James “Jimmy” Baldwin and the Ugly Puddle of Water

James “Jimmy” Baldwin

James “Jimmy” Baldwin

By: Samuél Lopez-Barrantes

There is infinite wisdom to be found in a puddle of water. Just ask the spirit of the American painter Beauford Delaney. 

On a late Parisian summer day in 1953, James Baldwin was sitting with a friend, Mary Painter, at the Café de Flore. Baldwin was destitute and had fallen into a deep depression, despite the successful publication of his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain. Five years prior, Baldwin had arrived in Paris with a dream and just $40 to his name, and since then he’d fluctuated between extreme bouts of poverty, depression, romance, and literary promise. But on that September day, Baldwin’s luck was about to change: as he watched pedestrians and automobiles cruise along the Boulevard Saint Germain, he recognized his old friend, the painter Beauford Delaney, staring into a puddle across the street. Baldwin leapt up from his table and ran straight into the boulevard, oblivious to oncoming traffic as he and Beauford Delaney embraced.

James “Jimmy” Baldwin had come a long way. Born into poverty in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin was raised in the Baptist church and seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his abusive father, a devout local preacher. At sixteen years old, Jimmy began to question his own religion and sexuality just as he learned that his father was not his biological father. The hypocrisy, dogmatism, and bigotry of the church, combined with the continued abuse from his stepfather, led the sixteen-year-old to flee the church, much like he would later escape the  USA: “The boy preacher,” his biographer writes, “had to leave the church to save his soul.”

Jimmy first met Beauford Delaney at his home in Greenwich Village. The thirty-nine-year-old Delaney was an influential artist during the Harlem Renaissance, but he was also a kindred spirit, a minister’s son and openly gay. For young Jimmy, Delaney proved that even amidst the violence, bigotry, and poverty that had consumed so many young men like Jimmy, it was still possible to rise up and become a practicing artist.

At a crucial moment in Baldwin’s young life, Delaney became what Jimmy would later describe as his “principal witness.” Delaney introduced Baldwin to jazz and the blues through the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith; he took him to museums and concerts and introduced him to fellow members of his tribe. Being a painter, Delaney also had a keen eye for color and detail, and Baldwin began looking at the world through his mentor’s eyes. On one of their long walks along Broadway Avenue in late 1940, thirteen years before they would be reunited on Boulevard Saint Germain, Delaney stopped in his tracks to stare down at the rainwater flowing along the curb.

“Look,” Beauford peered down towards the gutters; Baldwin looked but he didn’t see. “Look again,” Delaney repeated, and this was when Baldwin noticed the oil slick on the water’s surface and the way it reflected the buildings up above in strange, new, and beautiful ways.

The "Augusta Paris Puddle" by Photographer Augusta Sagnelli 

In his later years, Baldwin revisited this moment with his biographer, David Leeming, describing how Beauford had taught him to seek beauty in ugliness “in order to find what the artist has to find.” What someone can and cannot see “says something about you,” he said. For the rest of Baldwin’s career, he took this lesson to heart, willing to face ugliness in search of truth and beauty, whether it was unrequited love and sexuality in Giovanni’s Room, white supremacy and American amnesia in his essay “Stranger in the Village,” or the story of finding hope in a puddle of water along a Parisian boulevard … such is the enduring wisdom of the most important influence on James’ Baldwin’s life, his fellow expat, Beauford Delaney.

Samuél is a writer and musician who has lived in Paris since 2008. He holds an M.A. in European Society from University College London and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Samuél teaches creative writing at the Sorbonne, and is also a pianist and singer in the American indie-rock trio, Slim & The Beast. Visit his Substack for more writing, and follow him on Instagram.  Learn with Samuél Lopez-Barrantes online or in person

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