Friday, November 7, 2014

Black America's "French Connection"

Yearning to Breathe Free
I dropped out of my beginner's French class in college because the professor picked on me a lot for reasons I don't understand to this day. I had a B+ average in the class, and he had actually suggested that I take a more advanced class because my aptitude was quite good, without serious effort.  Still in my teens, I didn't have the fight in me to take him on. In fact, I transferred to another school altogether to finish my university studies. My French professor's attitude toward me wasn't the reason I transferred, however.  There was a lot of racial strife on campus, and, having earlier determined that I couldn't apply to film school, I decided to study international relations and journeyed to Washington, D.C., finishing my last two years in college there.

Monsieur Charles Boyer
My first roommate, an Italian-American and big Anglophile, spoke French and Russian, and we would often-times speak French. I credit her with keeping the language alive in me. Besides its being a romantic-sounding language, I also grew up watching Charles Boyer movies, and loved his accent. I had memorized parts of the opera, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in high school, taking the album (which I had bought for my birthday) to my friend's home to play, as we didn't have a stereo.  I would date a Haitian man, decades later, who had Boyer's same deeply-French accent, and I loved speaking French with him.  However, as punishment for not electing to be a member in his stable of other women (he would flip through photographs of all the women who wanted to be with him, as if that should somehow convince me to do the same), he would only speak English with me.  That relationship didn't last too long, although we are still friends.

I have had no connection with France other than when I took my short trailer to the Cannes Film Festival, trying to raise money for a feature film. I enjoyed my stay there, but it was all work and no play, honestly. After eating baguettes, hot chocolate, and Orangina throughout the day, I would treat myself to a first class meal at night.  I had a pizza with the first Robocop, at the time. He was normal. Nice. So un-Hollywood.  My sister's best friend, Darice, joined me there. Darice was a world traveler in her own right, and died several years ago of cancer, something my family and I cannot get over.  Years prior to her death, Darice had a birthday celebration in Louisiana,  as her family, like many others from Southern California, hailed from there. I joined my sister, and Darice's other friends to party, in New Orleans, planning to continue my travels to the northwestern part of the state to continue to research my novel.

Louisiana is a state unlike the other 49, and we have the French to thank for that, for better or for worse. That state's legal system is based upon French Napoleonic codes, as opposed to the English- based stare decisis (legal decisions born of earlier judicial precedent).  The mix of the races is legendary, spawning Creoles, Cajuns -- a melange of European, African, and Native American blood.  But the plantation system was also legendary, too. Under the yoke of American slavery, Black Americans were chattel, told where they could go, what they could do, whom they could marry. They were considered 3/5ths of a human being.  Notwithstanding France's contribution to American slavery, there were abolitionists.  Indeed, in a brilliant stroke of subliminal indoctrination, the French abolitionists gave America the Statue of Liberty, to protest against slavery, and send a colossal physical reminder of what America claimed to be: a beacon of hope for people around the world.

Fifty years later, after World War II, the French still embraced Black Americans' ability to create joy notwithstanding the degradation of its people, and France embraced Black culture.  The love affair was mutual, especially after the War. An excerpt told by Barbara "Aisha" Johnson, daughter of a Black American transplant to France:

My father Howard Tuck would often talk about the war. He was in France and in Germany during WWII. There was a lot of hardship, the countryside, all bombed out, was desolate. Combat was hard and stressing, but they got breaks in between. African American bands would come to France to entertain the troops. The French loved jazz. They would come to some of the shows. And if the French could play, they would join in. There was dancing. No one lifted an eyebrow if an African American soldier danced with a French woman. While there was discrimination in France at that time, the racism was nowhere near what we experienced here. The Negroes were received as human beings, as individuals.

On the other hand, African Americans liked the sharp way the French dressed. They started to knot a silk scarf around their neck the way the French did, to wear tweed blazers, and the beret of course! They brought that fashion back to Harlem. It became a trade mark for African Americans who wanted to show they were smart and educated.

The reception by the French to Black Americans is excerpted from this blog:

African-Americans also had another benefit when moving to France in that their skin color actually helped them, rather than provided a burden. Many Parisians, when meeting an African-American in Paris would assume that the person was an artist, writer, or performer of some sort. As Parisians have a profound respect for those involved in some form of artistic and/or creative expression, they were treated with the upmost respect.

Although slavery was abolished, and some progress has been made to redress its scourge, economically, Blacks still suffer under policies that move at Paleozoic speeds of government restitution to this day.  One need only read the vitriolic comments against American Indians in 2009, who were slated to receive restitution or reparations for intentional injustices against them by the federal government. The government, of course, is made up of people, many of whom are conflicted in their duties as public servants, and who can keep the wheels of justice from moving, to a standstill, because of their prejudice and bias. 

It is easy to romanticize the French, who profess, as an official maxim, not to care about race.  France has no census, and on government forms there is no check box for one to mark next to one's color or ethnicity. Imagine that! Not to be categorized by color.  It is fair to say that Black Africans in France don't have the same experiences as Black Americans once had, as their collective entry on France's shores from Africa were not as part of a liberating force, like those of the Black American soldiers who fought with the US military.  The Black communities of France are also in banlieues, or far-flung, isolated communities of "otherness" that suggest their identity and plight as refugees, is ignored.  But don't call their low-income communities ghettos:

Several social scientists in France reject any conflation of French housing projects with black ghettos in the US. Sophie Body-Gendrot (2007) argues that US history is marked by a founding racial conflict relegating those deemed inferior to a stigmatized realm. She takes up US sociologist Douglas Massey’s term, “soft apartheid”, to describe a system institutionalized over the course of several centuries that is still more inclined to wall in the ghettos than call them into question. Unlike the US, however, France has been spared such systemic racial segregation, in which the identity of the self and the other hinges chiefly on the colour of one’s skin. Body-Gendrot finds that, ultimately, the French republican ideal eschews the racialization of social relations, favouring unity over heterogeneity.
Similarly, Loic Wacquant (2005; 2006) notes significant disparities between French housing projects and the American black ghetto. First of all, he points up the gap in size and scale between US ghettos and French urban renewal zones. He then observes functional and ecological contrasts: unlike American ghettos, French social housing projects are “residential islets” that are not cut off from other urban areas. Wacquant, a Bourdieusian sociologist, also underscores the fact that US ghettos are entirely and exclusively black, whereas poor French suburbs exhibit considerable ethnic diversity. He also points out that US ghettos are plagued by levels of poverty and indigence and forms of violence unequalled in France. Finally, according to the author, many American black ghettos are in a state of utter dereliction unknown in France.
Hmm... um...

President Barack Hussein Obama's inauguration awakened minority populations in France to demand more attention about their socio-economic condition, a difficult proposition if there are truly no statistics to shed insight into their plight as minorities. I champion their cause; but I, daresay, the strides of some Black Americans in this country does not mitigate the malaise that regular, non-famous, Black Americans feel for being enfants terribles in their own country. Both Black peoples within each others' nations could learn from one another.

I still might take up French again.


1 comment:

Surirose said...

Parisians can call it what they want. The fact that blacks are relegated to certain parts of the city, that are less endowed than others, is a reflection of their own form of racism.

For the people who live there, it probably doesn't matter too much, if it is considered a step above the racist practices in the U.S. To them it probably still feels just as bad. No city, state or country should be proud of limiting opportunities of economic
growth and expansion, for people based on skin color or economic level. One will pay the price for one's wrongdoings, no matter what religious facade one hides behind.

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