Black American in Paris

Black American in Paris

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:


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.”

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.”

The Man Who Cried I Am is the kind of novel that many novelists dream of writing–a bulging bag that seems to contain everything the author knows about life. It is a book that hums with sound and smell, and a good deal more hate than love. Its greatest strength is in making the reader feel the height and solidity of the oppressive wall that Max, Harry and others must negotiate daily, just to hoist themselves up to safety, to be able to say, “I am.” In his introduction to the new edition, Walter Mosley compares it to The Odyssey and Max to Odysseus. “And the journey home is more dangerous than Odysseus could ever imagine,” he writes with reckless abandon. The minutiae of Max’s existence are crammed in, from his talent to his paranoia, down to his culinary skills. An odd touch of authenticity is added by the graphic descriptions of a rectal illness that plagues him throughout. The Man Who Cried I Am takes lungfuls of breath from the author’s angry energy, and from his ability to convey to the reader his belief that he is uncovering hidden truths.

While Williams succeeds in bringing Max Reddick to life, he fails to make him likable. Max is a bristling bundle of conspiracy theories, glued together with hatred for white men and desire for white women. The latter seems at times closer to sadism than affection. Nothing good happens to Max–a job at Pace magazine (for Pace, read Time), a White House speechwriting assignment–that is not the product of white men’s cynical maneuvering. There is scarcely a white male character who isn’t a creep, and hardly a white female character who is not the target of the “cocksman” Max fancies himself. From one point of view, it is a bravura depiction of a peculiar pathology. From another, it feels as if Williams, intending to create a hero, has brought into being an emotional Frankenstein.

Williams emerged as the patience of the civil rights movement was hardening to anger, and he has always been an angry writer. His books are apt to take anger as a viable substitute for morality. His first novel was called The Angry Ones. In 1962 he edited a collection of writings called The Angry Black, to which he himself contributed a story about a writer, Wendell, who tries to seduce a white woman in her own home. She first welcomes his advances, then tries to disengage herself as her son is heard approaching, but Wendell holds her in a clinch just long enough for the 9-year-old to see them. By any standard of decency, Wendell’s rationale is tantamount to child abuse: “no matter how his mother explains it away, the kid has the image for the rest of his life.”

It is a form of revenge that Max Reddick could as easily have taken. In Max’s eyes, bad luck is a stranger to whites–“What have you got to be nervous about?” he teases an associate. “You’re white”–whereas almost every misfortune in a black life is traceable to color. Such an apprehension is enough to drive someone mad, and at times, rereading this novel, I felt that Max had taken leave of his senses. “Dying violently was a European habit,” he reflects at one point, thinking of a French friend:

All other deaths were commonplace. A European learned by his condition to expect catastrophe and invariably that was exactly what he received. In Europe, a winner was one who bested those common deaths arbitrarily assigned to others. You crawled, kissed behinds, ate merde, and grinned like you loved it. Living was everything. The final act of death was of no consequence; it was the living while everyone around died that counted.

Max’s sexual politics are likely to seem equally unappetizing to a present-day readership (and probably did to many in 1967). Women are there for the taking. Max is the kind of fellow who passes the time in his office making lists of those he has slept with. He and Harry keep up a running joke about the unique delights of “redheads.” The novel is shot through with reflections such as this, on Max’s Dutch girlfriend, Margrit: “Time sped by. Now, she was almost thirty. In Europe that made you an old maid or a lesbian. Or a whore. Managing an art gallery hadn’t helped. She had gone through a couple of painters, or more correctly, they had gone through her.”

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.

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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