Thoughts on James Baldwin's Essay Equal In Paris

The laughter of the unaffected...

Reading Baldwin is thus far one of the most enjoyable experiences I have found in my life. Discovering him at University, the first book of his I picked up; Go Tell It on the Mountain, was a glistening key that unlocked for me a literary world filled to the brim with acerbic wit and heartbreaking observation.

From within the quilt-cave I created for myself in my Uni bedroom, I escaped the homogeneous surroundings of my Devon residence, and delved into Baldwin’s world; where ideology and conscience rang true. There was an acknowledgement that life can be so cuttingly unfair and unjust, and writing and reading was the first stop on a long trail of stop-offs that could act as some sort of remedy. It was something at least. 

From all the novels and essays of his that I have read, there is one that has always stuck with me; Equal In Paris. It's not the first piece that comes to mind when people think of Baldwin. There are many more...shall we say... ‘slap you round the face’ essays, more immediate in their honesty and morality. Baldwin often made his point by recounting raw personal life experiences or those of people closest to him. Equal In Paris isn’t quite like that.

The essay deals with an experience Baldwin had his first year living in Paris. He’d left the shores of his native America, in search of a land that would offer the chance for a man to build his identity around more than just the colour of his skin- something Baldwin later came to learn is not so easy to escape. A charge was brought against him for the theft of a hotel bed sheet, for which he would spend his Christmas behind bars, and experience firsthand the lunacy of the French justice system. 

I guess one of the reasons it holds so much resonance is the landmark it highlights in Baldwin’s journey. France acted as a beacon for the lost souls of young African Americans who were hungry to find a solid home for themselves, and the bohemian lifestyle of Paris cried out for them to cross the Atlantic and join the party. Equal in Paris is one of those moments when Baldwin realises that this mythical life of non-conformity and freeness is just that- a myth. His odyssey into identity will be a lot harder and longer than a simple geographical move. 

After all that Baldwin experiences in the essay; spending Christmas in a jail that sounds like a stage set from Les Miserables, it is through the eventual help of his American attorney friend that he is given back his freedom. Once liberated, clarity confirms that in this situation he wasn’t a black man, but an American, and that it was being an American that had acted as an alienating identity within the cell walls, against his French jailers. 

It’s a turning point in Baldwin’s identity; “In some deep, black, stony, and liberating way, my life, in my own eyes, began during that first year in Paris, when it was borne in on me that this laughter is universal and never can be stilled.” The laughter he talks of is that of the judge and policemen who can only chuckle at the fact he went to prison for a bed sheet. That laughter translates as a “well, what can you say” and a shrugging of the shoulders, that Baldwin would have been so used to in the US.

The laughter was not directed at him as a black man, but at him as a foreigner, seemingly unable to understand these french ways that the natives have no complaint with. That lifting of the veil; where a man realises that hate is not uniquely manifested towards him for the colour of his skin, but many other things too! "We dislike you for multiple reasons!" A strange moment for a person to find so liberating, and yet it is for Baldwin.

It’s something I’ve experienced, my mum and friends have too, and generations to come will probably experience it too. And Baldwin’s right, it is a moment of change in that person’s life, and it really is something that will never leave you.  

Illustration by Tamara-Jade Kaz