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There was one place I wanted to visit during our recent 48 hours in Paris. Well, there were a bunch of places I hoped to visit, but there was one place in particular I wanted to sit. The Café de Flore was, according to believable legend, one of James Baldwin’s regular writing spots. Baldwin’s essays have been important to me over the years; I recommend him before any other author to those wanting to understand what it means to be white in America. I wanted to sit in that cafe, while munching on a croissant, sipping an espresso, and imagining the expatriate hunched over his notebooks.
Maggie was gracious enough to get up early the morning after we arrived so that we could get to the cafe as it opened. It was a rainy morning, but the newstand next door sold the international edition of the Times and the awning was enclosed and heated, so we found a table and got comfortable.
It was great. Between the rain and the early hour, we seemed to be some of the only tourists in the place. We chatted and read and I thought about what Baldwin came to Paris looking for, a reprieve from the racism that plagued him in Harlem and anywhere he stepped foot in his country.
I was first exposed to this instinct to sojourn in Paris by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates when he used to blog for The Atlantic. I remember sitting in the living room of a friend’s cottage in rural Illinois, about as far from Paris in every way possible, reading his posts about that city.
And we are here now, and all around me is the incredible music of French. I walk into stores and bumble my way through. I take my family for le boeuf et frites and bumble through. I inhale a bottle of red wine with my wife, and stumble out. I walk into pharmacies with my son mishandling verbs, fumbling pronouns, wrecking whole grammars. And by my heel, I care not. It is not for them. It is for me. I know how we got here. I do not know when we may be called back.
This is when I fell for Coates and his writing. He wrote with urgency and conviction but also – and this continues to be a hallmark – with great humility. He was a man unashamed to admit what he didn’t know, hungry to learn and understand, especially those histories which make sense of those things which seem inevitable in this world but which, as Coates has shown us again and again, are not.
Not far from Café de Flore is a bookstore I wanted to visit. I’d forgotten this, but I must have first learned about Shakespeare and Company in one of Coates’ posts.
Two Saturdays ago, I visited the venerable bookstore Shakespeare and Company. It was a hot day. The store was small and stifling. A woman walked around handing out watermelon. I picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution and Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. I went upstairs, sat in a room with view of the street and I think even the river. Two things happened while I sat there. First, I fell in love with Primo Levi, an unoriginal event which nevertheless deserves (and shall receive) elaboration. Second, I decided that this room was perfect.
I walked into that bookstore looking for The Water Dancer, Coates’ first novel which had just been published. After scanning the tables of new releases and checking the fiction shelves, I went to the counter to ask, worried that the book hadn’t been released overseas yet. But the clerk walked me over to a table and handed me the book; I’d not recognized it because, here in Paris, it was a paperback with a different cover.
The book tucked under my arm, I made my way upstairs to Coates’ perfect room. He was right. I sat in an ancient armchair near that window and read the first chapter. It was inevitable that the shop cat would make his way over and jump onto my lap. Perfect.
I finished The Water Dancer earlier this week. I don’t read enough fiction so take this with a grain of salt: I really liked it. Coates has created a world full of detail and surprise. There’s much to notice even as the story pulls the reader forward. It’s full of sentences like this one, which Coates has coming from a fictionalized Harriet Tubman: “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” That, as my pastor friends might say, will preach!
And then, toward the end, is this passage which made me think of Baldwin scribbling away at the Café de Flore and Coates and his family eating and drinking their way through the city. The narrator is describing a white woman, an important leader of the underground railroad.
All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of the goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.
In recent weeks I’ve had two occasions, within the company of some African American friends, to notice this sort of vanity. There is a certain kind of white person who is committed to opposing racism and white supremacy. They have read many books on the topics and are conversant in the ideas and histories. And yet, as Coates writes, they love the fight against oppression more than they love those who’ve been oppressed. Like the white woman in this passage, they are fanatical and even effective. We surely need them in this work. And yet I can imagine that Baldwin disappeared into Paris to escape not just the scary racists but them, the fanatics, too.
And this, as one prone to fanaticism, is worth pondering.