In the spring of 1960, the year of his death, the novelist Richard Wright wrote from Paris to his friend and Dutch translator Margrit de Sablonière:
You must not worry about my being in danger…. I am not exactly unknown here and I have personal friends in the de Gaulle cabinet itself. Of course, I don’t want anything to happen to me, but if it does my friends will know exactly where it comes from…. So far as the Americans are concerned, I’m worse than a Communist, for my work falls like a shadow across their policy in Asia and Africa…. They’ve asked me time and again to work for them: but I’d rather die first.
This letter contains the essence of John A. Williams’s roman à clef, The Man Who Cried I Am, first published in 1967. Wright, an ex-Communist who had turned his back on the party and moved to France in 1946 but had never succeeded in throwing off the attentions of the American government, died unexpectedly in a Paris clinic eight months after writing those words to Sablonière in Leiden, Holland, and their eerie prescience has kept speculation about his death smoldering ever since. The Man Who Cried I Am, which opens in Leiden, brings a heavy load to the fire. It charts the journey through the 1940s and ’50s of Max Reddick, a black novelist and journalist, leading up to the death of Reddick’s friend and mentor, Harry Ames. Harry is an expatriate former Communist living in Paris with a white wife and a career on the slide. “I’m the way I am, the kind of writer I am, and you may be too,” he tells Max early in the novel, which proceeds by way of flashbacks and a jigsaw structure, “because I’m a black man; therefore we’re in rebellion; we’ve got to be. We have no other function as valid as that one.”
This repudiation of writing that is not politically committed sets the tone of The Man Who Cried I Am. In the parallel, real-life story that runs a few feet below the surface of Williams’s novel, Harry’s remark also serves as a dismissal of James Baldwin’s famous attack on Richard Wright as the author of “protest fiction” in his precocious essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” published in Partisan Review in 1949. Harry Ames is decisively committed, or as his French friends would have said, engagé. Harry has long been a thorn in the flesh of the American government, and Max suspects that someone–even someone from among their own cafe circle–was deputed to kill him. For Max, Harry’s very existence was a challenge to white power; so his death is one more deferment of the dream of racial justice. The consequences, as set out here, are likely to be apocalyptic. Williams was surely in earnest in predicting a bloody reckoning, for he followed The Man Who Cried I Am with Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, a story written in the late 1960s but set in the next decade, with the uprising about to begin.
Wright was the pioneer and leader of a school of black writers who left behind the hazards of daily life in the United States in the late 1940s and early ’50s for the comparative freedoms of France. Those who followed included not only Baldwin but also Chester Himes, William Gardner Smith and Richard Gibson. In his journal in January 1945, a year before his migration, Wright described Paris as “a place where one could claim one’s soul.”