Expats: Martin Luther Queen

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Photo by Allan Warren.

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition,” wrote James Baldwin in Giovanni’s Room. Seeking sanctuary from the burdens of life as a queer black man in 1940s Harlem, Baldwin expatriated to Paris where he was able to begin demystifying what it meant to be an American, and where he created the works that would mark him as one of the best – and most critically contested – exile writers of all time. “Exile saved my life,” he reflected 13 years later.

The grandson of a slave, James Baldwin was born into extreme poverty in 1924, during the Harlem Renaissance’s cultural heyday, and raised in the shadow of his preacher stepfather. Though he became ordained at 14, he later left the church. His years at the pulpit left its distinct mark on his tongue, and, at times, his writing echoed the fiery vigor of a sermon.

The Left Bank’s literati and the greater community of artistic expats embraced Baldwin when he moved to Paris in 1948, a choice he felt forced to make. “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France – it was a matter of getting out of America. If I stayed there, I would have gone under.” He later added, “The best thing I ever did in my life was leave America and go to Paris.”

His move was in part an attempt to strip his identity as a “Negro writer” of its American context, but the farther he ventured abroad, the more visible the mechanics of his home country became; the better he was able to compass his position within it:

“Perhaps only someone who is outside of the States realizes that it’s impossible to get out. One sees [American society] better from a distance, from another place, from another country”.

Baldwin frustrated readers who sought to identify him in simple terms, labeling his work “too militant” or “too gay.” Bobby and John F. Kennedy frequently referred to him as “Martin Luther Queen,” which caught on with some civil rights leaders of the day, and later, with pride, by younger generations of devout readers.

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