It’s been difficult to write about Paris, about how beautiful it is or how much fun I’ve been having, while at the same time watching the news from home. First it was the pool party, where young children were first subject to racial slurs and then to unnecessarily violent arrest for the crime of attending a pool party in an affluent neighborhood. Then of course the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where they still fly the confederate flag over the state capitol even as the community morns the loss of life. It seems like almost every week there’s another violent racist incident in the States.
There’s something very poignant about watching these incidents from afar, while at the same time studying the works of James Baldwin, Richard Wright and other African Americans who moved to France. It’s a bit depressing actually, so much of their writing could have been written yesterday and in response to things that are happening right now. It’s depressing to know that I’m experiencing the same sense of frustration, anger and helplessness that my literary ancestors had back in the ’50’s and ’60’s. To know how little has actually changed since then.
There’s a sense among many of the African American expats here, especially the younger ones that the best course of action is just not to go home. While France does have it’s own issues of injustice, particularly with regards to African and Islamic immigrants, there’s still a certain cache in being American, regardless of your race, that seems to shield you from the worst of it. Certainly in Paris you’re never concerned that a busted tail light might cost you your life.
Still, I’m on the fence about this idea. Perhaps because I come from a family of activists, the idea of just giving up on an entire country just doesn’t sit right. I still have so many loved ones in the states, in particular my little nephew who’s only about 5. Remaining abroad while leaving them in ‘hostile territory’ feels like abandonment somehow. Skipping country seems like giving in to a sense of hopelessness, a sense that the US will never be safe for black people.
I took a class last semester on the playwright Lorraine Hansberry and her contemporaries. We also read a little Baldwin, of course, and I got the chance to re-read his essay ‘My Dungeon Shook’, a letter to his young nephew. There was a line there that struck me as particularly meaningful: “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it,” he said.
It was particularly interesting for me because I knew that Baldwin had been driven from his home. He had left the US at the age of 24 and lived the rest of his life in France, rather than return to the country of his birth. Yet here he was telling his nephew, and other young African Americans not to follow in his footsteps. To fight for their home and not give in to the media representations of who they were, or the violence that they were subjected to. The violence that this community is still subjected to.
I don’t have an answer as to what needs to be done to fix the mess that is American race relations, some days it seems like such a monumental task. I don’t even really have an answer as to what I’m going to do, as far as ultimately living in the states or escaping the madness to live elsewhere. I’m not even sure there is a place to go to have a life free of violence and injustice.
But I do know what kind of life I want for my loved ones: A life where they are not just safe, but happy. A life where they can attain their dreams and even use said dreams to make the world better for others.
I don’t know how exactly to make this life come about, but I do know that it will take all of us to make it happen.