There are myriad ways one might celebrate today’s holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. On my Facebook page, for example, I suggested we learn about—or recall—the other remarkable leaders of the civil rights movement, some of whom were mentors to King and others of his generation, establishing institutions and informal communication networks that served as the socio-cultural and political seedbed for the germination and later flourishing of the civil rights movement. I mentioned in particular such individuals as Bob (Robert Parris) Moses, Ella Josephine Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, among those ably introduced in Robert Payne’s brilliant book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995). I also had the impudence to ask that we take time to recall the life and work of Malcolm X as well, recommending Eugene Victor Wolfenstein’s Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (1981). Indeed, there’s a work that offers a provocative comparison of the lives and ideas of Malcolm X and King, James Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991). Alas, both the prize-winning biographer of Fannie Lou Hamer, the historian Kay Mills, and the (post)Freudo-Marxist social theorist and psychoanalyst Wolfenstein, recently passed away.
Here I thought I’d do something different and share a few passages from Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908-1986) journal that detailed her thoughts and feelings upon venturing into Harlem during a visit to America. Beauvoir came to the States in January of 1947, keeping a fairly “detailed diary of her observations which was published in France in 1948 as L’Amérique au jour le jour” and to little notice several years later in England, and in English, as America Day by Day. The book was published (by the University of California Press) yet again with a new translation by Carol Cosman in 1999 and an inviting foreword (it first appeared in the New York Times Book Review in 1996) by one of our nation’s best and more prolific historians, Douglas Brinkley. Beauvoir was by now a well-known existentialist philosopher and writer with a public identity as a cosmopolitan French intellectual tied to yet distinct from her lifelong companion, Jean-Paul Sartre. She is rightly regarded as one of the seminal theorists of contemporary feminism.
Brinkley writes that,
“with the passage of time, America Day by Day emerges as a supremely erudite American road book—that distinctive subgenre based on flight of fancy rather than flights from economic hardship, as in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath . In broader sociological terms, her critique outpaces William Least-Heat Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America . In the realm of pure prose style, it easily transcends Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare . And, for my money, in the field of European highbrow loathing of the cruder aspects of our democratic experiment, it is preferable to Charles Dickens’s haughty American Notes for General Circulation . [….]
A reader is struck not only by the meticulous descriptive passages on American history and geography but also by Beauvoir’s ability to encapsulate our national psyche (‘Optimism is necessary for the country’s social peace and economic prosperity’) and to comment so deftly on its shortcomings (‘even people of goodwill…refuse to articulate clearly the current conflict between justice and freedom, and the necessity of devising a compromise between these two ideas; they prefer to deny injustice and the lack of freedom’). [….]
Clearly a voyeur of America’s transient underbelly, Beauvoir’s able, like George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London , to penetrate the haze and blue smoke of our nation’s tenderloin districts deeply enough to offer detached insights into desolation row. In Chicago with [Nelson] Algren as her guide, she learns firsthand about the world of morphine addicts and petty thieves, murderous gangsters, and midnight cops. ‘America is a box full of surprises,’ she writes, intoxicated by her walks on the wild side. [….]
Beauvoir’s peripatetic journey by automobile, train, and Greyhound bus took her from coast to coast and back, and illuminating sections of the memoir are devoted to Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, Reno, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and San Antonio. Always amused and exhilarated by the lapdog friendliness of urban and rural folk alike, she is also flabbergasted that these same good-natured people embody the volatile, schizophrenic mixture of ‘strictness and hypocritical license.’ An eternal rebel, she has an uncanny eye for the shallow extravagances of American culture and an abolitionist’s rage at the evil of segregation south of the Mason-Dixon line. While San Francisco and Chicago are celebrated in America Day by Day, other cities get scorched: ‘Williamsburg is one of the sorriest shams to which I’ve ever fallen victim,’ or ‘I dearly hope I’m never fated to live in Rochester.’ [….]
For women, and men, who want to experience vicariously Jack Kerouac’s open road with less machismo romanticism and more existential savvy, America Day by Day, hidden from us for nearly fifty years, comes to the reader like a dusty bottle of vintage French cognac, asking only to be uncorked.”
“Of course, I want to get to know Harlem. It’s not the only black neighborhood in New York. There’s an important black community in Brooklyn, three or four areas in the Bronx, another called Jamaica in Queens, and few more on the city’s outskirts. In New York itself one finds neighborhoods here and there where black families live. Until 1900, other than the one in Brooklyn, the most important black community in New York was situated near West Fifty-seventh Street. Harlem’s apartment buildings were originally built for white tenants, but transportation was inadequate at the beginning of the century, and landlords had difficulty renting apartments in the eastern end of the district. At the suggestion of a black man, Philip A. Payton, who was involved in the rental business, blacks were offered the apartments on 134th Street. Two buildings were filled this way, and soon more. At first, the whites didn’t perceive this invasion of black people; when they tried to stop it, it was too late. Blacks gradually rented all the available apartments and began to buy the private houses that were going up between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. Whites then felt justified in moving; as soon as one black family was spotted in a block of buildings, all the whites fled as if they were running from the plague. The blacks soon took over the whole district. Social and civic centers were formed; a black community took shape. Harlem expanded spectacularly after 1914.
Those among the French who get down on their knees to worship all-powerful America adopt all its prejudices even more obsequiously than Americans do. One of them says to me, ‘If you like, we’ll go through Harlem by car; you can go through Harlem by car, but you must never go on foot.’ A bolder Frenchman declares, ‘If you’re determined to see Harlem, in any case stick to the larger avenues. If something happens, you can always take shelter in the subway. But above all avoid the small side streets.’ And someone else tells me with a shiver that at dawn some whites were found in the gutter with their throats cut. In the course of my life, I’ve already come across so many places where right-thinking people declare you could not go that I’m not too impressed. I deliberately walked toward Harlem.
I walk toward Harlem, but my footsteps are not quite as carefree as usual; this isn’t just a walk but a kind of adventure. A force pulls me back, a force that emanates from the borders of the black city and drives me back—fear. Not mine but that of others—the fear of all those whites who never take the risk of going to Harlem, who feel the presence of a vast, mysterious, and forbidden zone in the northern part of their city, where they are transformed into the enemy. I turn the corner of one avenue and I feel my heart stop; in the blink of an eye, the landscape is transformed. I was also told, ‘There’s nothing to see in Harlem. It’s a corner of New York where people have black skin.’ And on 125th Street I indeed discover the movie houses, drugstores, stores, bars, and restaurants of Forty-second or Fourteenth Street; but the atmosphere is as different as if I had crossed a chain of mountains or the sea. Suddenly, there’s a swarm of black children dressed in bright shirts of red-and-green plaid, students with frizzed hair and brown legs chattering on the sidewalks. Blacks sit daydreaming on the doorsteps, and others stroll with their hands in their pockets. The open faces do not seem fixed on some invisible point in the future but reflect the world as it is given at that moment, under this sky. There is nothing frightening in all this, and I even feel a new kind of relaxed gaiety that New York hasn’t yet given me. If I suddenly came upon Canebière [in southern France] at the corner of rue de Lille or Lyon, I would have the same pleasure. But the shift from my usual surroundings is not the only vivid aspect. Nothing is frightening, but the fear is there; it weighs on this great popular festivity. Crossing the street is, for me, like crossing through layers and layers of fear filling those bright-eyed children, those schoolgirls, those men in light suits, and those leisurely women.
One Hundred Twenty-fifth Street is a border—there are still few whites in evidence. But on Lenox Avenue, not a face that isn’t brown or black. No one seems to pay attention to me. It’s the same scenery as on the avenues of [downtown] Manhattan, and these people, with all their indolence and gaiety, seem no more unlike the inhabitants of Lexington Avenue than the people of Marseilles seem unlike the residents of Lille. Yes, one can walk on Lenox Avenue. I even wonder what it would take to make me flee, screaming, toward the protective entrance of the subway. It seems to me I would have as much difficulty provoking such an attack as I would provoking murder or rape in the middle of Columbus Circle in broad daylight. There must be some image of orgies going on in the heads of right-thinking people; for me, this broad, peaceful cheerful boulevard does not encourage my imagination. I glance at the small side streets: just a few children, turning on their roller skates, disturb the lower-middle class calm. They don’t look dangerous.
I walk on the big avenues and in the small side streets; when I’m tired, I sit in the squares. The truth is, nothing can happen to me. And if I don’t feel entirely secure, it’s because of that fear in the hearts of people who are the same color as I am. It’s natural for a wealthy bourgeois to be afraid if he ventures into neighborhoods where people go hungry: he’s strolling in a universe that rejects his and will one day defeat it. But Harlem is a whole society, with its bourgeois and its proletariat, its rich and its poor, who are not bound together in revolutionary action. They wan to become part of America—they have no interest in destroying it. These blacks are not suddenly going to surge toward Wall Street, they constitute no immediate threat. The irrational fear they inspire can only be the reverse of hatred and a kind of remorse. Planted in the heart of New York, Harlem weighs on the conscience of whites like original sin on a Christian. Among men of his own race, the American embraces a dream of good humor, benevolence, and friendship. He even puts his virtues into practice. But they die on the borders of Harlem. The average American, so concerned with being in harmony with the world and himself, knows that beyond these borders he takes on the hated face of the oppressor, the enemy. It’s this face that frightens him. He feels hated; he knows he is hateful. This thorn in his conciliatory heart is more intolerable than a specific external danger. There are fewer crimes in Harlem than on the Bowery; these crimes are only symbolic—not symbolic of what might happen but of what is happening, what has happened. Minute by minute the men here are the enemies of other men. And all whites who do not have the courage to desire brotherhood try to deny this rupture in the heart of their own city; they try to deny Harlem, to forget it. It’s not a threat to the future; it’s a wound in the present, a cursed city, the city where they are cursed. It’s themselves they’re afraid to meet on the street corners. And because I’m white, whatever I think and say and do, this curse weighs on me as well. I dare not smile at the children in the squares; I don’t feel I have the right to stroll in the streets where the color of my eyes signifies injustice, arrogance, and hatred.
It’s because of this moral discomfort, not timidity, that I’m happy to be escorted this evening to the Savoy by Richard Wright; I’ll feel less suspect. He comes to fetch me at the hotel, and I observe that in the lobby he attracts untoward notice. If he asked for a room here, he would surely be refused. We go eat in a Chinese restaurant because it’s very likely that they wouldn’t serve us in the uptown restaurants. Wright lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, a white woman from Brooklyn, and she tells me that every day that when she walks in the neighborhood with her little girl, she hears the most unpleasant comments. And what’s more, while we are looking for a taxi, men dart hostile looks at this black man with two white women. There are drivers who deliberately refuse to stop for us. After this, how could I claim to mingle peacefully in the life of Harlem? I feel myself stiffen with a bad conscience. While Wright buys tickets at the door of the Savoy, two sailors speak to Ellen and me, the way all sailors the world over speak to women at the doors of dance halls. But I’m more embarrassed than I’ve ever been before. I’ll have to be offensive or ambiguous—my very presence here is equivocal. With a word, a smile, Wright sets everything in order. A white man couldn’t have found just this world, this smile, and I know that his intervention, so simple and natural, will only aggravate my embarrassment. But I climb the stairs with a light heart: this evening Richard Wright’s friendship, his presence at my side, is a kind of absolution.”