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

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.”

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