, that every single person–white, black, European, Asian–had a stake in solving America’s race problem and he addressed those groups. It is true that he separated himself from America in the 40s because he found the living conditions here intolerable, but he never spoke or wrote the language of separatism. The United States, in all her intolerance, her ugly racism, her do-nothing religiosity, was still his country, and he fought as a writer does, with the only tools at his command–his words–to make others see that black people, African-Americans, as we now call them, were, and deserved to be, full citizens of the nation. He exposed the hypocrisy of the political right and left on a daily basis, but neither he nor his prose ever once lost dignity in doing so. The tribes of anonymous rabble who populate our present-day social media would have found a formidable adversary in Baldwin. He could say exactly what he meant in 280 characters, and the strokes of his keys would be so sharp that his opponents would never feel a thing until others pointed out that the blood was flowing.
Yet, there was sympathy in Baldwin, too, sometimes abounding. He honored the various survival strategies black people had developed since their forced entry into America: the gospel churches, the music, the extended families, and he knew well the subterranean lives thousands of people had to live because society would not acknowledge their sexuality. All of these concerns found their way into his essays and his fiction, and he wrote about them with feeling and warmth. I’m tempted to say that every line he ever wrote was meant to bring him closer to home, but that’s not right. In a strong sense, Baldwin the expatriate never left this country; in that sense, neither did James Joyce leave Ireland. It’s more accurate to say that every line he ever wrote was designed, not to tear our country apart, but to show us where the frayed seams already were, and to suggest some threads we might use to stitch the fabric back together.
In thinking so, and in writing so, Baldwin held no illusions. No one has to be a historian or an anthropologist or a sociologist to realize the embittering truth that humanity does not, never has, and might never live well together in massive groups. The whole history of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and America is riven with the evidence of minority groups trodden upon or wiped out, and aggrieved groups reaching daily for the throats of those in power. What’s remarkable–and it is more and more remarkable, as the days go by–is that our own particular American experiment has lasted as long as it has. Some people, contemplating the follies of our current President or she-who-would-have-been President, or our bumbling leaders in the House and Senate, may see that experiment in its death throes, but I don’t think Baldwin would see it that way. He would see it alive and damaged by both its friends and its enemies, but he would see it as worth repairing, worth preserving, so that the gains we’ve made in race relations and human understanding over the last century might not be lost, like his house and perhaps ours, forever.