In James Baldwin’s essay “Equal in Paris”, the narrator finds himself caught up in the bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the French legal system. He spends eight days in jail for receiving a stolen bed-sheet from his American acquaintance, and this harrowing experience gives him insight into the irony of the equality with which he is treated; he realizes he ran from the racial stereotypes applied to him in America only to be demonized, independent of his race, as an American in a foreign country. Yet he reflects on his time in prison without the entitled anger befitting that American stereotype, and describes his sense of alienation, injustice and physical discomfort with an unexpected mêlée of humor, irony, and foreign language, imbuing his essay with the sense of “comic-opera” (pg. 135) that his account calls for. The controlled bitterness underlying most of Baldwin’s work derives from what it meant to be black in a white America, and his chief motive in spending time in Paris seems to be gaining enough distance from his past to write about it. “Equal in Paris”, then, serves as a commentary on cultural boundaries, racial struggles, and the nature of American identity.
Baldwin studs his essay with newly-learned French vocabulary that effectively conveys to the reader the isolating sense of being in a foreign country, unable to communicate. Some words have a fairly obvious English translation, such as “propriétaire” (pg. 135), “carte d’identité” (pg. 137), and “les nonconformistes” (pg. 137) and give the reader a false sense of security; nothing pleases us more than believing that a foreign country emulates us and that the Parisians Baldwin describes aren’t so different from us. Yet by using words that would stump even those with a solid grasp of French, such as “tricoteuse” (pg. 135), “receleur” (pg. 140), and “procès-verbal” (pg. 140), Baldwin turns this familiarity on its head; our confusion mirrors his when confronted with a vocabulary he does not understand and cannot defend himself against. Even the term “procès-verbal” is characteristically French in its vagueness; it loosely translates to the unspecific ‘legal proceedings’ or ‘report’, giving Baldwin no clue as to what is actually happening to him. The choice to include French terms that make recognizable storylines opaque and mystifying parallels the feeling of being caught up in some impersonal, ineffective system of ‘justice’, unable to know what comes next and prepare oneself. The French officials’ cursory replies of “Oui, bien sûr”, or “Oui, oui. Plus tard” (pg. 140) are intelligible, but provide no real insight. It is only when Baldwin attempts to communicate in the officials’ native tongue that the layperson can understand: “And I asked, in French, ‘But is this very serious?’” (pg. 138); the police and jailers make no effort to meet Baldwin on his own ground, and it is only when he and his friend are being tried that the judge calls for an interpreter. Baldwin agonizes over how his race prevented communication in America, yet in Paris he comes up against a language barrier that is much more severe than what he has previously experienced.
In crafting the tone and style of his essay, Baldwin relies on irony and sarcasm to describe “the machine in which [he has] become entangled” (pg. 139), the convoluted and unfair legal system that constitutes French justice. Throughout the essay, Baldwin’s naïveté gives way to a more cynical view of French culture and the paradoxes inherent in their society. He finds his rosy conception of an institution shattered – at first he believes “[the word] had a pleasant ring, as of safety and order and common sense”, yet in retrospect he recognizes that governmental organizations are also “outmoded, exasperating, completely impersonal, and very often cruel” (pg. 136) – experiencing the dehumanizing and demoralizing process of captivity, although we are certain he is an innocent victim of circumstance. Baldwin doesn’t even comprehend that he has become an accomplice to a crime until the police enter his room and find the stolen bedsheet; this discovery is “the first time the word ‘stolen’ entered [his] mind”, since “taking things from New York hotels was practically a custom” (pg. 137). The “brilliant scarlet” (pg. 137) monogram on the bedsheet is an ironic tribute to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and mirrors the policemen’s “most vivid interest” in Baldwin, which should itself be taken as a warning flag. During his imprisonment, Baldwin also uses irony to paint a bleak picture of the fallacies of so-called justice and the realizations he comes to about his own identity; he finds himself not only unable to predict what lies ahead of him, but also helpless to play off the expectations of the French, whose reactions cannot be manipulated as Baldwin did “the reactions of the white world” (pg. 138) back home. Instead of perceiving this apparent lack of racism as a positive opportunity that he can work to his favor, he finds himself uncertain of how to act when he isn’t forced to fulfill a role dictated by racism and classism. “I did not know what they saw when they looked at me” (pg. 138), he says, stripped of the “advantages of bitterly accumulated perception, of pride and contempt” (pg. 139). To Baldwin, a flawed yet familiar system is better than an entirely foreign one; he felt the pain of being a second-class citizen his whole life, yet in France finds himself labeled only as “Américain” (pg. 139). Even the title of the essay itself underlines the bitter paradox Baldwin faces; he is supposedly ‘equal’ in this foreign country, no longer judged for the color of his skin, yet he finds himself treated cruelly; this racial blindness offers him no benefit. The names of landmark buildings of the French judicial system also offer a sort of irony, from the “Palais de Justice” (pg. 144), which is nothing like a palace and delivers nothing resembling justice, to the “Ile de la Cité” (pg. 144), a prison far removed from the city, where the French people exile the criminals that they deem unfit to live in Paris, to “La Santé” (pg. 142), another unbearable prison. The culmination of the irony in Baldwin’s experience occurs on Christmas day, when he asks to go to mass after spending nearly a week in prison. He hopes “to hear some music” (pg. 147) and find something to lift his spirits, but instead finds himself “locked in exactly the same kind of cubicle” (pg. 147) and listening to a preacher speak, “in this language which [he] did not understand…the story of Jesus Christ’s love for men” (pg. 147). Through his use of irony, Baldwin lends depth and wit to the eight days he spends serving hard time.
But even in the bleakness of prison, Baldwin finds shreds of subtle humor that prevent his account from becoming completely tragic. Though he faced discrimination and demonization in America, Baldwin was always a passionate advocate for brotherhood and community; his writing reveals a certain wry lightness that comes so naturally it must have been a part of his personality, the way he chose to deal with opposition. The story is only humorous because of the retrospective tone the narrator adopts; knowing Baldwin survived this ideal none the worse for wear allows the reader to pick up on the parts of the account that are less solemn. In the beginning of his narrative, he uses French words to describe the seedy hotel he’s staying in to comic effect, from his “louche” (pg. 135), or shady fellow lodgers to the manager’s daughter, a “tricoteuse” (pg. 135), which translates roughly to a ‘knitting machine’. It is with this same understated wit that Baldwin moves on to illustrate his reality in English, which deals much better with wordplay and connotations than French: the comedic plight of the traveler in a foreign country. The proprietor could not “be described as bewildered…since he had really stopped breathing around 1910” and “looked as though the daylight would have killed him” (pg. 135), and Baldwin acknowledges that “the moment [he] began living in French hotels [he] understood the necessity of French cafés” (pg. 135). Upon his arrest, he begins to think wistfully of the meals he is missing, vacillating between lunch and dinner and suffering a recurring nightmare “which always involved [his] mother’s fried chicken” (pg. 144) from which he wakes just as he is about to eat. The chatter of his acquaintance from New York, intended to cheer Baldwin up, instead “made [him] feel murderous” (pg. 140), and when he wonders if his friends have realized he’s missing, he comes to the pithy realization that “knowing the people I knew…it would take several days” (pg. 141). Finally, when his attorney friend comes to his rescue, Baldwin counts on his testimonial to convince the court that he had worked for him and handled large sums of money on a regular basis “which made it rather unlikely that [he] would stoop to trafficking in bedsheets” (pg. 145). His friend gives him a pack of cigarettes “which the turnkey took from [him] on the way upstairs” (pg. 146), a humorous twist on the realities of prison life. The story itself is tragicomic in nature, a series of unlikely events told in a conversational manner that assumes the reader’s friendship; Baldwin concludes, not too somberly, that “far worse things had happened to most people” (pg. 146), further cementing the levity he feels upon seeing his escape from prison in the near future.
“Equal in Paris” stands as a commentary on French culture and the nature of culture itself; Baldwin accurately describes the French as paranoid despite their ancient and enlightened mien and asserts that a society unwilling to acknowledge and rehabilitate the poor and criminal is at once rigid and unstable. Sometimes it takes an outsider to really see the flaws and fallacies of a culture or a people, and Baldwin, an outsider both in America and on a more fundamental level in Paris, possesses the power to perceive two separate cultures with an equally penetrating eye. He also manages to get at the irony of what it means to be an American: as he describes it, the inability to accept a fact that one does not like, even for a brief amount of time. Perhaps we Américaines are just as hard-headed as Baldwin believes the French are.
Age 17, Grade 12
The Brearley School