An American Reborn in Paris

Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly chronicled the journey of black Americans from South to North in The Warmth of Other Suns. But the 15 years of work and the sudden fame it brought upended her life. The cure: an odyssey of her own

by Isabel Wilkerson
isabel wilkerson image
Photograph: Ambroise Tezenas

I awoke to the cooing of pigeons on the ledge outside my window and the sight of the slate rooftops of rue Racine, gray and streaking soot from the centuries. I could make out the murmur of traffic below, the coughs from the room across the hall, the fumbling for keys and the turning of doorknobs, the whispers and knocking of chambermaids and, in the distance, the aah-ee, aah-ee, aah-eeof an unmistakably foreign police siren. I was in Paris, the last refuge of the man who had inspired me and, in a literary sense, rescued me. I was in the hotel where he’d spent his first night here, waking to the same sky and sounds that he hoped would save him precisely 66 years ago. I’d followed him as far as the trail would lead me. I was in room 703 of the Hotel Trianon in search of the Paris of novelist Richard Wright.

Only a few years before, I’d been in a deep forest, seeking a way out. On leave from the best job I could imagine—Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times, where I’d won a Pulitzer Prize—I had jumped into the unknown to begin writing a book, the first I’d ever attempted. It was ambitious; I wanted to tell the story of the Great Migration, from 1915 to 1970, when six million African Americans, my parents among them, fled the Jim Crow South like immigrants within their own land, changing our culture, our politics, our country. The project was taking longer than I had ever imagined. I was in year 12 or 13, having interviewed more than 1,200 people, narrowed them down to three flawed and aging protagonists and buried myself in their lives as I retraced their journeys from the rural South to the big cities of the North and West. One of the major events of the 20th century, this was a story so big, I couldn’t see the end of it.

In the middle of what was quite enough, the moorings of my own life shifted around me. I moved from the Midwest to the South, where the people I was writing about had come from. My beloved father, who had tried nudging me into the safety of an engineering career rather than the uncertainties of writing, who had reluctantly abided my decision and then saved everything I wrote (“Isabel’s story on page A14,” he noted in his draftsman’s pen at the top of a New York Timesfrom the ’90s), passed away and would not see the fruit of my hardest labor. With his death, I inherited the role of caregiver for my wheelchair-bound mother, who had always been the proudly and lovably more difficult of the two. And within a year, my marriage of 14 years ended. As for the book I’d signed to write, I was toiling away but not moving forward.

Then I came across these words in the endnotes of Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy:

I was leaving the South

To fling myself into the unknown. . . .

I was taking a part of the South

To transplant in alien soil,

To see if it could grow differently,

If it could drink of new and cool rains,

Bend in strange winds,

Respond to the warmth of other suns

And, perhaps, to bloom.

These words from Wright, author of Native Son, a classic of American literature, were buried in the appendix to his autobiography, as if waiting for an obsessive like me to discover them. In these lines (which are deleted in the current-day edition), Wright contemplated the moment he fled Mississippi for Chicago as part of the Great Migration. He would become the poet laureate of this turning point in American history, whose retelling had taken hold of my life.

By the time I read Wright’s words, I had worked on my book for so long that people began to doubt if I’d ever finish it. Once, they couldn’t stop asking if I’d found my subjects or completed the prologue; now they avoided any mention of it. If I brought it up, it was as if I were talking about an invisible friend. But I saw those words, and a thin sliver of daylight broke through the forest leaves and assured me that I could finish this thing. They gave what I’d been researching all these years a purpose, a breath, a name. I raced to finish it. Published two years later, it was called The Warmth of Other Suns.

I couldn’t have predicted what would happen next. The book took off in a way that was unexpected for a work of history about three people no one had heard of who were caught up in a movement few Americans knew anything about. The critics embraced it, and readers responded with such vigor that I ended up on the road, from Anchorage to Amsterdam, touring for two years straight, with barely a chance to repack my rolling bag. Everywhere I went, I carried a worn-out copy of my book, its spine cracking from the 347,000 miles it had logged. “If this book were a human being,” I told people, “it would be in high school and dating. That’s how long it took to finish it.’’ People laughed and wanted to snap its picture.

But those 15 years had come at a price. To tell the story, I had become the people I’d written about. I dug deep into an ugly chapter of our country’s history, steeping myself in the caste system that had ruled the South, which made it illegal for blacks and whites even to play checkers together in Birmingham. The weight of these people’s lives came to hang over my own, and after 15 years I was carrying their burden in my bones. Wright had borne the reality of that life. Around the time he migrated to Chicago, a lynching occurred every four days in the South. “This was the terror from which I fled,” Wright wrote. His escape route eventually led him to Paris. And so did mine.

I arrived at midday,in May, the same month he got to Paris in 1946. I emerged from the train station at le boulevard Saint-Michel and headed in the direction of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, with only a vague sense of my purpose: I wanted to escape the wall of work that had defined the contours of my life, and my mother’s guilt-inducing sighs—“I guess I’ll be OK . . .”—before each of my trips. As the daughter of people who had left all they knew and fled Georgia and Virginia in search of a better life in Washington, D.C., where I was born and reared, I’d absorbed the message, never spoken outright but implied by their every action, that I was to live up to their dreams. They sacrificed to get me into a school they themselves could never have hoped to attend. Like many children whose parents immigrated from abroad, I found that the A’s I brought home were expected rather than applauded. I had devoted myself to my parents’ to-do lists. What would happen if I followed my own?

Paris is a city I loved before I ever saw it, from the time I spoke my first words of French in third grade. I had dreamed of study abroad or living a year in Paris like the better-off students I knew, but I had to earn money. I didn’t get to Paris until my thirties, and then with a husband who inexplicably didn’t care for it. After came the years of working on the book, when I didn’t give myself the luxury of going anywhere not directly connected to it. For decades I had lived in the cave of obligation. Somehow I felt that the city that drew a great man in search of freedom would free me, too.

I had vowed not to set foot on the Right Bank, because I wanted to live in Wright’s Paris, which was on the Left Bank. My first hours there, I walked down le boulevard Saint--Germain, past the patisseries and clothiers, along streets Wright had surely walked. I came upon Saint--Germain-des-Prés itself, the Romanesque abbey that gives the district its name and which the tourists and Parisians around me seemed not even to notice. The church is the plain-faced cousin of the showier Notre-Dame. I went inside, my step quickening at the thought that I was seeing a primal piece of Paris. There I found not the gilded opulence of many later cathedrals but an ancient, barrel-vaulted ceiling with centuries of dreams and dust still gathered in its crevices. I took a seat on what looked like a ladder-back farm chair, in one of the rows upon rows of them lashed unevenly together, giving the effect of a schoolroom from another century. It was a humble and unpretentious place that demanded nothing and expected nothing other than respect for its years and wisdom. I closed my eyes and breathed deep, the first chance I’d had to truly be in the moment, to truly be still, in years.

But I had not come thisfar to sit in one place, so soon I was off to a shrine of a different sort, a literary one, the Café de Flore. Eighty years ago, you would have found Hemingway and Fitzgerald there, then 20 years later Wright himself, but now it is the preserve of tourists with backpacks and iPads. The legends sat there before they knew they’d be legends, facing the same mirrored walls and gilded chandeliers, germinating the words that would one day bring them fame.

Wright was born in 1908 outside Natchez, deep in the Delta, a blood-soaked land where the bodies of people who looked like him turned up in rivers and nothing was done about it. He fled the South in 1927 for Chicago and then New York, where in 1940 his novel Native Sonwas published to acclaim. But the caste system he’d tried to escape had a way of hunting him down. He offered cash for a country house north of the city, but the owner refused to sell to a black man. Barbers in Greenwich Village refused to cut his hair; restaurants refused to serve him. Then Gertrude Stein, who loved his work, arranged for him to come to Paris, reserving a suite for him at the Hotel Trianon, near her apartment on the Left Bank. Finally, he was seen as an author who happened to be black rather than the other way around.

I wanted to feel that, too, to shed the assumptions of an American society that still struggles with the ghosts of caste and history. At Café de Flore, I chose a corner table in front of a curve of windows and ordered a double espresso avec lait chaudas I watched Paris pass by. A middle-aged man took the seat next to me and asked where I was from, how long I’d been in Paris, what I did for a living, all with the charming intensity of interest common in European men. He had salt-and-pepper hair and was dressed in a dark suit and tie. He had a copy of Le Figaro and said his name was Carlo. Even though I had come to Flore to commune with myself and my writer ancestors, I decided to allow him the attention he seemed to be seeking. He was from Florence and did some writing—fiction, screenplays—and some investing; he visits Paris as often as he can.

“What do you like to do when you come to Paris?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s the hardest thing of all to do.”

I would contemplate those words for the rest of the trip as I followed in the footsteps of Richard Wright. Paris, it turned out, had not been the Eden that Wright had sought. On a chilly day in November 1948, James Baldwin arrived. He was 24 years old and had $40 to his name. Baldwin went directly to Les Deux Magots, where he found Wright. The middle-aged novelist greeted the younger writer and invited him to join his table, introducing him to the editors of Zero, a Parisian literary journal of the day. Nothing would be the same after that.

From Zero Baldwin received his first assignment in Paris. He would use it to establish himself in France by critiquing the work that had made his mentor famous, Native Son. The day the story appeared, Wright was at a table at Brasserie Lipp, across from Les Deux Magots. Baldwin walked in. Wright called him over and accused him of betrayal. “Richard was right to be hurt,” Baldwin would later write. “He had never really been a human being for me, he had been an idol. And idols are created in order to be destroyed.”

I felt the need to go to Brasserie Lipp, where the seed of disillusionment was planted in a man who had journeyed so far to find himself. It’s a narrow, mirrored space, and I took a table where I imagined Wright might have sat so he could see anyone who entered. I was joined by expatriate American writer Jake Lamar, who had moved to Paris soon after the publication of his well-received 1991 memoir, Bourgeois Blues, about his journey from a troubled family in the Bronx to the Ivy League. He had come speaking no French and was now fluent and livinghere with his wife. “I loved Paris from the moment I arrived,” he said. France isn’t perfect, he added, but it was freeing to be in a place where writers are valued for what they do rather than for how well they’re known and where he could escape the stereotypes and assumptions that bedevil African Americans in the U.S. Together we pondered what had driven the two men to diverge so abruptly and the effect this break had on Wright. Lamar is working on a play about their rivalry and the eternal questions it inspires: “Ambition, loyalty, betrayal, how we struggle with the political and the personal,” he said.

As dusk fell i mademy way to where Wright had spent most of his time in Paris: 14, rue Monsieur-le-Prince. It’s a quiet street on the Left Bank, near the Odéon theater. I passed the pharmacies and opticiensand the sellers of antiquités, the restaurants indonésiennesand japonais, to get to the brick and limestone apartment building that bears this history on a plaque: l’homme de lettres noir americain richard wright habita cet immeuble de 1948a 1959. Across the street, I crouched to get a picture, and as I did, I noticed a woman approaching the front door with a key. The heavy, cathedral-like door took a long time to close, so I was able to race across and slip inside. I had no illusion that I’d see his apartment—I merely wanted to get as close as fate would allow: He walked over this threshold. He passed through this foyer. He stood here collecting his mail. He saw the light coming through the courtyard at the rear of the anteroom. “I’ve found more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States,” he once said.

I planned to have dinner that evening at the Café Tournon, Wright’s favorite restaurant, and decided to walk there via le Jardin du -Luxembourg, its spaciousness almost decadent in such a tightly packed city. How many times Wright must have strolled its gravel promenades past the statuary and lavender and wildflowers. But soon a sadness came over me. In the arc of his life, Wright had not been in Paris long. He died here, at 52, of a heart attack. In his last few years, as the political winds shifted around him and younger writers took their place in his world, he tried to move to England, looking for the warmth of yet another sun. It was then that I realized the final paradox of the words that had meant so much to me.

How far away from home he had found himself, and how far from home I was at this moment. He had flung himself into the unknown and made something of himself, becoming far more famous than anyone could have imagined when he first came into the world. I, too, had flung myself into the unknown, hurling myself into the lives of a generation whose sacrifices I wanted the world to understand. In the process, everything that I’d known had fallen away, but I found something better than I could have imagined.

At that moment, I loved Paris as much as I ever could, yet I would have to make peace with what I would never get from it. I would never be a backpacking college student living on baguettes and café au lait in Montparnasse. I was on a different path, the one that was intended for me, the one that I made for myself. And had I not taken that path, I wouldn’t be who I am and wouldn’t have had the honor of writing my book. For me, in the end, there were no other suns. Yes, Wright and my parents and millions of other black Americans had needed to escape to freer soil. But, as Wright learned, perhaps too late, the sun had been within him all along, and whatever he had done—whatever any of us do—had come to be because he had willed it into being, and the sun, it turned out, had been within him, and within each of us, all along.

Richard Wright’s Paris

Sleeping

Hotel Bel-Ami,chic, modern, on a quiet side street ($280 to $850 a night; hotel-bel-ami.com).

Hotel Saint-Germain-des-Prés,a classic with a tiny elevator that carries guests to gabled rooms ($225 to $430 a night; hotel-paris-saint-germain.com).

Hotel Trianon(where I stayed for the first few nights), 1 bis et
3, rue de Vaugirard ($140 to $290 a night; paris-hotel-trianon.com).

Eating and people watching 

Café de Flore,a historic gathering place, 172, boulevard Saint-Germain (cafedeflore.fr).

Les Deux Magots,where Wright welcomed Baldwin to Paris; across from the church (lesdeux magots.fr/index.php).

Brasserie Lipp,where Wright and Baldwin ended their friendship; 151, boulevard Saint-Germain (groupe-bertrand.com/lipp.php).

Café Tournon,a favorite of Wright’s, across from le Jardin du Luxembourg (cafetournon.com).—I.W.

First Published Fri, 2012-09-07 09:53

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