Black American in Paris | The Nation


Black American in Paris

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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:

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James Campbell
James Campbell's books include Exiled in Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett and Others on the Left...

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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."

That Harry Ames is a dead ringer for Richard Wright nobody would deny, least of all John A. Williams. In the 1990s, while researching a book about Anglophone literary life in Paris after the Second World War, I asked Williams if it was fair to make the connection between Ames and Wright. He said it was. When asked if Wright might have been been assassinated by the American security services, Williams replied, "I would say his death was highly suspicious" (he added, "I wouldn't put it any stronger than that"). His suspicions arose from conversations with people who were in France at the time of Wright's death, most notably the novelist Chester Himes, who had been close to Wright though the two were by then estranged. Asked why the government would risk murdering a writer who was no longer a force in the civil rights movement, Williams said, "I do believe there is such a thing as teaching people a lesson."

The official cause of Wright's death on November 28, 1960, was the obstruction of a coronary artery--a heart attack. His body was cremated, without a post-mortem. Almost immediately, rumors began to circulate that he had been poisoned. A mystery woman was said to have visited his bedside an hour before he died. There was talk of an urgent telegram dispatched from the clinic. In his memoir, My Life of Absurdity, Himes named a "soul brother" by whom Wright felt he "was being persecuted." More than thirty years later, a friend of Wright from Paris days, the cartoonist Ollie Harrington, told me, "I know Richard Wright was assassinated" (despite promptings, he remained vague as to how he knew). Speaking on a BBC radio program about her father in October 1990, Julia Wright put it more subtly, giving credence to "a CIA plot to isolate him, in order to make him more vulnerable," thus fatally undermining his health. After a poorly attended service--Wright's wife, Ellen, had wished to keep it closed--the author's ashes were interred in Père Lachaise cemetery. In The Man Who Cried I Am, Max attends Harry's funeral in Paris: "Charlotte, Harry's wife was there, a few Americans.... There were some Africans, a few Indians. And it was only twenty hours after Harry had died."

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