Black Paris

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 - 6:42pm

“Paris, Je t’aime.” 

I’m gonna be honest, this sentiment did not really stick with me after I finished my study abroad. It’s not that I hate the city or I have anything against my experience there after three weeks, but I think my perspective of one of the most well-known cities in the world has certainly developed into something that has allowed me to read between the lines of what is presented and what actually is. I would instead, change this sentiment to “Paris, Je tu connais” — Paris I know you.

A group of black students from the University of Michigan go to Paris for three weeks, spread out amongst the city in different arrondissements, or districts, and explore the food, art and culture in their free time.  

I was elated when I got the email with “Congratulations” plastered across my phone screen saying I had received the once in a lifetime opportunity to go to Paris for almost a month to learn about black culture. After almost six years of studying French, I wanted to immerse myself in the culture. More than anything else, I was finally able to speak the language that was once limited to me in a  classroom setting. The excitement and nervousness building up to living in France was expected, and it was not until I landed in the country that reality hit.

Blackness amongst a community of black people is not exactly universal.

I know, this is not something that makes much sense at first, but let me explain. 

Paris, although known as one of the biggest places for art and culture under the eye of Eurocentric-ness, is also the home to many black people. Some are first generation French whose only cultural ties are those from their parents and their homes in Africa. Others came to Paris for the opportunities in Europe, and some are generations removed from their roots — much like here in America. The biggest difference, however, is “Blackness” is not something that is not something that is shared (across the Atlantic/in other countries). 

When I walk across campus or sit in a class, I can be assured that I and the only black person in a space will acknowledge each other. Not because we know each other or even because we had seen each other around before. It is simply because we understand that, although we may not actually know each other’s names, there is something that ties us together, and that is being black in a white world. Head nods, greetings and even a wave are all things that I can rely on when I run into another black person in America, because we have come to understand that there is unity in our shared but also different experiences. This, however, is not the same in France.

As the story goes, a group of students from our trip to Paris went to explore the day before class started and ran across a group of black, Parisian kids on their way home after school. One person in our group nodded their head in acknowledgement and the kid he made eye contact with him shook his head in bewilderment and said, “Je connais tu?” — I know you? This same incident repeated itself over and over again until we brought it up in class. Little did we know that France does not acknowledge race. 

Under the motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” is the agreement of unity. A unity that sees everyone as equal under every law, and this includes identity. However, this unity comes with the price that differences amongst people are not to be acknowledged. This includes race, religion or wealth. While wealth makes sense due to the roots of the French Revolution, the idea of not acknowledging race or religion was something that shocked me. Much of my identity is rooted in my blackness, as it is for many other people, and the idea of not being able to discuss this amongst other people was alarming. 

It goes without saying that, although race is not acknowledged in France, racism most definitely exists. Racism existed through the black, male security guards planted at almost every store with the intent to “intimidate” customers or the black women who I saw nannying white children as they pushed strollers around the neighborhood and on the metro station. As the only black professor who studies blackness in France, Pap Ndiaye puts it — many of the Black people we saw working as nannies or security guards had received the same degrees to those of the white store owners or families they work for, but were refused high-ranking jobs based on the color of their skin . That sounds similar to the same job discrimination that many black people face in the United States. With the exception that there is nothing that can be legally prosecuted in court based off discrimination of race. 

This fact hit especially close to home when I was followed around a clothing store by a black man who had seen me as a potentially “risky customer.” I was angry at the fact that he was put into a position that only allowed other people to profit off of his “image” of being intimidating and even angrier he assumed I was going to steal clothing. It was only after the fact that I realized that him following me around a store played into a societal standard he was trained to follow in order to keep his job. A job he had to take because France requires people to send in their photo ID’s when applying for jobs, which means discrimination can take place at any level of the job market. So, I replaced my initial anger with a sadness that acknowledged the repeated incidents that took place during my time in Paris were above me — a result of a system that does not acknowledge racial inequity saturated within the financial well-being of the black people who live in Paris.

This visible racial divide did not end in clothing stores or on metro stops, but followed us into museums. During our second week, we watched the Carter’s “Apesh*t”  video and followed it with a tour of the Louvre to discuss of blackness in the space as well as the significance of the music video. Our tour guide who specialized in giving "black tours", a particularly "new and profitable" attraction for her business was outwardly dismissive and condescending to our group. Challenging our knowledge of art by asking us if we even knew who Michelangelo was disappointing to say the least, especially when it was followed by the outward objectification of black bodies by referring to “curly hair and strong physiques” as the only acknowledgement of their existence besides telling us they were slaves at one point in time. No other information was offered about the existence of blackness in the Louvre about who Jacob was in the Raft of the Medusa or the origin of the black sculptures in the museum. The four to five black people we were shown had no name, no origin and no story because she did not know them. For a tour that was named “Black Images at the Louvre,” we were given very few details and left feeling like we were being used as a way for the woman to profit off us. 

I do not want to paint my experience as bad, because there were things that made the trip amazing for me, because it was outside of the public eye of what is deemed as an “attraction” in Paris.

Although blackness is not recognized officially in Paris, I definitely cannot deny there were things I experienced there I absolutely loved. 

I loved the way people carried their baguettes around with them after they got off work -- a sense of national pride. France is a country that loves its bread, so much so that they have laws that place limits on the price of baguettes in the country.

I loved that the streets were windy and filled with history. The blue signs held their names and were filled with cars that were a little too close to the sidewalk.

I loved the way the Eiffel Tower sparkled at the tick of every hour for fifteen minutes in a way that lit up the sky while I shared a blanket with my friends at night.

I loved the hidden things I found when I ventured outside of tourist attractions, like the park I found that had a hidden cave, and the carnival I found hidden behind the cover of trees.

I loved that the McDonald’s tasted better than the ones here in the U.S. and served hotcakes with Nutella on the side. 

I loved that I got to visit Disney World Paris, whose lines were short, and where I took pictures with Pooh Bear near the castle. 

I loved that I stumbled through speaking French to locals there, but understood perfectly when someone was talking about me or my friends on the metro.

I loved that the imperfect moments made me reflect on my identity of being a black woman in Europe and made me understand that my identity as being Black in the States is something that not shared globally.

Most of all, I loved that I will forever remember the time I traveled to Paris with a group of black students from my university, whose experiences will alter the way they see the world after their time abroad --The first group to ever experience Paris as young, black students from the University of Michigan.

Paris, I know you because I saw your beauty as well as the hidden parts that were not as pretty. Both are important aspects in truly understanding something beyond its presumed form. 

And so to you, Paris, I say ...

“Merci beaucoup et à bientôt” (Thank you and see you soon),

Lorna Brown 

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