Commentary by Karen Bernardo
James Baldwin’s very long story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” concerns a black American expatriate living in Paris during the late 1950s. He has lived there for many years, marrying a white Swedish woman whom he met there, and fathering a son with her. He has even established a successful career in France as an actor and singer, and he is recognized as a celebrity wherever he goes. But now he has been invited to make a series of appearances in the United States, and has been offered a very lucrative Hollywood movie deal; so, as the story opens, he is about to return to the U.S. for the first time since the death of his mother eight years before. He is also taking Harriet and Paul; the boy has heard all his life about the magic of America, and is tremendously excited to see it.
But what our narrator cannot convey to Paul—because how could one explain this to a child?—is that the social and political climate for blacks in this pre-Civil Rights era is not the same as it is in France. In France, the fact that our black narrator is married to a white woman is considered perfectly normal; in America, it was, in many places, still illegal in 1959, and mixed-race couples could expect to be subject to stares, if not downright harassment. The narrator recalls a visit to New York at the time of his mother’s death when he had to ask whether a certain hotel “would take us”—in other words, would rent rooms to blacks. He remembers, also, an incident involving his sister Louisa, in which four black teens were riding in a car in Alabama and the police stopped them because they thought that one of the girls was white; the policemen made her expose herself to them to prove that she was not.
This is in jarring contrast to the early, Parisian sections of the story, exploring his life with Harriet and Paul—a life so free of racism. He recalls, actually, that on the day he decided he loved her, it struck him equally forcefully that this was the first relationship he’d ever had with a person of another race into which racism didn’t come into play: “There were millions of people all around us, but I was alone with Harriet. She was alone with me. Never, in all my life, until that moment, had I been alone with anyone. The world had always been with us, between us, defeating the quarrel we could not achieve, and making love impossible. During all the years of my life, until that moment I had carried the menacing, the hostile, killing world with me everywhere. No matter what I was doing or saying or feeling, one eye had always been on the world- that world which I had learned to distrust almost as soon as I learned my name, the world on which I knew one could never turn one’s back, the white man’s world. And for the first time in my life I was free of it, it had not existed for me... For the first time, the first time, [I] felt that [this] woman was not, in her own eyes or in the eyes of the world, downgraded by my presence.” But now he has lived in France for twelve years, and France has allowed him to become himself.
However, Baldwin shows us that it is impossible to completely leave one’s “old world”—in this case, America—behind. Out on the town with his friend Vidal, a white Frenchman, our narrator meets a group of black American college students who have seen his movie—a film which, because it deals with miscegenation, has apparently made quite a stir in the States. The black students are thrilled to have the opportunity to socialize with a bona-fide celebrity, and he introduces them to another one- a has-been fighter named Boona, who is from Tunisia.
At the end of the evening, during which this motley group has traveled from one nightclub to another, the students accuse Boona of stealing their money. He seems suspicious to them because he seems “foreign,” as opposed to the narrator, who is of course one of “them.” The narrator cannot completely refute the accusations: “I want to say [to Boona], I know you steal. I know you have to steal. Perhaps you took the money out of this girl’s purse in order to eat tomorrow, in order not to be thrown into the streets tonight, in order to stay out of jail. This girl means nothing to you, after all, she is only an American, an American like me.” The altercation between Boona and the young people, who see the world through prejudiced eyes, reminds the narrator of the conflicts to which he will soon return.
The narrator returns to his apartment building, where the concierge, Mme. Dumont, has been babysitting Paul for the night. The final paragraphs of the story show the narrator carrying his sleeping son, whose mixed-race skin is the color of honey, from Mme. Dumont’s apartment upstairs to his own. Mme. Dumont is so excited about the family’s upcoming journey: “all the way to the new world!” Yet the passions that taint that new world are old ones, and we anticipate pain for the narrator’s family when he returns with them to the land of his birth.
These stories can be found in Baldwin’s collection Going to Meet the Man, which is available from Amazon here.
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