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What Does It Mean to Be an American? The Dialectics of Self-Discovery in Baldwin's “Paris Essays” (1950–1961)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2008


This article looks at a number of James Baldwin's early essays. These include “Stranger in the Village” (1953), “A Question of Identity” (1954), “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” (1950) and “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American” (1959). In these essays Baldwin resolves the contradiction between his sense of himself as an individual and his racial identity by affirming both his American citizenship and his racial identity as a source of cultural strength and authority. He conceives of race in dialectical terms, with the African American as the dynamic agent in a process envisaged as leading to an overcoming of both whiteness and blackness in favour of a reformulated American nationalism.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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1 All citations of Baldwin's essays are taken from The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction 1948–1985 (London: Michael Joseph, 1985). Subsequently abbreviated within the text as PT.

2 For example Horace A. Porter, Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 82; Jocelyn Whitehead Jackson, “The Problem of Identity in Selected Early Essays of James Baldwin” (1978) in Fred Standley and Nancy Burt, eds., Critical Essays on James Baldwin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988), 254–57; Michel Fabre, From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France 1840–1980 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 195–211; idem, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 362; Melvin Dixon, Ride out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in African-American Literature (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 123–33; Michelle M. Wright, “Alas Poor Richard! Transatlantic Baldwin, the Politics of Forgetting, and the Project of Modernity” in Dwight A. McBride, ed., James Baldwin Now (New York: New York University Press, 1999) 208–28.

3 David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1994), 104–5; James Campbell, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 144.

4 For example William J. Spurlin, “Culture, Rhetoric, and Queer Identity”; and Roderick A. Ferguson, “The Parvenu Baldwin and the Other Side of Redemption: Modernity, Race, Sexuality, and the Cold War,” both in McBride, 107–97 and 234–56 respectively.

5 Lawrie Balfour, The Evidence of Things not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy (London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 56, Ross Posnock, Colour and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 225–26.

6 Balfour, 56.

7 C. W. E. Bigsby, “The Divided Mind of James Baldwin” (1980), in Standley and Burt, 106–7, Balfour, 2.

8 Leeming, 65.

9 Campbell, 49.

10 Ibid., 155.

11 Donald Pizer, American Expatriate Writing and the Paris Moment (London: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 1.

12 Ibid., 1.

13 Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (London: Flamingo, 1993; first published 1934), 35; Pizer, 75.

14 Miller, 157.

15 Leeming has described it as “the most Jamesian of Baldwin essays” and “a revisiting of the problems James takes up in The Ambassadors.” Leeming, 104.

16 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (London: Routledge, 2003; first published 1943), 246.

17 James Baldwin, interview with Studs Terkel, WFMT Chicago Almanac programme, 1961, reprinted in Fred L. Standley and Louis H. Pratt, eds., Conversations with James Baldwin (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1989), 17.

18 Fabre, From Harlem to Paris, 200.

19 Bigsby, “The Divided Mind of James Baldwin,” 100; Balfour, The Evidence of Things not Said, 118; Karen Moller, The Theme of Identity in the Essays of James Baldwin (Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1975), 26.

20 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (London: Pluto, 1986; first published 1952), 109, 135.

21 Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 8) notes, “American means white.”

22 Balfour, 28.

23 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” cited from The Norton Anthology of American Literature (6th edition), Volume B, 1820–1865, ed. Nina Baym (W. W. Norton and Co.: New York, 2003), 1107.

24 Randolph Bourne, War and the Intellectuals: Essays 1915–1919 (Harper Row: New York, 1964), 109.

25 Posnock, Colour and Culture, 225.

26 For a detailed exposition of Baldwin's pessimistic view of history please consult James Miller, “A Warning to America: History, Politics and the Problem of Identity in the Fiction and Non-fiction of James Baldwin,” London University Ph.D. dissertation, 2006.