When James Baldwin left America and moved into a comfy home in the South of France several decades ago, he did not aim to start a war.
But that is the situation these days. About two decades after Baldwin died of stomach cancer at age 63 in his home in the South of France, a white, female American novelist in Paris is raising funds to buy Baldwin’s six-acre home, convert it into a writers’ retreat, and dedicate it to the writer who wrote about many controversial topics during his lifetime. The problem is she does not have the blessing of Baldwin’s family, who mainly live in Baltimore where Baldwin grew up.
On the one hand, Baldwin’s niece Alisha Karena-Smart asked, “Who gets to represent James Baldwin’s legacy and who gets to speak about who he was?”
On the other hand, the white female writer, who wants to turn Baldwin’s home into a type of shrine, moved to the South of France, and exercised squatter’s rights by living in Baldwin’s dusty home for a week or so, in an effort to buy the property, “I cannot believe I have the privilege to be alive at this moment on earth when James Baldwin’s house is in danger and I happen to have the skills and temperament to do this work,” said Shannon Cain, a novelist.
This means while Baldwin’s relatives and a handful of mostly white writers fight over the home where Baldwin lived and died, the structure still does not even have a plaque with his name. The wing where Baldwin lived was torn down a few years ago. The remaining two houses on the property are in disrepair; the once expansive gardens are unkempt. Still, a local real estate developer wants to buy the plot that the Baldwin family lost control of more than a decade ago, and construct apartment buildings and a swimming pool on the site.
Cain, who described how she squatted in the house, suffered, and now plans to draw a salary from the fund-raising, said, “A successful nonprofit needs a professional running this place.”
While Baldwin had a habit of looking surprised, even flustered in old, Black-and-white newsreels that often spoke of raical angst. Baldwin grew up as the son of a Baltimore minister. His mother remarried, moved to New York and remarried.
His stepfather was cruel. Baldwin, an expatriate African-American novelist, was only 24 when he left New York with just $40 in his pocket. The chain-smoking writer who scribbled on a yellow legal pad died of stomach cancer at age 63. He lived in the house in Paris with his Swiss lover, Lucien Happersberger,
Now a local developer wants at least 9 million euros (about $9.5 million) for the property, according to news reports. Several African-American artists who have recently visited Baldwin’s home are saying, “You can’t take this from me.”
The mayor of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Joseph Le Chapelain, who signed the building permit last year, said the project was out of his hands. “It’s a private company,” he said. “The city has no power over it.”
But what would Baldwin say about his home today? He worked for a short while with the railroad, moved to Greenwich Village,and worked for a number of years as a freelance writer. He published his first novel, “Go Tell it On The Mountain,” in 1953.He created moving prose and even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. And while he held parties for many famous people at his Paris home, he never bought it.
The property has been acquired by a real estate developer who plans to demolish what’s left of the house, subdivide the land, and build luxury villas.
Currently artists aim to spur a general realization of the house’s value, and restore it, before the bulldozers destroy what is left of it and the garden. In January 2015, Harlem named a site after Baldwin. The site is located between E. 128th St. and Madison and Fifth Avenues.
By Rosaland Tyler