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 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.

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