A Dinner in France, 1973: Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and a Very Young Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Harmony Holiday on the Public-Private Tensions of Black Life in America

In the summer of 1973 Time magazine decided not to run a piece that it had commissioned, a conversation between James Baldwin and Josephine Baker about the African American experience of expatriate life. Time claimed the pair was “passé,” a couple of relics. Henry Louis Gates Jr., then 22, having just graduated from Yale and been hired as summer correspondent for Time, had conducted the interview in France as part of a longer series on Black expatriates, investigating why they’d remained in self-imposed exile even after the civil rights gains of the 1960s. And Time helped answer Gates’s question for him, making blatant then what remains clear today: America doesn’t respect Black people. Gates would take the dismissal of his piece and its subjects as further evidence that he could accomplish more as a critic than a reporter to help shape the public’s sense of Black culture outside and beyond the media’s preoccupation with fads and bottom lines.

The transcription we are left with feels abridged, but it blooms with a sense of intimacy as we accompany Gates on his assignment, first to Josephine’s favorite restaurant in Monte Carlo—where she lives with her 12 children—and then to Baldwin’s residence in St. Paul de Vence, where the three of them share a long night of wine, food, and discussion that begins with Gates moved to tears at just being in his hero Jimmy’s presence.

It reads like real encounter and makes it easy to forget that Jimmy and Josephine are dead now (or at least alive in a different way). The dialog creates an almost somatic experience, as if you’re at Jimmy’s table that summer in France: you hear the convivial clink of glass and silver, the humble, inevitable glamor of intimacy shared between the rightfully famous, the scent of sweet ferment and bread, whispers of despair and rapture concealed in etiquette and love. This is one of those rare, almost impossible occasions when we get to witness these icons as their friends did.

The beginner’s awe Henry Louis Gates couldn’t help but exude eventually settles into natural companionship, a kind of telepathic understanding that takes the form of asking all the right questions. He seems on the verge of an epiphanic laughter that is really just the relief of being seen, of no longer needing validation from a Yale classroom full of white people; Gates has found a space in which he does need to impress anyone, where he can be his improvised self. Animated by an authentic curiosity that keeps the exchange from descending into clichés he wisely suspends conventional codes of professionalism. To be at home with people is to feel safe enough to listen outside of fashion or trend. So we go home and listen. 

*

Jimmy Baldwin, by 1973, belonged to white liberals. They listened to him lament about the race problem—their problem—and they watched him on their talk shows, saw him hanging out with Bob Dylan and John F. Kennedy and Marlon Brando and Martin Luther King. That audience could forget that he loved Black people and Harlem and his large Black family and was self-taught and listened to the blues at home, wrote about Black life almost exclusively in his novels. That audience could imagine that this Black writer was testament to their ability to civilize us into a coherence that suited them. For white fans, there was no person, no man, there was the “gay, Black, writer,” the authority on all of their pathologies, who could redeem their treachery and make it sound pretty. He was their proof that they might have a soul, their reminder, so that they could go on pretending not to notice until he came out in the New Yorker again, yanking their consciences across 125th Street for an evening read.

In the summer of 1973 Time magazine decided not to run a piece that it had commissioned, a conversation between James Baldwin and Josephine Baker about the African American experience of expatriate life.

If you believe in things you don’t understand you suffer, we’re warned by Stevie Wonder; but whites will go on believing in their Black golden child without trying to understand him as a man, because we live in a culture that values morality by association, in which identities and virtues are signaled by what you consume not how or why you consume it. Everyone is always signifying.

What Black people have of Jimmy is what we’ve stolen back. Like his name, calling it how he called it, how the streets and his lovers, and closest friends, and family, and anyone who knows that James becomes Jimmy in the vernacular when it’s a Black man’s name, called it. James Baldwin was just my mom’s friend Jimmy, explained Maya Angelou’s son once, calling forth the version of him who is still ours and can still sit with us backstage. That summer in France Josephine Baker and Henry Louis Gates Jr. were with that version of Jimmy, the man himself, and in a way, we’re lucky Time rejected that level of Black social intimacy, because it means white people didn’t have that version of Baldwin to appropriate. Unfortunately, it also meant that Black people didn’t get him to love unadorned by white opinions, that we would have to dig and get lucky and happen upon a key into the tender domestic life of a man whose public life has all but estranged him from us and the world.

It’s in privacy that we get him back, in being given just enough of a glimpse behind the fanfare to imagine Jimmy and his Black friends gathered at his dinner table in St. Paul de Vence, moving through laughter and intensity, then resolving the long evening like the last line of a song. As Black people it’s these details about the private lived experience of our heroes that we long for, that most heal us, because these are the places where they code switch in ways white people miss but we recognize, in ways that make us feel like we’re a part of their legacy and worthy of its inheritance because we recognize that private language, almost erotic in its perpetual battle with loss of itself.

We can hear where James Baldwin becomes Jimmy. We can sense that Josephine Baker is critiquing her white audiences in France, not pandering to them, by the way she discusses them in private. When she takes to the stage eyes splayed in a pretend bulge, ass kissing a skirted bunch of bananas barely covering it, she’s showing whites their callow understanding of Blackness, laughing at them. She uses them to abdicate that image by serving it back to them, their ridiculous Black fantasies. When they respond with rapture and become obsessed with tanning on the Riviera, she has succeeded—they know nothing about her but their burnt cafe olé skin. So that when she tells Gates the French got sick trying to get tan like Josephine Baker she’s ours again, not a legendary doll whites imitate but a woman we relate to who tricked them into admitting they wished they were Black. When she tells Gates and Jimmy that the US would not allow her back in the country until Kennedy became president, we realize how afraid white Americans are of their desire to be Black like Josephine Baker, afraid enough to try and pretend she didn’t exist, or to criminalize her existence, or to position her as some kind of  ridiculous clown muse. Jimmy and Josephine share this lens into each other because they are both keen to what their every mannerism does to the white world, the way they’ve hypnotized their white fans with natural Black beauty and candor.

But even the chosen Blacks are only chosen for a specific purpose for a specific time before being discarded by the media machine—it is only those who choose themselves first who can endure it all, and they endure by knowing this. Gates’s interview lets us witness Jimmy and Josephine choosing themselves, away from the country that endangers their psyches; they are relaxed, casual, in a land far from toxic scrutiny.

We can hear where James Baldwin becomes Jimmy. We can sense that Josephine Baker is critiquing her white audiences in France, not pandering to them, by the way she discusses them in private.

America would change if it could, if that change didn’t hurt, Jimmy points out, after they both profess their love for stubborn America. Jimmy had left for Paris with $40 in his pocket in 1948 after the suicide of his best friend. Josephine left in 1924, the year Jimmy was born, haunted by the St. Louis riots she had witnessed as a child and the stifling weight of those ruins. They were both running away, choosing life over fidelity to a nation that had only betrayed them and seemed intent on killing them or burying them alive.

One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be Black, Josephine admits. I felt liberated in Paris. People didn’t stare at me. And Jimmy experienced a similar reprieve from the nauseating white gaze: The French, you see, didn’t see me, on the other hand they watched me, some people took care of me, else I would have died, but they left me alone. They talk of Vietnam and Watergate. My Lai happened first with the Indians (in the US) Baker asserts. And Jimmy: Watergate is a bunch of incompetent hoods who got caught in the White House in the name of law and order. You can tell they’re outside of the US because they don’t euphemize, they know the heart of the crisis of Americanism and don’t pretend one event is disconnected from another because it makes for less biting analysis. At the same time they both have an unshakeable stage presence, the result of innate charisma turned public; it’s not that they perform, it’s that a part of them is always anchored in the very gaze they left the US to escape.

The privacy of the dinner table is marred by an imagined public who might read their responses to Gates’s questions. They are still in the west. But they will bait that public ruthlessly if they feel like it, because the CIA isn’t close, they aren’t Angela Davis or Fred Hampton trapped in the surveillance machine—and although still scrutinized, they’re simply less likely to be targets of state-sponsored assassinations at this stage.

*

Josephine details how as a child she witnessed people running through the streets of St. Louis, bloodied, gashed, one pregnant woman with a fetus cut from her womb, and it haunts her and the hearer and extends to her and Jimmy, fugitives who found their voices through displacement. By the time of this on-the-record exchange they have used their escapes to reattach their own severed tongues, to unite thought, speech, and act in a way that the USA works to prevent.

I was the exotic attraction of the beast no longer in the cage, Jimmy concludes. I imagine that narrowed, arrowing glint he carried in his eyes, half-laughing, half sorrowful, always retaliatory, in that admission. And I imagine Josephine nodding, having been reduced to the bestiary of the west more often than seen as human. And I wonder what it might be like in exile with them, to really get out and be looking at the US as a place you’re from not a place you’re beholden to or, worse, submitting to.

The privacy of the dinner table is marred by an imagined public who might read their responses to Gates’s questions.

Time claimed to have rejected Gates’s account of this conversation because its subjects weren’t relevant enough for the pages of their elevated gossip columns in that specific year; but what they really rejected was this glimpse of Black Americans existing outside of the fame-makers’ imaginations. Time refused to spread that rumor and give it more momentum. America resents the Black people who get away, from W.E.B. DuBois to Paul Robeson, from Jimmy to Josephine, always attempting to make a scandal of the pursuit of sanity and self-knowledge that’s really at the center of exile. And so, few of us do get out.

This modest gathering in the south of France in 1973 proves there is life after America, that Black Americans are not required to stick it out, that there are aspects of Black private life the media will never acknowledge, in the US or abroad, life that we must seek out and understand if we want to love our mutual heroes beyond parasitic worship. This exchange moves us to seek out more like it, more places where Black people made connections and came together for private conversation: Sun Ra and John Coltrane, Amiri and Malcolm X, Sun Ra and Malcolm X, Abbey Lincoln and Miriam Makeba, the almost collaboration between Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. There are many meetings on and off the record that, were we made aware of them, would change our concept of what’s possible. This extends to large festivals born of the spirit of these private meetings: FESTAC in 1977, the Pan-African Congresses, Wattstax, Black Woodstock. Black social life is more diverse and organized and warm and daring than the white media would ever like us to believe.

Jimmy Baldwin and Josephine Baker, embracing at the Welcome Table, inspiring Jimmy’s play by that name, is our key into a world we make possible by sharing. We are told Black life is chaotic, that we don’t organize and plan enough to transcend white bureaucracy, and yet socially, privately, we are a network of tongues cut out, shared, and returned as song and plan. This would be the last physical meeting between Jimmy and Josephine—she died on stage two years later. Time would like to be the arbiter of our understanding of the relationship between this meeting and the world, would be glad to disappear the residue of this glorious summer evening in France; but it turns out that magazines cannot control who we bring to our last Black suppers or how we nourish one another off the record.

To be Black in America is to have contemplated fleeing this country, but here we’re reminded that we also escape its bleak expectations every time we come together for dinner, every time we demand the privacy of our own memories, and every time—like Jimmy and Josephine and Henry—we imbue an assignment or interview with so much love we lose track of personae and become one another’s truths.

Harmony Holiday
Harmony Holiday
Harmony Holiday is a poet, dancer, archivist, mythscientist and the author of Negro League Baseball (Fence, 2011), Go Find Your Father/ A Famous Blues (Ricochet 2014) and Hollywood Forever (Fence, 2015). She was the winner of the 2013 Ruth Lily Fellowship and she curates the Afrosonics archive, a collection of rare and out-of print-lps highlighting work that joins jazz and literature through collective improvisation.





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