When I was a boy--not older than two--my mother and father left me with my grandmother and drove to Oklahoma. My father is a resurrector. His business, if you may call it such a thing, is scouring the histories for books about people of African descent that have fallen out of print and bringing them back. These were the early days of his trade, his sixth son and his soon to be second marriage. He was rugged. His beard was untamed. His Afro was pathetic. His resume was reckless--military police, canine handler, Vietnam vet, fallen Black Panther lately dubbed "Enemy of the People," advocate for political prisoners, uncompromising autodidact.
My grandmother regarded him with all the skepticism of a Christian woman who'd raised three daughters in the projects and sent them to college. She had not scrubbed white people's floors so that her youngest daughter could be swept away by a Fanon-quoting, George Jackson-loving, no-pedigree-having hustler.
But my father, whatever he looked like on paper, was right as a Swiss clock. He had an essential goodness that cut through bullshit. Even now I call him with issues of conflicted morality. From those conversations I usually come to understand that I am basically wishing for things to be more complicated than they are. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. And these things exist and should not be conflated under a false flag.
My parents drove to Oklahoma in a broke-up Volkswagen. At one point they ran out of money and had nowhere to stay. They were planning to sleep in the car, when they ran into a black man and struck up a conversation. Five minutes in the man looked my parents over and said, "You're coming home with me." My folks enjoyed dinner with the man and his wife. They also got a warm bed. In the morning they pushed on, and through some wild act of God made it back to Baltimore. This was the mid-70s, not so far from a time when black folks--most of whom have Southern roots--were a kind of broad family. Talk to your people long enough (or read "The Warmth of Other Suns") and you come across a story like this--one where black people are dependent on the kindness of strangers who really aren't.
I think about that story when I have enjoyed my share of Frankish hospitality--people inviting me to meet their mothers, share long walks, or debate the particularities of Belgian identity. I spent yesterday at a cottage out near Fontainebleau. The market was incredible. I tasted cheese from a woman's hand. The palace was garish
("barbaric" a friend of mine called it) and clarified why a nation might murder its kings. But I was there as a guest. I was there on someone else's time. I had never done anything like this.
I was standing by a gate when a couple came past looking for directions in French. The man was white. The woman was black. They wanted to get to the river. There was nothing assumed about them. They looked like people. "The thing here," an African-American friend of mine said, "is that black people are never surprised to see us." We don't get the patented head-nod from the black Parisians. At first I was injured. But then I remember what the head-nod is black-speak for: "If a Klan rally breaks out, I have your back." Then I wasn't injured. I was sad. Make of this what you can. I am a particular person, laying my head in a particular place, at a particular time. What you see here is one dude's experience. An anecdote is not a country. This is memoir. It will never be history.
The other day I was in the Latin Quarter. I was at a bar with a man I'd known less than a week. He ordered a bottle of red wine. The wine fell into the glass thick as the water at Gunpowder Beach. I lifted the red lagoon to my lips. It was low and sweet. Mon ami ordered a plate of meat and cheese. (Don't make me say the word.) I was in full black nationalist apostasy. I was so far from tofu, millet and Morning Star that I should have been under some sort of black hippie Fatwah. If 15-year-old me, rocking the phat Africa medallion, rocking thick beads, rocking the Bob Marley Uprising tee-shirt and quoting "Ballot or the Bullet" like the latest Rakim, if that dude could see me now, why he'd pour out libations for my lost and devil-damned soul.
I had met mon ami at a language exchange. You talk to people for 15 minutes each--half in English half and French, and then you switch. If you like each other, you're free to continue the exchanging on your own. He said, "Tu connais, Edith Wharton?" and I was done. We drank and ate together. I was helpless. He would speak to the waiter and I may have understood every 50th word. I kept thinking, "If I wanted to come back here, if I wanted to bring my wife, I couldn't. I don't know the language. I don't know the culture. I don't know anything." It is the helplessness that hurts, the helplessness before something that haunts you at night. That was the hurt that sent my father into business. That we would leave our history injured him, and he has not recovered to this day.
I think of my homeboy D.J. Renegade
who gave me more education on poetry than anyone's MFA. We used to sit in the Border's in Washington, down on 20th and L, going through Robert Hayden or Amiri Baraka. I read this
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted
I count the holes they leave.
And it was over. Every time he brought me before a great poem I was injured, because I knew that I would never say anything that beautiful. Yusef Komunyakaa has this line--"her red dress turns the corner\like blood in a man's eye." I read that when I was 19, and thought "If this is writing, then I will just go ahead and hang myself right now." I was injured because this was one less beautiful thing in the world waiting to be written, and even though I knew there were many others, I would never get to write them.
I used to leave my sessions with Renegade despairing, angry, raging inside. And I get that same feeling here. Dans la rue and everyone is speaking French--like it's normal. But it is not normal. It is a whole race of people dancing down a sun-touched street, while I am stuck in the mud and rain. And I want to dance. And it is wrong that anyone else should have the right to dance save at my pleasure. Dans la rue and I am nursing that same old rage. It has been 20 years. A dude orders a café and I want to strangle the words in his stupid throat. And steal them.
That evening, at the wine bar, me and my mens and them talked about identity. Every conversation here comes around to that. He claimed there was no patriotism in France. No, I told him. A country that legislates the preparation of bread and corrects grammar in the street has patriotism and more. Get out of your vocabulary class, he said. The French know nothing about teaching language. See the city.
He paid the bill. We walked out from the Latin Quarter over to the island, past Notre Dame. We were walking opposite from where I needed to go. He seemed in a hurry to show me something. Perhaps this was end of the elaborate con. Maybe this was where his boys jumped out and took all my Euros. I looked around. There was no black people to give the to head-nod to. Damn. And then I realized if it was going to go down, it probably would not be on Île de la Cité, not with the sun still out at least. We walked for a few more minutes and then I saw where he was finally taking me--the entrance to Saint Chapelle. It was built in the 13th century. He left. I stood there gawking for a good 15 minutes, wondering why I didn't stay in school and go for the doc in French history.
I don't really get down back home. I don't go out much. I have all the friends I need. My life is my health, my family, and my writing. C'est tout. I don't think I've ever sat with anyone like that, someone who I barely knew, over a bottle of wine. The whole world has its hand in my pocket.
But Kenyatta says I am different here--that I am more open. I don't know. I've run into a shocking amount of hospitality here from people who have no idea who I am. They don't know what the Atlantic is. They might be vaguely aware of MIT. Perhaps its that I am American. Nothing has shocked me more than how fascinated people are with us in general, and New York in particular. It opens doors and breeds invitations. I believe some of it is them. They move slower. They take more time. Like people do back in my ancestral home. I expected to find a lot of things coming to Paris. I did not expect to find the South.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power