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 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.

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