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Color Complex

Posted January 2, 2007 4:51 am (about 4547 days ago)

Thoughts and reflections about a recent adventure in Paris, including DJing at the Rex Club on New Year’s Eve.

Paris Entry Two:

So here it is again, nearly 24 hours later, and I can’t sleep…that would be fine if I wasn’t trying to squeeze so much into these next few days! I end up passing out at inopportune times. Then again, I had plans to spend the day at the Louvre but found out that it’s closed on Tuesdays so some pressure is off. I still have a few people to meet up with so I might not do much of the tourist thing this trip. But I think that I’m fine with that. Yesterday I just ended up chillin’ at my friend’s pad, alternating between writing, sleeping, and cleaning. It was pretty relaxing. Later that night Alex and I lounged in a local bar, eating some down to earth French cuisine, then worked on some music till the wee hours of the morning. Traveling really is about the people so I figure there’s no rush to see a bunch of places that I won’t have time to enjoy. I’m going to remember these personal moments for much longer. Still, got to squeeze in some shopping and take care of folks back in the States!

Race and Ethnicity

I did loads of research before this trip and read two things that actually irritated me. I was researching tours of “Black Paris” and there was a quote by an African American gentleman who said that he had been to Paris 15 times and had never been to an African neighborhood and basically didn’t know that African Americans had such a strong presence in France until he took one of the tours.

How can you visit a place FIFTEEN times and not know some basic stuff like that, especially about your own people? OK, I am a bookworm and lightweight history buff so I shouldn’t sound like such a jerk, but do people really only stick to the tourist traps? There’s not enough info on Black folks in Paris, but considering that there has been hundreds of years (at least) of documented Black history in France there certainly is information.

But even if you’re dumb as a rock, there are Black people EVERYWHERE in Paris. There are places where I feel like I’m in Southfield, Michigan (if you ignore the French language, obviously). At the airport I felt like I was in Chicago. Granted, most of the Black folks are of direct African or Caribbean descent, but I’m staying with friends out in the cuts (20 arrondissement, which is on the border, and with another friend in the suburbs) and the other night I heard two young Black women with clear American accents chatting away at the Metro train station. I helped my friend pick up things from his friend’s apartment and she was an African American from New York. Paris has been one of the great cities for centuries so should it really be any surprise how diverse it is? Too many Americans think that we’re the only ones with diverse metropolitan areas.

OK, now to make a confession. Before my first visit to Paris, I expected it to be nearly all White too. I mean I knew some of the history (Josephine Baker, for example) and tracked down some soul food restaurants, but I was amazed by all the people of color. Even on this trip I’m soaking in how many Arabs I see. Each day I’ve heard several people speak Manderin and English and Spanish are spoken all over the place. A couple of nights ago I met a Peruvian family from New York and last night I had dinner with a Salvadorean from L.A. My first day here I ate at a Kurdish spot and a Turkish spot. So yeah, Paris is diverse. Not just in race and ethnicity, but politics, music, class, and everything in between. The way that France gets presented in the U.S. is like there are a few pockets of non-Whites, but they’re the minority. Not where I’m staying! I remember being fascinated by Oliver Stone’s movie Heaven and Earth when he had this brief scene set in Vietnam with Black French soldiers. I had never even thought about that.

So, what was the second thing that pissed me off? I recently found out that some of the Harlem Hellfighters, an army unit from the U.S. who are highly respected in France after fighting with the French army in World War II, had Latino soldiers as well. They get presented as an “all-Black” unit with the implication that they were all African-American. I guess I was pissed because I’m tired of people being left out of history. In the U.S. there tends to be an “all White” or “White and Black” take on history. I think this carries over into my perceptions of France, as well as that of the nameless person I quoted above. So much gets left out, which is why people need to travel and see things for themselves! Then again, none of this should be surprising. That’s why I became a history teacher, to address these issues in a more rounded way. We spent a week studying Sally Hemmings in my U.S. History class!

Finally, to add to the cultural and racial discussion, I checked out a Mexican restaurant. It wasn’t great, but probably the best Mexican spot I’ve eaten at that wasn’t in Mexico or the U.S. As with most of these places, the food can be quite pricey. So why would I eat Mexican food in Paris? One, just to compare. The majority of my time is with French folks, in French communities so it’s not like I’m being closed-minded. I’m just fascinated by how people of my background (not just race) live overseas. The last time I was here I was on a soul food mission. I haven’t sampled too many Asian spots since Asians are so ubiquitous around the world, but most of the joints that I’ve seen are pretty nasty fast-food spots. The world is a ghetto…

Two, I want to inspire my students to travel so I figure the more relevant reference points I can give them, the more comfortable they might be (yes you can get your nails done and find Black hair care products…well, some). Obviously places like McDonalds and Starbucks are here.

Finally, there’s a part of me that wants to know if I could live here. It’s one thing to visit a place and experience the difference, but that can get old after a few months, if not weeks. I think that I’m always looking to see if there’s a community that I can tap into. The Latinos I talked to said sometimes you just really miss some good tortillas or want to hear some “non-Spain” Spanish. Other people of different backgrounds share similar feelings. (After a five week stint in Taiwan once, I was severely craving some good barbeque!) On the Latino side of things in Paris, there are more restaurants and Latin clubs than I expected, as well as a Latino radio station. Yet I don’t know how much of an actual community there is. You can only do so much in a week’s time!

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