A review of Baldwin's Paris 2.0, a geospatial project on the writing of James Baldwin, led by Tyechia L. Thompson and Carli Smith
Baldwin’s Paris 2.0
Tyechia L. Thompson, Ph.D., Virginia Tech
Carli Smith, Virginia Tech
Kenton Rambsy, University of Texas at Arlington
Tyechia L. Thompson and Carli Smith
Baldwin’s Paris 2.0 is a geospatial literary project that provides a visual representation of U.S. playwright, poet, and activist James Baldwin’s writings in Paris. The project utilizes placemarks to indicate over 100 locations mentioned throughout ten of Baldwin’s books published during his life. Baldwin’s Paris 2.0 is a visual and multimodal tool for generating analysis of the relationship of place and human connection to Baldwin’s personal journeys. It facilitates a greater understanding of and appreciation for James Baldwin and his influential relationship with the city of Paris.
Conceived from a semester-long graduate course titled “Black American Literature,” taught under the direction of Tyechia Thompson, Baldwin’s Paris 2.0 is the result of a class collaborative effort to expand the scope of Baldwin’s Paris, created by Thompson. The site is a multimodal project that was collaboratively pitched, designed, implemented, and evaluated by our team to map quotations from James Baldwin’s fiction and essays directly onto the city of Paris, including contemporary images and street views, links to archival and historical material, and paths that follow characters’ movements.
Baldwin’s Paris 2.0 incorporates a user guide to “walk” the user through the site’s primary features and purposes. This guide also details the dashboard, explains the map’s details, describes the standard contents of a pop-up, and lists the various research modes the site has to offer. After collapsing the user guide, a second side panel informs the user of both the purpose and scope of the site. The upper left corner of the page includes a layer button that allows the user to peruse the various texts we datamined for location references, as well as additional “notes” that provide further material on these locations. This ability to toggle meets the needs of multiple audiences, from Baldwin enthusiasts who wish to identify specific locations to Baldwin scholars seeking more detailed information for contextualizing Baldwin’s works.
Within these toggled layers, locations are primarily conveyed through pins, which generally include three informative elements: a contemporary photo of the location, any textual reference Baldwin made to the location, and, where applicable, an external link to archival or historical information about the location. Providing both a contemporary photograph of the location and historical information, where possible, presents users with a context for how the location might have appeared to Baldwin as well as how the location stands today.
Project developers chose to incorporate several dashed line “character path” layers that correspond to three of Baldwin’s novels: Another Country, Giovanni’s Room, and Just Above My Head. The layering of character paths foregrounds Baldwin’s tendency to revisit certain places in his texts. These spatial returns reinforce the importance of geographical place to human contact and how place produces ways of being that structure public spaces.
In an effort to increase accessibility to the site, all image content is accompanied by alt-text, and captions and time-based media (e.g., videos) are supplemented with non-time-based media (e.g., still pictures) when possible. Our color contrast ratio is 4.5:1, which complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. Through ArcGIS, the site is also compatible with third-party text-to-speech apps.
Baldwin’s Paris has over 6,000 views and has received support from the African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities (AADHum) Initiative at MITH (University of Maryland, College Park) and the Black Book Interactive Project at the University of Kansas. Additionally, it was been cited in Howard Rambsy’s article “African American Scholars and the Margins of DH” in the January 2020 issue of PMLA and the article “Mapping Narratives of Reversal in ‘Baldwin’s Paris,’” which was published in the September 2016 issue of College Language Association Journal. We are seeking to expand critical inquiry of Baldwin’s works using this literary tool, gain exposure to scholars and enthusiasts of James Baldwin and African Americans in Paris, and pursue grants to support the future development of “Baldwin’s Paris 2.0.”
James Baldwin, like other writers and artists during the 1940s and 1950s, moved to Paris to escape institutional racism in America. Even in 2022, the historical and social significance of those locations still resonate with how we interpret the life’s work of Baldwin. “Even if France is no longer a haven for people of color,” according to Ellery Washington, “Paris remains, nonetheless, a vital connection to a time when — for many artists, writers and political thinkers — a much-needed shelter was sought and found” (Washington, “Seeing”). The significance of Paris as it relates to Baldwin’s creative output makes issues of place and space even more relevant when studying the late writer.
Baldwin’s Paris 2.0 is a geospatial literary project that makes an intervention in how we assess geographic influences on the artistic imagination of James Baldwin. The ArcGIS map is made up of over 100 place markers for buildings, monuments, restaurants, cafes, and residences that Baldwin referenced in three novels, six collections of essays, and one short story collection published during his lifetime. The map provides an avenue for viewers to chart Baldwin’s actual movements across the country with those of the fictional characters in his creative works.
Baldwin’s Paris 2.0 was designed as a tool for scholars already somewhat familiar with the writings of Baldwin. Even though Paris is vast, the project highlights recurring locations and various neighborhoods specific to the author’s works. The project, therefore, prompts users to visualize the different passages and places embedded in Baldwin’s writings. For instance, the map includes dashed lines that correspond to travel routes for three particular works: Another Country, Giovanni’s Room, and Just Above My Head. These highlighted travel routes facilitate a viewer’s ability to assess the boundaries of Paris as Baldwin envisioned it in his recollections of France as well as creative works.
At the top, righthand corner of the map, there is a “layers” option on the toolbar. Selecting this option will present a drop-down list where users can select between a list of book titles. By checking and un-checking the boxes, users can manipulate their view of the map. The box marked “arrondissements” highlights the urban administrative districts of Paris in different colors. There is also a “search” option that allows users to input a specific address to be plotted on the map. The various layers give users the option to customize their view based on a particular work or geographic coordinates.
There are two categories of pinned locations that reveal different aspects of Baldwin’s Paris. The first layers, labeled “map notes,” offer contemporary photos of the locations. Hovering over the embossed “notes” offers an image of that location and, in some instances, an external link that directs to archival or historical information about the locale. The second layers are location markers that are simply labeled by the title of a given text. Hovering over pinned locations presents references Baldwin made to the location, usually in the form of an excerpt from a particular work.
While the site does an outstanding job of highlighting the parameters of Baldwin’s real and imagined renderings of Paris, the historical and literary significance is not readily apparent at first. A Baldwin specialist is needed to derive nuanced meanings of the locales. Baldwin’s Paris would be well served with brief write ups about recurring place-based trends and why they have meaningful bearing on Baldwin’s writings. This would increase its usefulness for novice and amateur Baldwin readers. Also, this would clarify for literary specialists and non-specialists alike how studying writers with digital resources creates different entry points to African American writers. These constructive suggestions hopefully will encourage viewers to fully grasp the inventiveness and scholarly labor involved with this project.
Baldwin’s Paris 2.0 augments readings of Baldwin by highlighting the relationship between place and social discourses. This project amasses several geographic coordinates and presents it in a palatable way to emphasize linkages and recurring patterns in his fiction and non-fiction. Visualizing the actual geographic coordinates brings clarity to Baldwin’s time in Paris by pinpointing specific social locations the writer frequented. Also, the pinned locations bring an added specificity to users envisioning what real life locations he included in his creative works. As such, this project charts new ground at the intersections of African American literary studies and spatial humanities by demonstrating how maps can be used to enhance our understandings of how geography contributes to the literary compositions of a single writer.
Washington, Ellery. “Seeing the Paris of James Baldwin.” The Seattle Times, 7 Feb. 2014, https://www.seattletimes.com/life/travel/seeing-the-paris-of-james-baldwin/.