|Simone de Beauvoir, 1948 (photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)|
So I’m not climbing under the covers with Simone de Beauvoir, herself, alas, but with her book, “America Day by Day,” an account of her visit to the United States for a four-month lecture tour in 1947.
To be honest, I was only vaguely familiar with Beauvoir: some kind of existentialist, lover of Jean-Paul Sartre, pioneering feminist author of “The Second Sex” — still more than most know (“She’s related to Jackie Kennedy, right?” a friend asked). I can’t put on airs; I hadn’t read a word of hers. But my co-author, Sara Bader, has, and in checking sources for our upcoming book, I called up “America Day by Day” on Google. I started to read around the lines we quote and was hooked. I married a really smart woman, but Beauvoir is a really, really smart woman.
Off to the library I trotted. And they say you can’t find books serendipitously online.
At first I thought the book’s charm would be her quirky Gallic views on American life, such as her delight at drinking scotch, which she calls “one of the keys to America,” or her baffled rejection of ear muffs:
“Men remain bareheaded. But many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.”
Her timing is excellent. She finds Los Angeles in the grip of the Black Dahlia murders. She can’t turn around without bumping into someone famous, whether touring Madison Street dives with Nelson Algren, who heard her voice on the phone and hung up the first two times Beauvoir called — she had been given his number by a friend. She called back again, and they became lovers.
But that isn’t why I’m writing about her.
Barely two weeks in this country and she’s at New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church with her pal, Richard Wright, listening to Adam Clayton Powell preach.
“I’m struck by the social aspect of his sermon,” she writes. “It seems less like a religious gathering than a political meeting.”
That’s the first of easily 10 solid pages of observation and comments on race relations in America in 1947, and what really struck me, reading them, was how spot-on they were then and how sadly apt they are today.
I can’t even summarize all she says, but her solo visit to Harlem must be shared. First she catalogs the various warnings she received: “Never go on foot” and “Avoid all side streets” and promises that whites venturing there risk the next morning being “found in the gutter with their throats cut.”
Beauvoir walks alone into Harlem, noting “a force pulls me back, a force that emanates from the borders of the black city and drive me back — fear. Not mine but that of others — the fear of all those whites who never take the risk of going to Harlem.”
Shaking that force off, she sees children playing, adults sitting or strolling. “There is nothing frightening in all this,” she notes. “I even feel a new kind of relaxed gaiety.”
As far as her being attacked, “No one seems to pay attention to me,” Beauvoir writes. “It’s the same scenery as on the avenues of [downtown] Manhattan.”
As she walks, she realizes something.
“There must be some strange 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. … They don’t look dangerous.”
Then it occurs to her what her white New York friends had really been afraid of.
“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,” Beauvoir writes. “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. …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.”
Throughout the book she returns to black topics and areas, heartbreakingly in Savannah, where she and a friend do get angry glares and children running ahead of them, shouting, “Enemies! Enemies!”
I thought, “I’ve got to tuck this away for Black History Month.” But that’s half a year away. Besides, one of the criticisms is that it’s wrong to consign black history to a single month. It should be year-round. Quite true. It can pop up anywhere. Even in late September in a French woman’s memoirs.