The Power of Artistic Exile

Melvin Van Peebles spent long periods outside America, and it is not coincidental that some of his best works were written abroad.

Melvin van Peebles stares into the camera
Paul Warner / Getty

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

The filmmaker and polymath Melvin Van Peebles died last week at the age of 89 at his home in New York. He is best known as the auteur behind the first hit blaxploitation film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), but he was an artist of great breadth and versatility: sculptor; poet; painter; composer and, with Gil Scott-Heron, progenitor of rap and hip-hop; playwright; gifted novelist. I would continue, but I have run out of semicolons. From his obituaries, one gets the sense that his crowning act of mischief-making was to leave obituarists an impossible task, to contain seven or eight human lifetimes in a few paragraphs. Throwaway lines note that during a long period of expatriation, he “studied astronomy—a personal fascination—at the University of Amsterdam.” He worked as a gigolo. He painted portraits professionally in Mexico. Back in America, his first book detailed his life as a cable-car gripman in San Francisco. In 1984, he made money trading options on Wall Street.

The Van Peebles work that most delights me is from one of those stints abroad—and I do not think it is coincidental that one of the products of exile was such a clever and entertaining piece. Van Peebles wrote five books in French, including Un Américain en Enfer (1965), later published in English as The True American. A bitter and funny picaresque novel, it has the markings of a creative mind returning to a subject after having achieved distance from it.

The book’s hero, Abe, is born poor and Black in Georgia sometime in the 19th century. He gets nabbed by dirty cops, is thrown in prison, and soon dies in a blasting accident on a work gang. Having ascended to the gates of heaven, he encounters Jesus, “a thin, liberal-looking White man,” sitting at an office desk. In a moment of liberal guilt, Jesus considers admitting Abe to heaven, but at the last minute, one of heaven’s angels (who has the form of a white woman skittish around Black people) shrieks, thinking Abe is admiring her body through her gossamer, form-revealing angel gown. Jesus’s liberal indulgence vanishes instantly, and he sends Abe to hell.

The novel combines Franz Kafka’s Amerika, Mark Twain, and The Good Place. The Devil has undertaken a plan to “modernize Hell.” He devotes Pit 30 to Americans and investigates ways to achieve maximum misery with minimum expenditure. It turns out that the most efficient way to increase misery for Americans is to torture white people by making Black people happier and freer. “Their contentment is more than offset by the unhappiness of their countrymen,” the Devil explains to his board. Black men will have education, political rights, and endless sex with anonymous women of all races—all while the white Americans are forced to watch, and be speared in the throat if they complain. (Van Peebles’s female characters are, to put it mildly, underdeveloped.) The experiment works, the Devil says: “The American pit is run with one-fifth the number of imps and one-eighth the amount of space!”

Abe eventually decides that the education he has achieved in hell is a gift worth sharing, and he persuades the Devil to send him back to Earth to improve the lot of humanity. Abe’s friend Dave, an amiable white guy who died after being scalped on the frontier, gets to go back too, so they can save America together. Upon restoration to Earth, now on the eve of the Second World War, the pair face opposite fates. On the South Side of Chicago, Abe goes to a rent party, dances with a woman, and is promptly re-killed by a jealous boyfriend. Dave earns a degree, becomes a decorated bombardier in the war, grows rich as a businessman, and convinces himself that his memories of hell and death were just his imagination. Eventually he has completely suppressed the wisdom of the afterlife. The illusion has become so powerful, and the consequence of confronting it so dire, that Dave cannot drop it. Abe persuades the Devil to let him go back once more, but when he gets to postwar Chicago and is unable to wake Dave from his racist slumber, Abe wonders whether this might be the Bad Place.

Could the novel be Van Peebles’s most autobiographical work? Whether he died and returned to Earth multiple times is beyond my ability to know. (That would explain the seven or eight lifetimes. The Devil tells Abe that he used to send people back to Earth with some regularity. That would account, as well, for the occasional miraculous recovery on the battlefield: The Devil is sending back a few souls to keep things interesting.) But in Abe I see Van Peebles, and Van Peebles’s extended periods abroad resemble Abe’s sojourns in hell. In Europe, Van Peebles continued his education. He hid out from American-style racism (though by no means dodging its European equivalent; his 1967 film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, about a Black American soldier on leave in France, is a minor classic of the French New Wave). These were also his gigolo days. Like Abe, he had sex with an endless cast of white women, not entirely by choice: He needed the money. This was Van Peebles’s Joycean period, the extended exile that allowed him to diagnose his own country’s sickness, and to learn the contours of his despair. It was not heaven but not quite hell either, and like all respites, it ended with a return to reality—Abe’s return to America, and also Van Peebles’s. They are American Dantes.

Van Peebles is best remembered for the commercial success of Sweetback, which demonstrated that movies by Black people featuring Black characters who could (in Van Peebles’s words) “go through a whole movie without having to kiss ass” were financially viable. Hollywood kept learning that lesson, although in time it forgot the cynicism that Van Peebles brought from abroad. In 2018, Jamil Smith heralded the film Black Panther by saying it “prove[s] to Hollywood that African-American narratives have the power to generate profits from all audiences.” (I detect in the corporate box-office triumphalism a touch of the boardroom diction of Van Peebles’s Devil: “The new system is an outstanding success … A major breakthrough, gentlemen.”) In addition to being less commercial, Van Peebles’s work was simply deeper. Its fantasy attempted not to escape reality (Black Panther is pure escape, and useless as a guide to race in America) but to illuminate it, tragedy and all. The True American does that.

My late friend and mentor Ulric S. Haynes, who grew up Black in New York during the same years when Van Peebles grew up Black in Chicago, sometimes lamented the difficulty of persuading Black students to go overseas, as he and Van Peebles did, almost as soon as they were able. (Haynes became a diplomat and was at one point such a personification of “radical chic” that he appears in the Tom Wolfe essay that coined the phrase.) Travel offers inherent rewards. But for members of a beleaguered minority, those rewards can be doubly rich. It is hard to get perspective on your surroundings when your face is being ground into the dirt, or as Van Peebles might have put it, when the Man’s foot is stuck in your ass. Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin would not have been the same without their time in the British Isles, France, Turkey, and Switzerland.

Van Peebles’s career shows again that exile can be such a potent tool to exercise the imagination and rescue it upon return from the false idol of escapism. One way to continue Van Peebles’s legacy is to pick up a camera. Another is to get a passport.