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Somewhat removed from the fanfare of movie adaptations and much-promoted acquisitions of the past few years, Magdalena J. Zaborowska, a professor of Afroamerican and American Studies at the University of Michigan, was struck by the intensity of her experience at the house, where the archival importance of the place itself and its material occupants became vivid to her.
I stood in front of a tall, locked black iron gate.
A two-story garage-gatehouse with a steep external stair slashing against its wall stood to the left of the gate. It looked unkempt, overrun with hot pink flowering vines, but seemed occupied, as evidenced by a door left ajar and a red car parked on the street in front of the gate.
A large garden tightened its grip on the stone and tile of the main building, which stood at the end of a crumbling stone pathway.
Most of all, I hoped to see and absorb anything I could. Likely having noticed me peering into the property, a young woman appeared on the steps of the gatehouse.
She was polite and friendly and accepted quickly that I, a holder of a small rectangle of paper, was indeed a professor from the University of Michigan who was researching James Baldwin in France. Hutchinson had been his beloved partner, a terrific woman who had helped the Baldwin family for years by taking care of the house and its many repairs, renting it out to generate income for its upkeep, and handling many official and legal matters.
She had removed these items from Chez Baldwin after some burglary attempts convinced her that such valuable objects were not safe there.
Hutchinson assured me that over the years he had lived there, David Baldwin preserved the furnishings and layout of the house as much as possible in the way James Baldwin had left them at his death in She let me wander through the building, parts of which were unoccupied, and allowed me to take photographs. As we know from the biographies and documentaries, that family included Bernard Hassell, a beautiful dancer and choreographer who Baldwin met in at the Montana Bar in Paris during his first visit to France.
Once James had moved into Chez Baldwin, Bernard came to live there and manage the household while taking the gatehouse as his quarters. One of their fights in the summer of ended up with Bernard being fired; he was brought back to re- store order in the increasingly chaotic household in — He died at the house several years after Baldwin, a victim of HIV. They wore boaters and foulards. Their boots gleamed.
Friends, artists, academics, and celebrities passed through or stayed for a while at the house, as did lovers, most of whose identities have been protected in the biographies. Afterwards we sat, ed by my then partner Coleman A.
That specific piece of outdoor furniture and another one in the living room were the actual objects that, besides an old hymn and Turkish parties with theater friends in the s, inspired the writer to title his last play The Welcome Table Bathed in dappled sunlight, surrounded by the breathtaking views of the area, with the ancient crumbling house looming behind, we may have made a picture worthy of an impressionistic painting.
Bookshelves overflowed with volumes. David may have contributed books and records to the sizable collections that were left at the house. Though uninhabited for some time, the interior, filled with furniture and objects, seemed eerily full of life, as if vacated seconds ago.
It seemed to be awaiting the return of the brothers, who had stepped outside for just a moment. Baldwin liked to take breaks to read or edit on the patio, sitting at a round wooden table in front of it. On a wall by an arched passageway that led to the back of the property on the left side of the front of the house, a small, immured mirror blinked. Despite the many loud parties, arguments, and fights it once witnessed, the peaceful and nurturing energy of the house and its surroundings was palpable, and the main building and ading structures were spacious enough to accommodate at least a dozen guests in separate studio bedrooms.
The attention that readers and scholars pay to places where important works have been created, and to structures, cities, and landscapes that inspired memorable lines of texts, stems from the need to anchor the material and make tangible what is elusive and impermanent about literature, and from our hope to share in imagination and inspiration. What better place to feel inspired than within the walls that once housed the admired writer? When I returned to Saint-Paul-de-Vence inthe house was empty and run down.
For Hutchinson, this meant salvaging and preserving the objects that filled the house and that David Baldwin had kept in memory of his beloved brother. Yet in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, there is not even a with his name and information confirming his residence.
Much like those of countless other black Americans whom the new NMAAHC in Washington honors, his legacy remains in flux, the material traces of his life almost completely erased in this country. The need for a virtual house museum for Baldwin may not seem urgent or obvious to those who consider his published works the only terrain worth examining and his manuscripts the only material part of his life worth salvaging.
Scholarly desires for material preservation are more often than not at odds with those of estates, lawyers, and kin, not to mention archives and libraries. These objects demand reading as rich evidence of his black queer dwelling practices that were key to the composition of his important late novels and essays, works that are finally being recognized for their daring form and message, like If Beale Street Could TalkThe Devil Finds WorkJust Above My HeadThe Evidence of Things Not Seenand especially his unpublished play The Welcome Table.
In this house, black people are not made to feel at home; even national heroes remain homeless here, like Rosa Parks, whose Detroit house was recently slated for demolition. He painstakingly took the house apart and paid for its transport to Berlin, where it became a museum. Why did this house have to be taken across the Atlantic to be saved? Why did the largest black city in the nation not have sufficient interest and resources to save it?
What we understand as the matter of black lives, its materiality, traces, remnants, and even refuse, always has been read differently from the matter of white lives, which have so far taken historical precedence in the museums populating the US national house. While visiting to give a talk there, I asked two archivists from the Beinecke to discuss the remaining archive of books, objects, clippings, artwork, and photographs from Chez Baldwin, and the possibility of their acquiring it. The archive is not only personal and political: it is also filled with emotions, projections, and memories — it is a playground for interpretation, and who experiences it, and how, matters.
Especially needed in African American studies, where documentation, interpretation, and preservation efforts have been historically hampered by racialized systems of adjudicating research and archival values, are digital tools that can help us to fight back, but that also require that we use them wisely. Taking place on the island of Isola Della Certosa, the collection will be unveiled within an artwork by Doug Aitken.
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Going to see Jimmy. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. Photo: Magdalena J. I like doing things alone. Magdalena J. Als speaks to c's Victoria Camblin about Baldwin's body, faith, and voice, via playgrounds, David Zwirner, and going back to Berlin.
House as archive: james baldwin’s provençal home
More January 31, Where are the real investments? Theaster Gates on James Baldwin The Chicago-based artist talks to Victoria Camblin about materializing the past, the house as museum, and preserving black legacies. More April 11, Raddatz Born in Berlin ineditor and writer Fritz J.
Raddatz relied on food delivered by African American GIs after the death of his parents. Watch the video below.
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