Monday, September 29, 2014

Beauvoir's thoughts on race echo today

Simone de Beauvoir, 1948 (photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)
     Every night I go to bed with a French woman. My wife doesn’t mind, because the French woman is dead.
     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.



  1. You'll discover she's brutally honest about Sartre in his senescence as well.


  2. Apt today? Maybe in some respects, but I'd bet most people today would give a friend from out of the country would give similar advice. If we change "Harlem" to "Austin neighborhood" or "Englewood," in 2014 just how many strolls would she, or anybody of any race, be able to take? I don't know if there were a dozen black kids getting shot every summer weekend in Harlem back then - today there are. A year ago last Spring I drove down Lake Avenue one afternoon from the near west side to Oak Park - I dare say that the scenes I saw, starting with all the blue blinking police camera and without seeing a single child playing, might have made her think her advice-givers had her best interests at heart.

    Today's Harlem does reflect white attitudes towards African-Americans in another respect: it's turning majority Hispanic, thanks in large part to the preference of rich and upper middle class whites to hire illegal non-Black immigrants than their fellow citizens.

  3. (Actually I shouldn't have said Harlem has the same kind of violence Chicago neighborhoods have - in fact if there was a black neighborhood you might have advised people to check out, the heart of the Black Renaissance might be it).

  4. I ❤️ Anecdotal evidence

  5. I have two shelves of books by her and Sartre and Algren because their lives and thoughts and writings were so interesting and often inciteful and ahead of their times- but of the three I most love De Beauvoir. Thank you Neil for telling me about one of the few books by her I dont own and had somehow missed.. She was brilliant, talented, articulate, deeply emotional, and very much in love with Sartre with whom she had an intellectual but also a deep and loving - though mutually open- relationship from her years as a student, until his death many years later.
    They didnt live together but liked to say they could see each others apartments from opposite sides of the Monparnasse cemetary ( where they are now both buried together)
    One of the saddest things I ever read was the first line of her book "Adieux- A Farewell to Jean Paul Sartre" , written after his death- where she quietly and simply notes that this is the first book of hers "you will not have read before its printed" . That, along with the photos of her in a wheelchair and in an almost comotose state at his funeral , her sadness was so great, show the depth of her feelings. Yes, she is maybe best known for her contribution to feminism in " The Second Sex" but I prefer her book " Un Mort Tres Douce" ("A Very Easy Death"), the heartrending story of her mothers death.
    She was a major talent. You should read more by her.

    1. I plan to. I picked up a copy of "The Second Sex" but haven't tried to scale its formidable heights yet.


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