When I took the helm as La Maison Baldwin’s director, I knew the stakes were high for success. There was no money, a seemingly unending list of damaged relationships, including with the Baldwin family, administrative obligations to the French government that had been untended to since the founding, and an overdue promise for a writer’s conference on the calendar. In my piece, Two Jimmys from Harlem, written as I took on the role, I could only look to the heavenly grace of two brothas from Harlem, my father Jimmy and James Baldwin himself, to guide me through this journey.
Some things came easy. Trevor Baldwin, James’s nephew, was gracious and supportive of my transition and was optimistic that together, we could close the distance between the organization and the family. The Black ex pat community in Paris opened their loving arms wide, grateful that the organization was heading in a new direction. Meanwhile, there’s never anything easy about dealing with French administration, but La Maison Baldwin’s visibility within the Paris association community has been solidified just in time for the centennial preparations in 2024.
It was the conference that weighed heaviest on my mind. Inheriting this critical event, I had to remain consistent with the promises that had been made while making it my own creatively, stamping my own brand of leadership on an event that bore the name of one of our literary icons. No pressure. In the months before the arrival of our writers, I would scan the names, wondering if their trust and faith would be enough to bring us through this moment. Could we collectively carry the spirit of Baldwin into this gathering, forever changing the turbulent narrative of LMB’s past and honor him in the way he deserved?
I Am Because You Are
I’ll admit that as the conference got underway, I was singularly obsessed with the logistics. Perfection was the goal, but French transport kept making a fool of me and I sensed, even with some resistance, that the Universe was trying to draw my focus elsewhere.
In the very first workshop, hosted at Josephine Baker’s first cabaret, Le Carrousel, the poetry group invoked the African principle, ubuntu. Ubuntu means, “I am because you are” and embraces the idea that humans cannot exist in isolation. We depend on connection, community, and caring—we simply cannot be without each other. This idea continued to swell as the days progressed, where moments of vulnerability stood in solidarity with gestures of love and immersive joy. We were touched by symbols of our heroes—Josephine’s stage, Baldwin’s words, Faith’s images, and even Martin’s pulpit at the American Church in Paris—and as we reflected on their contributions, we knew that we would not be were it not for them and each other.
Inspiration was abundant in our little cocoon of a gathering. As the words spilled out on the pages and in conversation, I found myself overwhelmed by the fact that this group of people were now in my own circle of community. We were truly blessed in this gathering and each daily open mic was a culminating reminder of the extraordinary talent and courage that was in our midst.
But, outside of our literary bubble, Paris was burning, and we knew it. As Black people, we were in no way immune to the uprising over the senseless murder of 17-year-old, Nahel M., by the police. An all too familiar scene for the Americans among us, Nahel’s spirit was present in our words and minds. We gave him a seat at our table of rage, healing, connection, and love. We held his mother’s grief in our hearts knowing that our work as artists and social activists continues. Through this tragedy, we were reminded once again that we are because Nahel is.
The core conference wrapped up with a powerful open mic at the feminist bookstore, Un Livre et Une Tasse de Thé. Fortified by four days of fearless exchanges and tender bonding, the group had summoned our ancestors into the room. Grandmothers, mothers and fathers whose love continued on in the spirit realm had come to bless our words that evening. Curious passersby on the street tiptoed in, almost on a dare from their souls, to feel the energy that was swelling in the space. Tears, laughter and hugs brought the formal festivities to a close. We would all be forever changed by our time together.
Then Jimmy Opened the Gate
The next day, a smaller segment of us went on an excursion to Nice and Saint Paul de Vence, James Baldwin’s adopted hometown for the final 17 years of his life. Honestly, my expectations for this part of the conference were restrained as La Maison Baldwin lost the battle for the house several years ago. Saint Paul de Vence and the fight was also the source of the initial controversy over LMB, asking the question of who is entitled to claim Baldwin’s legacy in this space?
There still remains no public recognition or respect for Baldwin’s presence in the village which has honored other great figures of culture, such as Matisse or Chagall. Unfortunately, those who championed the fight locally alienated the Baldwin family, making a victory nearly impossible to achieve. Alas, I envisioned that our little group would ascend a hill and look upon a place with a mix of melancholy and frustration for all it represented. I was merely fulfilling an obligation to those who were enticed by this à la carte option to their registration.
Eric Freeze, a friend of LMB, graciously gave us an overview presentation about Baldwin’s house in Saint Paul de Vence in which he highlighted the importance of seeing the house as more than its terra cotta tiles and multiple acres of land. Baldwin’s own niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart, echoed the same sentiment in a Medium piece, Remembering His House, from 2017 when addressing the fight for the house.
“His place in Provence was not just his place, it was a communal place, where family, friends, lovers, confidants, and fellow artists could share stories, break bread together, drink, and yes party! It was a very special place.”Remembering His House, Aisha Karefa-Smart
We know that Baldwin’s final unpublished manuscript was a play called The Welcome Table, which took place at his home in Saint Paul de Vence. Aisha’s words couldn’t capture more accurately the concept of the “welcome table”
Our visit to Saint Paul de Vence started with a lovely chat with Luc Trizan, a friend of Baldwin’s and an accomplished sculptor himself. Under the low-hanging branches of the leafy trees that peppered Luc’s yard, we gathered around a massive marble table, accompanied by the chirping birds amidst the summer silence. Luc proudly displayed a clock that he had made in dedication to his friend, James, and he welcomed whatever questions we had about the man. Passing around a signed copy of No Name in the Street, translated to Chassés de la Lumière, we listened intently as Eric relayed Luc’s French reflections of his friend.
Luc’s message was simple. That he and Baldwin were artists tending to their craft everyday, checking on each other’s progress. They did not speak of their deepest thoughts or secrets with one another. That level of intimacy in friendship was not particularly French or masculine in their day. But it appeared both men took comfort in the consistency of each other’s presence as they traveled their respective artist’s journeys.
The peace and beauty of Luc’s garden home was a stark contrast to the village center that we journeyed to shortly afterwards. I was surprised by the frenzied and touristic nature of the village. I can’t imagine these would be Baldwin’s haunts in this day and age. Reproduced art galleries familiar to Place des Vosges in Paris, souvenir shops and posh boutiques lined the narrow, crowded streets. More jarring was the overwhelming lack of diversity and the “velvet rope” that blocked the entrance to Le Colombe d’Or, one of Baldwin’s daily stops.
Eventually, we made our way to the place where Baldwin’s home stood. I scanned my body and found a numbness inside. The weight of the battle for this Black man’s space was heavy and the greater context in which that battle was lost even heavier. The nine of us stood in front of the gate, taking in the renovated remnants that had been transformed into luxury condominiums. The bastide and gatehouse were recognizable from the photos. As was the one large tree that remained in the front, but a voice inside me kept questioning as to whether James Baldwin was here because he certainly wasn’t in the town through which we had just walked.
Baldwin’s niece Aisha had also noted this spiritual expectation in her Medium piece,
“In the most ancient African spiritual traditions—it is acknowledged that those who have crossed over continue to exist amongst us and are ever present, helping to guide us. We feel and acknowledge their presences as well as give them due respect.”
Standing in front of the iron gate that separated us from where Baldwin drew his final breath, I kept trying to will it open with my mind. It didn’t feel right that we were on the other side of something sacred to each of us for our own reasons. At the same time, I had to remind myself that James Baldwin was more than his house and more than this land. We had already experienced throughout the week that he was all of us and we were him—ubuntu.
And then it happened.
All at once as I had released my resentment over our position on the outside of the gate, a man appeared and opened it, stating simply that we could come in for 2 minutes, but then we would have to leave. We originally thought he was going to shoo us away, but the door was held wide open and we were inside. I knew that the spiritual forces were at work, stirring this man’s heart to open that gate, probably beyond his own comprehension. joj, a friend and former board member of LMB, who had journeyed many times to this place said that this has never happened.
“They have never let us in.”
La Maison Baldwin’s roots began with an illegal squat on this property. Others have ventured inside by jumping fences or feigning an interest in purchasing a condo—Eddie Glaude—and even he could only look upon the construction that was taking place from a balcony.
For us, the gate was opened, and it was in that moment that I knew that Jimmy was with us. There was no doubt in my mind of his presence, especially as I gazed upon the patio area at which would have been his welcome table. We had been welcomed, even if only for a moment and the trip and the conference had been blessed.
Wearing our Crowns
Over the past seven months, I have heard story after story of the ways in which many who have engaged with La Maison Baldwin have been harmed-financially, emotionally, psychologically. While every recounting has touched me in some way, the most disturbing was from last year’s conference, a long-awaited gathering after the Covid years, of academics, writers and artists who assembled to celebrate Baldwin’s legacy in the south of France. Arriving in Nice with what I would assume was a sense of excitement and anticipation, they were greeted by their host wearing a nametag that had on the backside the words, F**k Around and Find Out.
The words weren’t scrawled subtlely with a pen, but typed, printed, cut, and pasted prominently in black and white. When I saw a photo of the actual nametag, I became sick to my stomach, trying to understand what thought process does one go through to make such an aggressive and egotistical gesture to conference participants, especially in the name of James Baldwin—a man who put out the Welcome Table. Whatever remaining grace I had for the previous leadership of La Maison Baldwin left in that moment.
Our writer’s conference in Paris served as a reclamation of Baldwin’s legacy—one that we all own, not from a place of ego and entitlement—but from a place of profound respect and affinity for the words, experience, and values that Baldwin embodied. We are the future of La Maison Baldwin, crafting a new narrative that recognizes that Baldwin’s legacy is bigger than the loss of any one building in a small village in the south of France.
Aisha shared in her piece that her uncle once said, “Your crown is already bought and paid for. All you have to do is wear it.” She goes on to write that “we wear our crowns with great pride and dignity—we are here gatekeeping.”
Amen to that.