James Baldwin’s influence continues to inspire generations of intellectuals, rising artists, academics, and writers. The “Authors’ Corner” gives writers of recent works on Baldwin’s life in St. Paul de Vence an opportunity to share messages they hope visitors will embrace after exploring the Chez Baldwin online exhibition.
An internationally renowned James Baldwin scholar, Magdalena J. Zaborowska collaborated with the Museum on this exhibition which serves as a companion to her second book on Baldwin. From the 1970s until Baldwin’s death in 1987, writer and Stanford University lecturer Cecil Brown spent substantial periods of time at Baldwin’s house in St. Paul de Vence as Baldwin’s friend and literary comrade. Their works reveal the extensive meaning Baldwin’s life has held for many people, regardless of time, race, or place. Jules Farber, a noted American writer who has spent much of his life living in Europe, settled in the South of France and became interested in Baldwin while visiting nearby St. Paul de Vence.
By Magdalena J. Zaborowska
Through my research on James Baldwin, I have learned that he was a great, unique human being, who was supported and nurtured at the home he forged in St. Paul de Vence. I document my knowledge of his experience there in my book Me and My House: James Baldwin’s Last Decade in France, which I published in 2018. In his lifetime, Baldwin suffered the markings of difference, yet insisted that our unique origins and selves are something that make all people kin. He spoke often about the need for a metaphorical touching and being touched by others, for human contact that acknowledges and celebrates connection, commonality of suffering, and understanding despite difference, politics, and the ravages of history. This message is one that this exhibition intends to convey.
At a time when few African Diaspora artists have their material legacy commemorated through brick-and-mortar sites, this digital James Baldwin exhibition invites visitors to imagine walking through Baldwin’s last residence. With images of the inside of the house and images of objects salvaged from the house before its demolition, this exhibition explores how his house framed and elucidated Baldwin’s complex works and life story as a black gay man with roots in Harlem. There he fled the dual discrimination of racism and homophobia by settling in Europe. By showcasing artifacts that were originally abandoned after his death as debris and refuse, this exhibition makes a larger case for salvaging remnants of black lives and for using computer technology to preserve them as part of a national cultural heritage that belongs to us all.
Magdalena J. Zaborowska
Magdalena J. Zaborowska is Professor of Afroamerican and American Studies and the John Rich Faculty Fellow at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan, and the author and coeditor of several books, including James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile and How We Found America: Reading Gender through East European Immigrant Narratives.
With Baldwin at the Welcome Table
By Cecil Brown
It was oppressively hot that summer of 1973, when I had taken a train from Paris to St. Paul de Vence to visit James Baldwin. I had recently published my first novel with the politically incorrect title, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, which was being translated into French.
I arrived in Nice in the dark of night, and Baldwin met me in a Mercedes filled with his friends, en route to a party. We arrived at the party, and I noticed the mix of white and black people and that everybody seemed to like everybody else. I was a bit in awe of Baldwin’s presence and the ease with which he conducted himself. They started to pass around a marijuana joint. While dancing to the loud music, Baldwin handed me the joint. “I’d like to read about this in your next novel!” he said.
At Baldwin’s medieval villa in St. Paul, I awoke at four o’clock in the morning to the clanking of the electric Adler typewriter in Baldwin’s studio beneath my guest room. I looked out the small window into the distance, and I could see a little village at the foot of the mountains. Baldwin’s villa was high on a hill with a sweeping view of the Mediterranean. I went downstairs and sat down at an outdoor table. Baldwin called this the “welcoming table.” I learned a lot about Baldwin at this table and during the ensuing years that we became friends. I learned about who and what mattered most to him. I wrote about some of my conversations with him in St. Paul in my 2019 article With James Baldwin at the Welcome Table.
What I hope visitors to this digital James Baldwin House exhibition will learn about Jimmy, as everyone called him, is that he loved young people. He loved the vision that they held about the world. He respected their curiosity, and their willingness to take a chance, and he admired that young people were often reaching for something else in life. He always wanted to know their thoughts and their hopes for the future.
I think this affinity for youth was derived from his own experience as a young person living in Paris. From age 24 into his thirties, he lived the life of a poor young person in Paris. At times, he slept on cobblestone and rooftops and was always bumming cigarettes from his white American friends. The experience of being young and broke stay with him all of his life.
Cecil Brown is a senior lecturer in urban studies at Stanford University, where he is the principle investigator for the George Moses Horton Project at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA).
Brown is also a playwright, film maker, and novelist. Two of his novels include, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger (1969), described by Nigel Hatton as “a masterful cult classic of satire, wanderlust and transatlantic freedom,” and Days Without Weather (1983), described by James Baldwin as a “moving allegory concerning the various prices of art, love, and life and, most specifically, the black American’s struggle to be an accomplice to his own destruction.”
James Baldwin in Saint-Paul de Vence
By Jules B. Farber
James Baldwin was a remarkable man, who left a literary legacy that is currently experiencing a global renaissance. This digital Baldwin exhibition, which highlights Baldwin’s life and work through the lens of his house in Saint-Paul de Vence, should reveal Baldwin’s strong, determined character and his courage to make friends and make a place for himself in a walled-in, medieval village in the South of France.
Originally from the United States, I have lived the past decade in France, in a town not terribly far from Baldwin’s residence. I first learned about Baldwin while dining in the iconic la Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul. I had spotted a photo of Baldwin pinned up in a hallway. When I queried our waiter, a big smile came across his face as he responded, “Our Jimmy was part of the family.” At that moment an idea struck, “Write about Baldwin’s little-known self-exile in Saint-Paul in the South of France!” From this idea, my book was born—James Baldwin: Escape from America, Exile in Provence, which I published in 2016.
Long before I began research for the book, I was a devotee of Baldwin’s writing but was never aware that he had spent the last seventeen years of his life in the region of France where I was living. He had arrived in 1970 and died here in 1987. His settling in an all-white village, which had never had a black person in its midst, was an incredible challenge he was ready to take, even remembering the racism and taunts during an earlier sojourn in cosmopolitan Paris. With his charm and big, toothy smile, he quickly won acceptance from the locals, while his elderly landlady, an Algerian French woman, who distrusted people of color, was finally charmed and ended up in love with him. Everyone from the area whom I interviewed for my book confirmed that he had firmly found his place as “Jimmy” among them.
I came to realize that the house and village provided the tranquility for Baldwin to produce barrier-breaking work about racism, sex, religion and intolerance. The forcefulness of his writing was criticized on all sides, even from antagonistic young black writers. Despite the searing, personal attacks, he remained through his fury a gentle soul. Unfortunately, his predictions that racism would escalate were scoffed, but his predictions proved to be accurate. With fortitude, he never gave up his stride against racism. Fear of criticism never daunted him, not in the power of his fiction or the elegance of his words.
Jules B. Farber
Jules B. Farber attended Rutgers University where he received a Bachelor of Literary Letters in journalism. While residing in Amsterdam, he wrote for various American and European publications and was awarded the prestigious William the Silent Award for the best articles published in the American press about the Netherlands. Since moving to Provence, France, he has written three books, all published in French and English, and one in German, and continues to publish in American and international media.