[Easy Chair] Continental Divide, By Thomas Chatterton Williams | Harper's Magazine

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[Easy Chair]

Continental Divide

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Decades ago, my father implored me to get acquainted with James Baldwin. As is often the case with such parental injunctions, I ignored him for a long time, but once I’d acted on the suggestion, I wished I’d done it sooner. When I thought, when I wrote, Baldwin’s work was a constant inspiration. When I moved from New York to Paris in 2011, it was his path I followed. And when I visited his abandoned home in the foothills of the Alps a few years later, I was so stirred that I campaigned, in vain, to save the property from a real estate developer. But until this summer, I had never made a pilgrimage to Leukerbad, the postcard Alpine village of ski slopes and thermal baths to which Baldwin retreated in the early Fifties to complete his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. And so as Europe began to reopen after a long and enervating lockdown, I set off by train to Switzerland.

I am not the first to retrace Baldwin’s tracks at this altitude. Many writers of my generation revere Baldwin not just intellectually and morally, but personally. (As Ishmael Reed put it less charitably, today “there are more Baldwin impersonators than Elvis Presley impersonators in Las Vegas.”) Several years ago, Teju Cole wrote about Baldwin’s 1953 Harper’s Magazine essay on Leukerbad, “Stranger in the Village,” reflecting on how Baldwin thought through “white supremacy from its first principles.”

But the racial landscape has been remade since then. The tide of global protest unleashed by George Floyd’s death touched even tiny, landlocked Switzerland. On June 9, 2020, some ten thousand Black Lives Matter protesters massed in Geneva, marching, chanting, and kneeling in solidarity with their American counterparts. Within a week, an additional four thousand marched in the capital, Bern, and ten thousand gathered in Zurich, carrying banners that read white silence is violence. In an open letter published to coincide with Floyd’s funeral, more than sixty black artists and cultural workers from across Switzerland accused the country’s art establishment of “a general reluctance to address structural anti-Blackness” and called for “a deeper confrontation with structural blindspots rooted in white supremacy.”

Such language carries a particular meaning in the United States, a former slave society where Africans and their descendants have lived and toiled since before the nation’s founding. Less clear to me at the time was its meaning in a European country with four national languages that was never a colonial power and is roughly 1 percent black. Why, I asked myself (just as I had asked about French protesters who chanted “I can’t breathe” in English), has the highly specific lexicon of anti-racist activism come to Switzerland copied and pasted from the United States?

As the train pulled in to Geneva, I readied my paperwork—a negative COVID-19 test and a handwritten vaccination card from my childhood pharmacy in New Jersey—but the grimacing border patrol agents didn’t even make eye contact with me or anyone else of color. The tiny minority of passengers they stopped all appeared to be white. I climbed into a taxi and headed for the Korean barbecue restaurant where I was to meet one of the signatories of the letter, a twenty-eight-year-old artist named Mathias Pfund. He was not an activist, he had stressed when I first emailed him, but had been moved to sign the letter for reasons he now found difficult to articulate. “On a personal level, I recently found myself questioning my place inside those racial issues,” he said. “I am adopted from Brazil and arrived in Switzerland when I was sixteen months. In the eyes of the others, I am a light-skin racialized person, but inside I deeply embraced occidental views of the world, without really realizing until recently that I’m not white.”

Questions of race figured in his art, he explained, but were seldom prominent, except in one piece he ultimately decided not to exhibit. It was a project two years in the making entitled Couleur locale, which dealt with racist pastries sold in Switzerland and France, such as the chocolate-coated marshmallows known as têtes de nègre. He cast five types in bronze, hoping to highlight their offensiveness. In doing so, he said, “I started to feel the pain and violence of those representations.”

I pressed him on these issues over kimchi soup, wanting to understand what the letter signified for him. He was at pains to emphasize that his life had been thoroughly middle class and that he bore an unremarkably Swiss German name. “No struggle,” he said several times, adding that this is what made him fearful of speaking for a whole demographic. That was, of course, precisely why I’d wanted to meet him, I responded. Structures and discourses aside, what was it like for him to be a black man in Switzerland right now? “The elements of the letter are not on a personal level something I share in my own experience, but it’s important to show some support,” he stressed. Then he said something that intrigued me: he confessed he was “afraid of being labeled as a black artist” for want of sufficient hardship. I mentioned the septuagenarian American conceptual artist Adrian Piper, who in 2012 publicly “retired” from being black. As a girl in New York, she was often mistaken for white by black children who demanded she submit to what she calls a Suffering Test. In her extraordinary 1992 essay “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” she describes these encounters as humiliating, but helpful for granting

insight into the way whites feel when they are made the circumstantial targets of blacks’ justified and deep-seated anger. Because the anger is justified, one instinctively feels guilty. But because the target is circumstantial and sometimes arbitrary, one’s sense of fairness is violated.

Pfund laughed good-naturedly and shrugged: “My Piper Suffering Test score is quite okay.” After he’d walked me to my hotel near the United Nations office and said goodbye, I checked in and immediately went back outside. It was a sweltering summer day and the banks of Lake Geneva were packed with sunbathers, some of them diving into the freshwater, still and clear as polished glass. I turned away from the waterfront, and found myself in the Pâquis district, in parts a thoroughly multicultural open-air drug market and brothel—more Amsterdam than “Hamsterdam,” but significantly more menacing than anything in central Paris. At a coffee shop run by a Filipino family on the Rue du Môle, I watched a group of five black and Arab teens lethargically mock and roughhouse their weakest member until, while running away, he smashed his elbow into a concrete planter. The boy crumpled to the ground, sobbing, as the others howled in laughter. The exquisite cruelty of adolescence, I couldn’t help thinking, respects no national or cultural barriers.

That afternoon, I headed to Zurich. Of the three black people I encountered over the next two days, one happened by pure coincidence to be a friend of a friend. The temperature had plummeted and the sky was torrential. I holed up in my hotel reading a 2015 scholarly collection, Colonial Switzerland: Rethinking Colonialism from the Margins, which suggests thinking not about the country’s actions or history, but about its larger “colonial imaginary”:

The fact that colonial cultures were highly influential in Switzerland while the country did not have to undergo a period of decolonization leads to a peculiar contemporary constellation.

Countries like Switzerland, the editors argue, participated in, profited from, and supported colonial endeavors even if they weren’t directly involved. When the status quo—when reality itself—is white supremacist, they suggest, there can be no such thing as impartiality. The idea echoes criticisms of Switzerland’s famous neutrality, and how, in the face of Nazi atrocities, it came to seem a lot less morally respectable. Yet this is also a highly specific, highly American way of speaking, a point the editors admit but seem to view as a strength. Their book both fascinated and frustrated me—an elaborate theoretical framework in search of a real-world problem. I longed for the clear and concrete language of experience, for the provocation of those Swiss children that shouted “Neger!” as Baldwin passed.

Clouds dumped sheets of cold rain against the bus windows as we made our way up the narrow, winding road to Leukerbad. But the next day, despite my phone’s predictions, the sun appeared. I set out from the Hotel Regina Terme, climbing muddy hiking trails in the wrong footwear—past a solitary cabin flying two American flags—until, looking over my shoulder, I glimpsed Leukerbad spread out in the valley beneath me like one of my daughter’s model cities, an astonishingly tranquil vision. The isolation felt total, yet as Baldwin noted, the people he met there, however unwittingly, still belonged to “the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted.” He would later reject such a blunt contrast, but at the time the wonder with which these natives regarded him was alienating. Yet it is not wonder itself that is crucial, but the animus that can inflect it, I thought, as I watched those flags snapping in the breeze, feeling none of the familiar tension that might grip me when confronted with identical symbolism in the Catskills.

I walked for several more hours, only occasionally encountering another human being. At one point, I felt a twinge of unease when a gray-haired white woman approached with a look of grave disapproval, but she stopped me only to say, “Il faut regarder le paysage!”—as in, put your damn phone away. We shared a laugh. I’d been enmeshed in a counterproductive debate on Twitter. Why couldn’t I just ignore it? Tout à fait, I responded, and continued along, past increasingly spectacular gorges roaring with running meltwater. Eventually, I descended the other side of the valley, where I passed a group of truly contented cows grazing, their bells clanking, while above their heads the sun burned through wispy strips of cloud.

On the terrace of a restaurant set by itself amid this Alpine splendor, I ordered sausages and potato salad and took in my surroundings. A dark-skinned black man devoured fondue with his blond white companion. Before my coffee came, another interracial couple arrived. It was all utterly, wonderfully unremarkable. If black people were “a sight” in Baldwin’s time, we’re nothing to write home about now.

Over the next two days, I struck up conversations with the grandniece and the daughter of the hotel’s longtime owner, a white-haired older gentleman I’d seen around named Emil Loretan, one of the few villagers who remembered Baldwin’s visits. He was very tired and couldn’t speak English, but his daughter kindly printed out for me a short list of responses he’d prepared for reporters. “Mr. Baldwin did not cause great excitement,” it begins. “He was underappreciated and did not yet have great renown as a writer.” In his replies (which a friend of mine translated from the German), Loretan seems almost wounded that Baldwin would paint his village as racist. “The hotels closed in wintertime in those days and it was very quiet,” the printout continues. “Around carnival, groups of children would go through the village to collect money for the needy. When someone donated money, a small black girl would nod. This probably shocked Baldwin.” I read the passage several times before I realized the “small black girl” he was referring to was one of the two Baldwin describes in his essay:

There is a custom in the village—I am told it is repeated in many villages—of “buying” African natives for the purpose of converting them to Christianity. . . . During the carnaval which precedes Lent, two village children have their faces blackened—out of which bloodless darkness their blue eyes shine like ice—and fantastic horsehair wigs are placed on their blond heads; thus disguised, they solicit among the villagers for money for the missionaries in Africa.

Baldwin’s depiction here had always seemed to me objective, beyond dispute, as factual as the scenery. It felt eerie to encounter one of the circumstantial targets of his justified but possibly misdirected anger—
after all, “Stranger in the Village” is about America, and about the fundamentally incommensurate relationship between white and black there. Where Baldwin saw the degrading American tradition of blackface, Loretan saw only a costume within the make-believe world of carnival—an imitation with intentions more philanthropic than pejorative. It was a detail Baldwin had latched onto and used to score a larger, valid point in a different context, Loretan seemed to imply: “This induced him to grade the village harshly. Back then, the village was very poor; he insinuated that as well.”

The village today is considerably more prosperous. After checking out, I asked the hotel’s driver to drop me in the old central square, where Baldwin had stayed. It is gorgeously preserved, walled on all sides by staggering peaks, with a clock tower and vividly painted shutters over tightly packed windows. In a small alleyway by an ice-cream parlor is an installation devoted to two famous writers who spent time in Leukerbad: on one side, Goethe, on the other, Baldwin. Three quarters of the space is devoted to the latter, and the text of “Stranger in the Village” is printed in full alongside five portraits (to Goethe’s one). I stood there for a while, rereading Baldwin’s impressions and trying to imagine what he experienced. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” he wrote, but though I could feel his fury, it was almost impossible to own it.

I took a shaded seat just across the small sun-drenched plaza, where I noticed a tattooed Portuguese waitress from the hotel at a neighboring table. She shyly waved in my direction. The place was otherwise empty. I ordered a quick lunch and raised a glass of white wine in Baldwin’s direction. Right then it felt like we were a long way indeed from Paris, from Harlem, from Minneapolis.


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