When I first read James Baldwin at about age sixteen, I didn’t quite understand everything in Notes of a Native Son. But I knew the powerful prose was important and that I would return to it. Baldwin at that point had been dead for close to a decade. I’d come across a dog-eared paperback of Notes of a Native Son in the public library, where I worked after school. I imagined Baldwin a robust man whose presence was as commanding as his work. When I saw pictures of him as I began to explore more of his writing in college, his pronounced features—his intense globular eyes, his ingratiating gap-toothed grin—clarified something about his work for me. He always saw well beyond the surface unlike any other writer of his generation or any other writer since. He saw well beyond the bullshit of the American Dream and called it out. No matter how stinging the truths he told, his language—reverent and often poetic—was anchored in unflinchingly honest love.
I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
In recent years, there’s been something of a Baldwin renaissance, culminating in last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, the Oscar-nominated documentary based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. The house where the legendary author spent his last years, a long dilapidated structure in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, has made headlines in the last week. The site will be developed into a luxury apartment complex called Le Jardin des Arts and is slated to open by June 2019. Novelist Shannon Cain organized His Place in Provence, a preservationist group that had raised funds to save Baldwin’s house, where back in the day he hosted the likes of Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. He also wrote one of his best works, If Beale Street Could Talk, in the house nestled in a medieval village. But Cain’s efforts and those of other preservationists have failed. The irony is rich: The home of a man who spoke so perceptively about the deleterious effects of poverty, about the bruises it leaves on the psyche and the soul, will become sleek apartments for the well-to-do.
Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.
The new development where Baldwin’s home used to be is reminiscent of the gentrification that’s taken over historically black sections of several cities in America, including Washington, DC. Sections of Harlem and Brooklyn in New York have seen it, too. And there have been several stories of cultural clashes between the whites moving into those areas and the few black residents still there. Clusters of new high-rise luxury homes with outrageous rents, expensive boutiques and Starbucks have long pushed out indigenous businesses. The changes were inevitable, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that a rich cultural history by marginalized people in such areas has become lost.
When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and neither did I. That I was a savage about whom the less said the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And, of course, I believed it....Everyone else seemed to agree. If you walk out of Harlem, ride out of Harlem, downtown, the world agrees. What you see is much bigger, cleaner, whiter, richer, safer. And it would seem then, of course, that it’s an act of God that this is true; that you belong where white people have put you.
Despite the recent celebrations of Baldwin’s legacy, the loss of his final home, the place where he settled after years of shuffling back and forth between Europe and the United States, is deeply sad. If any international figure of literature deserves such preservation, it’s Baldwin. The walls that saw many lively parties and Baldwin banging out his final masterpieces will soon be gone forever. But we still have his words, and their power will never cease to resonate and enlighten.
I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.
About the Author
Rashod Ollison was an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He was a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Journal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lived in Virginia Beach.