Black American in Paris | The Nation


Black American in Paris

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To what extent the reader is expected to accommodate Max because, as he says, "it was bad when I was born" (i.e., "born black"), is unclear, but I suspect that Williams feels he should be indulged quite a bit. Max certainly does. He lacks the faculty of self-examination. For example, he is said to be unpopular at the houses that have published his novels because "he...liked white women." Presented this way, it sounds like blatant racism, but might not the publishers simply be collating the observation about his love life with an insight Max provides into his own character: "Max had already given himself a name; he was a pimp without briefcase.... you borrowed money from the girl and the girl knew you'd never pay it back, and chances were, every time you met you'd borrow more money"? In Max's endlessly self-justifying hatred of the outside world, his tireless generalizing, there is no need for self-scrutiny, for every personal criticism can be deflected by the countercharge of racism.

About the Author

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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Various figures who circled in Wright's orbit during his fourteen years in France are depicted under light disguise in The Man Who Cried I Am. A scene in a Left Bank cafe, involving Max, Harry Ames and a young disciple of Harry's called Marion Dawes, is a rough rendering of a meeting that took place in the spring of 1953 between Wright, Himes (the character of Max contains elements of Himes) and Baldwin. It was during this stormy encounter, recorded by all three principals, that Baldwin gave warning to Wright, "The sons must slay the fathers." In the first volume of his memoirs, The Quality of Hurt, Himes described the incident, adding that he thought at the time that Baldwin had gone crazy; "but in recent years I've come to better understand what he meant."

No such empathy is extended to the Baldwin character, Marion Dawes, who is treated unkindly. Baldwin and Williams, almost exact contemporaries, were never close, and it's hard to imagine that Baldwin would have been amused to see himself as Marion Dawes, whose homosexuality makes him a target for Max's disgust and ridicule. (It is suggested that Dawes gained a fellowship by means of which he moved to France by sleeping with certain people; in real life, Baldwin got a Eugene F. Saxton award on the recommendation of Wright.) Crucially for Max and Harry, Dawes is not a "writer in rebellion." The young Baldwin's concerns were more aesthetic than political, and he spent his nine years in Paris coaching his heart to exorcise the outrage that he feared would kill him if left to fester. Max, on the other hand, is consumed by anger. He cannot pick up the telephone without seeing it as "another one of the white man's inventions," and reflecting that it was "ironic that one must inevitably come to use the tools of the destroyer in order to destroy him, or to save oneself."

Near the end of the novel, Max is trying to relay to a Malcolm X figure, Minister Q, the contents of a file discovered among Harry's papers, which outlines the King Alfred Plan, an FBI- and CIA-designed scheme to "terminate, once and for all, the Minority threat" and to consolidate the league of nations known as the "Alliance blanc," or White Alliance. In his afterword, Williams compares the King Alfred Plan, his own invention, to intelligence programs devised by J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s to monitor the movements of black militants, which did not become public until much later. Harry is already a victim of the King Alfred Plan, and Max fears that he is about to become another.

The Man Who Cried I Am is an absorbing story about the way some people were thinking and acting in the 1950s. It is driven by a furious beat, and constantly illuminated by the real-life drama behind the fictional one. It is let down by loose writing and a lack of generous characterization. The latter may be ascribed to Max's solipsism, and no doubt there are powerful psychological reasons for that, but a solipsist is hardly a trustworthy guide. Walter Mosley's ingenious classical comparison must be tested against the objection that Max is not a tragic hero but a pathetic one, wounded as much by vanity and self-pity as by racism.

Does the conspiracy theory about Wright's death have any basis in reality? No one has provided a shred of forensic evidence to support the notion that he was murdered. From another angle, however, it is possible to argue that Wright's premature death was willed by the state. In the early 1990s, I visited Wright's widow, Ellen, in her apartment in St-Germain des Près. She spoke about Wright's quarrels with Baldwin and others, and said how futile it all seemed to her now that these great men were gone. "My husband lived with tension all his life," Mrs. Wright said. "Every day, awful tension." If there is an alternative cause of death to be inserted beside the official entry on Wright's records, then that is surely it.

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