Memory and Space in James Baldwin’s New York – Paris 1948 Transatlantic Displacement

Displacement, Memory, Affect and Space

Memory informs and determines our interactions, demands upon, and actions within, given geographies. It also plays a vital role in our projections into the future, structuring our expectations of what is possible within given spatial constraints. In effect, our ability to reach back into time consciously, or otherwise, disciplines our most profound emotional and psychological dispositions about space and the possibilities it presents.

Owain Jones (2011) captures this dance between memory and space eloquently. “(W)e are conglomerations of past everyday experiences”  he observes and adds that these past experiences are inseparable from their particular “spatial textures and affective registers”. Space, then, could be understood as both a product, and a manifestation, of memory and  the emotions attached to the past.

Transatlantic crossings – or maybe travel and immigration in general – complicate this ongoing relationship between memory, place and affect. Arrivals and departures force new intersections between spaces that are embedded in disparate experiences of the past. Indeed, the transcendence of spatial constraints through travel produces effects ranging from disturbance and/or displacement to synthesis.  Colonial transatlantic crossings, for example, have lead to conflicts based on, or over, memory and have lead to the erasure and replacement of subjugated schemes of memory with those of colonizing travelers. Conversely, transatlantic  love liaisons and marriages have led to syntheses of memory and the creation of cosmopolitan urban cultures along the Atlantic.

Travel, displacement, and immigration, thus, invariably challenge existing relations between memory, space, and affect for both the local and itinerant (or immigrating) parties.

James Baldwin’s New York – Paris Voyage

James Baldwin’s experience as a gay man (even though he rejected this title) of color who relocated to France in 1948 offers an instructive case in the temporal and affective implications of  queer of color transatlantic crossing  in the late 1940s and 1950s.

For Baldwin, Paris represented a space beyond the present, a blank canvass. In an interview granted to The Paris Review in 1984 (which shall be the source for this article), Baldwin reflected on his reasons for moving to Paris – ’I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge’. Where New York City had claimed his adolescent, queer friend and pushed him to commit suicide, Paris offered an alternative temporal context unburdened with the memories that marked New York.

New York had ‘beaten’ his friend to death, and in his view, New York, and post World War II United States were places where he, as a man of color would soon find that he had also ‘been beaten, and (deliberately so).’ He lamented that if he had chosen to stay he would soon learn that ‘The Whole Society ha(d) decided to make you nothing and they don’t even know they’re doing it’.

It is this schema of negative memories that he carries across the Atlantic to Paris, where urban spaces in Europe become,to him, timeless realms without a past. Devoid of emotional baggage and oppressive memories, Paris literally nurses him back to life after being on the brink of death as a result of poor nutrition and living on the borders of poverty. Indeed, a key reason for his departure from New York is a need to escape “the streets and the authorities and the cold”. The operational words there being  ‘the authorities’. Baldwin is deeply in debt  in New York and fears that his ‘luck was running out’ and he needed to escape the prospect of ‘jail or killing someone’. Paris, for him, carries none of the time pressures associated with New York. It exists in the future. Time, in Paris, is not running out or catching up with him, it is nonexistent. Paris is eternal, at least to begin with.

Once he regains physical health in Paris, Baldwin spends several hours writing and arguing around Saint Germain des Prés at Café de Flore and in Hotel Verneuil. His transatlantic crossing provides him an opportunity to not only transcend the spatial constraints of New York but to redefine and attach new meanings to the memories that he associated with this home city. His experience of Paris as a space out of time and in the future informs his re-entrance into New York and the US as a regression in time that he confronts with anger and a will to bring his home country into the future.

Baldwin brings memory, affect, and the space(s) of Paris and New York into a complex, transformative  transatlantic experience that redefines his self conception and his articulation of his past and future. Yet, perhaps the most intriguing relationship between affect, memory, and space  tied to Baldwin is played out in his trailblazing work of fiction, Giovanni’s Room, that he authors while in Europe.  In the novel, an American man in Paris contends with his sexuality and struggles to reconcile memory, the present, and the future even as he negotiates being in multiple spatial contexts.

In fiction, as in life, Baldwin offers an interesting insight into the complex ways in which time and space interacted with a queer body traversing the Atlantic at the end of the 1940s.

Author: George Katito


Interview: James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction no. 78 in The Paris Review, Spring 1984, No. 91

Jones, Owain. “Geography, Memory and Non‐Representational Geographies.” Geography Compass 5, no. 12 (2011): 875-885

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