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Written on James Baldwin’s Birthday

“Insofar as the American public creates a monster, they are not about to recognize it. You create a monster and destroy it. It is part of the American way of life, if you like.” —James Baldwin, born on this day in 1924.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Baldwin said he had to leave New York because he was broke. “My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. I knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a nigger, and I knew what was going to happen to me. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”

He arrived in Paris in 1948 And he didn’t know a word of French. He didn’t know anyone and he didn’t want to know anyone. Later, when he encountered other Americans, he avoided them because they had more money than he did and Baldwin didn’t want to feel like a freeloader. The forty dollars he came with lasted me two or three days. After spending the last dime, to his surprise He was not thrown out of the hotel. The old lady from the family that owned the hotel nursed him back to health after three months.

It was in Paris where he spent the first nine years of a burgeoning career and wrote his first two novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, along with his best-known collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. He didn’t choose Paris for any particular reason other than that he had to get away from America. It was in Paris, he says, that he was first able to come to grips with his explosive relationship with himself and America. America had become an unhealthy milieu, where “you begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.”

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