Back in 2020, I had applied to be the executive director of an organization called La Maison Baldwin. It was founded in 2016 after a valiant, but failed attempt to save James Baldwin’s home in the South of France from demolition. Although his former home had been taken over by luxury condominiums, the spirit of his life and legacy in the village of Saint Paul de Vence lived on in the mission of La Maison Baldwin–to cultivate and nurture a community of Black writers and artists by offering them the same rest and refuge that Baldwin found for himself in this little town.
I didn’t get the job and I was pretty devastated at the time. I thought all of the signs had been there. Here I was a Black writer in Paris. I had just written a piece about Baldwin and how his words were an angry, but necessary comfort to me as I watched the uprising after George Floyd’s murder from afar. In the interview process, I had even shared how Baldwin’s piece, Princes and Powers, was an inspiration for the three Paris trips I had planned for my fifth grade charter school students from 2016-2018. During those trips, we would bring our students together with French kids who looked a lot like them. Black and brown children, born and raised in Paris, but often regarded as “other” because of their North and West African heritage.
Like most disappointments, I eventually regarded the rejection as another “It wasn’t meant to be” moment and turned my attention elsewhere. But the loss of the opportunity to sit and work in the light of Baldwin’s legacy gnawed at me for some time afterwards. And even though I was invited to serve on the organization’s board, at the time, I knew it was best to exit stage right and lick my wounds in defeat.
A Delay, not a Denial
I’ve learned recently that the key to manifestation involves thought, feeling and inspired action. We’ve been mistakenly led to believe that we can just think something into existence, but it’s a bit more complex then that. We also have to embody the feeling of that manifestation realized–joy, relief, excitement–even before it is a reality. But most importantly, we have to pay attention to the inspired action that we are nudged to take. Not the actions we conjure up in our minds to force our reality, but those random impulses that land us in the right place at the right time. Those are the actions that bring our desires to fruition.
Enter September 2022. One evening, I went to an open mic at a small café in Paris to support a fellow writer as she read from her new book, The Glitter Horn. Sitting around in the dark, cavernous space, my friends and I were chatting about writing when we were approached by a woman, Shannon, who overheard our conversation and wanted to learn more. As she made her introduction, I realized that it was the founder of La Maison Baldwin. A face I had only seen on Zoom, she stood before me in flesh and blood and we both had a gradual realization of our brief history from two years prior. I harbored no hard feelings, but my curiosity about the young woman to whom Shannon had handed my defeat hung heavy in the interaction. Awkward, but gracious, Shannon humbly informed me that their choice didn’t work out.
The narrative of La Maison Baldwin’s last two years trickled out to me as Shannon and I reconnected over the subsequent weeks from our fateful reunion. Whichever of my professional assets she hadn’t fully appreciated before had come into full view this time around and by the end of 2022, I was offered the position of executive director at La Maison Baldwin. The moment was surreal and redemptive, full of possibility and enveloped in history, identity, and legacy.
The Two Jimmys
La Maison Baldwin’s core focus is to honor Baldwin’s life in the South of France. This place of refuge offered him the peace and solitude he needed to heal from the deaths of his friends during the Civil Rights Movement, notably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. But it was also a place of welcoming, joy, and love and saw the likes of Josephine Baker, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis as its esteemed guests, to name a few. There is so much to celebrate about Baldwin’s mark and legacy in this beautiful village in France.
But, as I was digging into LMB’s story and learning more about Baldwin’s own family’s perspectives about his second home in the world, I was intrigued by their articulation of his roots as a Harlem man and the importance of keeping that history in balance. While Saint Paul de Vence was where Baldwin chose to live out the last 17 years of his life, Harlem was where James Baldwin was born and formed. It was in Harlem that he was Jimmy, born right in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance in 1924, surrounded by the energy of this golden age of African-American literature, music, and art. To be born in Harlem, against the backdrop of the Great Migration, Baldwin was witness to the pride and possibility of Black beauty and success in all its forms.
I was reminded of my own father, another Jimmy from Harlem. Born two decades after Baldwin, he too knew the power and pride of the community. My father used to regale us with stories about how all of the mothers would keep an eye on the neighborhood kids each day so they couldn’t get away with too much mischief. Raised by his often strict mother, Cola, my father was in want of nothing as she taught him about the finer things in life and worked hard to send him to the best city schools. Cola and her brothers and sister had made that pivotal migration from the farmlands of Georgia to the big city, in search of opportunity and peace.
My father maintained his Harlem pride, but the death of his mother when he was only 22 and the backlash that followed the Civil Rights Movement in the name of the War on Drugs, redlining, and mass incarceration eventually drove him away from the community. My father had bigger dreams and knew that amidst the urban decline of the 70s and 80s, he could not achieve them on the Harlem streets that he loved so well. I remember as a kid, my dad would bring us to Harlem to visit his Aunt Ruby and each time, he would fondly reminisce about his days living on 151st Street. He would also lament the losses that Harlem experienced to its culture, pride, and standing in the world.
Just like Baldwin, my father sought to grieve and thrive in the green open spaces of the suburbs. Jimmy Phillips fundamentally knew that he could not provide the life for his family that he wanted by keeping us in New York City. Looking back, I admire his drive and his vision. Like Baldwin, he had a sense of his own greatness and potential, likely gifted to him from the legacy and magic of Harlem. A legacy that I know is infused so deeply in my own psyche as I continue to take journeys that challenge my comfort zone and the preconceived notions of what a Black girl from Brooklyn’s life should be.
My father also made a point of sharing the magic of Harlem with my son, Emmanuel. A year before he died in what was probably a prophetic gesture unbeknownst to him, my dad visited me and Emmanuel in Brooklyn and on one day when I was working, he took Emmanuel up to Harlem to his old stomping grounds. They took pictures in front of his old apartment and his former church and he spent the day telling Emmanuel about his life and childhood there. After my father’s sudden passing, I was grateful that he had shared those moments with his grandson–a final pilgrimage to the place that formed him and grounded a part of our family’s history.
Making them Proud
So, here I stand feeling both the weight and the inspiration of these two Jimmys as I embark on this new adventure. I can easily say that I often feel the heavenly presence of my dad in my life. It’s not the same as having him here physically, but I take comfort in knowing that his spirit is present, watching and loving from another realm.
But what of James Baldwin? Who am I to steward his legacy as we approach what would have been his 100th birthday in 2024? I, like many Black ex pat writers, certainly stand on the trail that Baldwin blazed in France–a path of peace, creativity, and thoughtful reflection. But on practical matters, I inherit an organization still recovering from the impact of a global pandemic, leadership transition challenges, and an empty bank account. I have asked myself more than once if I am on a fool’s errand.
Until what happened to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day two weeks ago.
I had an errand to run at the American Church in Paris. I was there to scope out their theatre as a potential show venue for my theatre group. It was a typical rainy winter day in Paris and the temptation to stay warm and snug in my 6th floor flat was strong. But I descended to the Paris streets in an effort to honor my appointment. My guide seemed to make note of my identity as a Black American ex pat almost immediately because one of the first things he said to me was that both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin had spoken at that very church. I was taken aback by the synchronicity of the moment and noted to him that it was actually MLK day in the States–something he didn’t even realize at the time.
While the tour of the theatre space was a bit futile–the stage is unusable, my guide took me to see a framed picture that was hanging inconspicuously on the wall. If you didn’t know it was there, you could easily miss it. There he was in the photo, James Baldwin, speaking in the church in 1963. I felt incredibly blessed by the moment and thanked both of the Jimmys for what felt like a wink from Heaven.
I have a great deal of work ahead of me as I get to the business of building a board, raising money, and organizing a conference for writers. But in the work, I feel Harlem, I feel Baldwin’s love of France, I feel my father’s loving expectation of excellence and I feel a tremendous honor.
I hope I make them proud.