As detailed in the essay “Equal in Paris,” Baldwin leaves the United States for Paris at the age of 24 with only $40 to his name and no knowledge of French language or culture. In doing so, he follows in a major 20th-century tradition of American writers expatriating to Paris in order to indulge in the relatively cheaper standard of living, rich cultural history, and social freedoms that could be found there. At the same time, Baldwin’s experience of Paris does not follow the example set by white American writers such as Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. For Baldwin, Paris is a place in which his own understanding of America and American identity is thrown into relief in a painful manner—Paris is where Baldwin confronts what it means to be a black American. The distance that Paris provides from his homeland, and the new cultural context of being in a city full of Africans (as opposed to African Americans), sheds light for Baldwin on the historical and cultural complexity of the United States, and on the psychology of those who leave the United States for Europe seeking a seductive myth of Parisian freedom. This myth is shown to be specifically inapplicable to Baldwin, who finds himself wrongfully imprisoned for eight days, though Baldwin insists that Parisian freedom as white Americans imagine it isn’t real either. At the same time, Baldwin is also affirmed and matured by his experiences in Paris—he becomes a better writer, and he gains perspective that allows him to create an enduring essay collection at a very young age. Paris, then, is a symbol of using distance to gain perspective. By escaping his home country and adapting to a completely different environment, Baldwin develops a better understanding of himself and of the world around him.
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The timeline below shows where the symbol Paris appears in Notes of a Native Son. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Preface to the 1984 Edition
Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown
...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... (full context)
...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... (full context)
A Question of Identity
...as these friends remain an undifferentiated “mob.” Baldwin concludes that overall, most American students in Paris eventually lose a sense of their own personalities, and lose respect for other people’s personalities... (full context)
Equal in Paris