Last week in Massachusetts, for Black History Month, I gave a lecture at Babson College on the current political predicament in America. Among other things, I argued for a new activism. During the Q&A that followed, a professor mentioned filmmaker Raoul Peck’s timely new James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and Baldwin’s decision to repatriate from France during the struggle for Civil Rights. “Would you consider doing the same?” she asked. My cultural influence is obviously in no way comparable to Baldwin’s, but I understood her point: It’s easy to tell people we need a new activism, but what about doing something to help usher it forth?
I answered as honestly as I could. It sounds selfish, but I don’t know that I would be willing to come back. Many of the things that people are struggling for in the United States—safety in interactions with the police, reasonable childcare, decent schools, the right to affordable health care, basic dignity, sane government—I already have here in France (and expect to retain when I temporarily relocate to Berlin next year). I’m caught between the moral authority of Baldwin’s example and the logic of another great black expatriate’s decision to stay away. After all, to paraphrase Richard Wright, every hour, every day, every week, every month one spends fighting for one’s freedom is an hour, day, week and month that one is not free.