Departures, Cont.

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VendrediBlog.jpg

II. Vendredi

I have come to regard anyone who speaks more than one language as the bearer of great and unearned power. You say bilingualism and I imagine ice sleds, healing factors, and flight. In New York, I am surrounded by the secret schoolmen of Salem. They speak and my fingers dabble at the inhibitor collars.

I am deep in my dark and twisted lab. I am building a machine of fantastic power and awesome savoir-faire. Soon I shall flip a switch, and all those who laughed at my "Parlay-vouz" and "Jay Nay Say Pahs" shall turn, light leaping from them into the cone of my terrible device. Then they will stagger before brilliant me, blinking and depowered. For now I just murmur "Mutie scum" under my breath and bide my time.

I am in Geneva, like the only human on Asteroid M. They told me that the people would switch to English as soon as they heard my French. But this only happens when we are discussing money. An entire conversation will go over in French. Then from out of nowhere a merchant will say "twenty-five" and then there is nothing but French. I was unprepared for the loneliness of thought. The only spoken English is in my head.

But people were as people usually are--kind. I expected fewer black folks. But they were there. They did not nod, or flash a secret sign, as they sometimes did back home. There's no real reason for them to do so. Skin prejudice in America is a specific thing, which is different than saying skin prejudice in America is a unique thing. How it shows up in Switzerland (beyond the obvious) I don't know. But I made no assumptions.

I took a train into Paris--just under four hours--then the subway to my hotel. Here, the manager could smell all of America wafting off of me and spoke to me in English.

"You won't mind if I inflict my terrible French on you, will you?" I said.

"Not everyone can speak French," she said politely laughing.

"Not yet freak," I thought. "The ion correlator still needs work."

I showered. Rested. Changed clothes. Walked the streets. No one should ever write a single word about Paris ever again. Everything has surely been said. Forgive me for all that follows here.

It was Friday. The blocks were overcome with people. The people came in all configurations. Teenagers together. Schoolchildren kicking a soccer-ball on the street, backpacks to the side. Older couples in long coats, scarves and blazers. Twenty-somethings leaning out of any number of establishments looking beautiful and cool. It reminded me of New York, but without the low-grade, ever-present, fear. The people wore no armor, or none that I knew. I was in the sixth arrondissement. I felt myself melting in the stew of it all. There were whole blocks which had doubtlessly sprouted a generation of poorly-executed romantic comedies, though they seemed a good idea at the time. Side-streets and alleys were bursting with bars, restaurants and cafes. Everyone was walking. Those who were not walking were embracing.

I was feeling myself beyond any actual right. I was rocking a blue blazer, a mint-green button down and wing-tips. I had traded my writer's beard for a caesar sharp as the Wu-Tang sword. In my head I heard Big-Boi sing "Sade in the tape deck, I'm moving in slow motion."

I was walking with a homeboy from Brooklyn, who'd lived here for many years. We passed a row of restaurants. A man in jeans in New Balance bade us in. The establishment was the size of two large living rooms. The tables were jammed together and to be seated, the waitress had to pull one table out so that you could be wedged in. She did this by a kind of magic known only to her. You had to summon her to use the toilet. The waitress was nice, but did not flatter us. When my French failed she spoke through my friend. There were no false manners, nor ceremony. She was not there to make me feel like a king. I found all of that to be clarifying and oddly soothing.

Everyone here seemed over 25.

We had an incredible bottle of wine. I had steak. I had a baguette accompanied with a kind of fat made from beef marrow. I had liver. I had espresso and a dessert that I can't even name. In all the French I could muster I tried to tell the waitress the meal was magnificent. She cut me off, "The best you've ever had, right?" I nodded. This was true and not true all at once. What I will say is that when I rose to walk, despite inhaling half the menu, I felt light as a boxer.

All that day I saw interracial couples around me. I did not notice them, so much as I noticed myself. It felt off--like someone noting that I am from Baltimore and Kenyatta from Chicago, and then dubbing us an "intergeographic couple." In another reality (maybe even in an another country) we could be an "interracial couple." The import of all this lives not in the blood, but in a system created by recent men of recent power, who decided that skin-color prejudice was an advantageous way of organizing the world. We adopt words to defend ourselves. And yet, somehow, we see them boomerang and reify the very thing against which we warred. I think "Interracial couple" and know that I have said something of where I am from. But I wonder what I have said about the couple themselves.

I feel, all at once, that I am not a race and but that I am from somewhere. That place--a nation called black America--shapes my mannerism and speech, my world-view and words, my aesthetics. More, I believe in being from somewhere. I believe in patriotism. But I don't experience this present birth of cosmopolitanism as a threat.

How can that be?

This comes to me as wholly unoriginal--a crisis not born of blackness, but born of humanity, a crisis of being from somewhere. I turn this over in my head and feel that I am hearing words from some great essay I was too lazy to read. Baldwin? Said? What I am feeling is something I can't quite name, something beyond Fuzzy Zoeller, fried chicken and Tiger Woods.

I am back at the lab. I need another language. I need more power. I need a big machine.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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