In the roaring 1920s, it was relatively easy for black people to become successful entertainers in Paris—at least in comparison to the time at which Baldwin is writing. He notes that there are a few black performers working today, including Inez Cavanaugh, who runs her own club specializing in “fried chicken and jazz.” In order to be successful today, black entertainers must get along well with other African-Americans living in the city, most of whom are studying on the G.I. Bill. However, Baldwin notes that encountering other Americans in Paris is not always a joyous occasion, and is in fact often embarrassing. White and black Americans are conditioned to view each other with distrust, which can create tension even within pleasant and well-intentioned interactions. Meanwhile, interactions with white Europeans leave black Americans with a sense of uncertainty about their own identity.
The relationship between Americans who encounter each other in Paris is another example of the coexistence of intimacy and hatred. Americans in Paris are defined by their identity, which marks them as different from the French majority; at the same time, they experience this differentiation as individuals, and thus do not necessarily feel connected to other Americans they meet. Furthermore, as Baldwin points out, the racial differentiation that exists between Americans does not evaporate among Americans who find themselves in France—in some ways, it actually becomes more pronounced.
This feeling of confusion becomes even more acute when black Americans encounter Africans from the French colonies living in Paris. These Africans harbor a similar sense of bitterness to African Americans, but are less likely to direct this bitterness at themselves. They feel a sense of kinship with their fellow “colonials,” with whom they live in impoverished conditions—although Baldwin notes that this is simply the normal standard of living for young people in Paris. Baldwin emphasizes the fact that people from colonized countries do not feel the same sense of alienation from themselves as African Americans do. There is a 300 year gulf of guilt that exists between Africans and African Americans, which cannot be breached in “an evening’s good-will.” African Americans in Paris may realize that their need to work through their relationship to the past may in fact be a quintessential sign of their own Americanness. They know they will have to return to the United States one day, and that the country will likely not have changed greatly in the time that they have been gone. Baldwin hopes that time will allow black Americans to make peace with themselves and the weight of their history.
In this passage, Baldwin emphasizes that feelings of fear, distrust, alienation, ignorance, and guilt do not occur only in the relationship of black people to white people. They also define relationships between black people who have different experiences of history, heritage, and belonging. He does not elaborate on the gulf of “guilt” that exists between Africans and African Americans, but it is possible to speculate about what this guilt involves. On one level, Africans may feel a sense of guilt toward African Americans because Africans are the descendants of those who escaped the transatlantic slave trade and remained connected to their homelands. On the other hand, African Americans are now implicated in Western culture in a way that Africans are not—thereby making it possible that the guilt moves in both directions.