I walked across the expansive grassy field of the Parc de la Villette on a starry Sunday night in the private afterglow of a fantastic pompier, French slang for a certain sex act. Trapped accidentally in a parking garage staircase for 10 minutes, Christine and I called for help on her portable, and one thing led to another while we waited on our rescue. Christine’s friends arrived well after clothes were rearranged and lipstick reapplied, and the five of us followed the thunderous music in the distance leading to Le Trabendo.
Sunday School night at Le Trabendo was my first visit to a Paris nightclub after moving to Paris for seven years. It also marked the first time I hung out with my soon-to-be wife’s Christine’s closest friends.
“There’s too much métissage,” I quipped, commenting on the preferred hairstyle worn by most of the African and Caribbean women around us. The clichéd idea of bohemian poetry slams with sisters in dredlocks, Afros and various natural braided styles actually holds true at venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café back in New York City. If Parisians were trying to copy that scene, then these ladies flaunting synthetic hair extensions were overlooking an important black boho rule: hair is political.
But Patoche’s blue eyes stared wide as saucers at my faux pas, her pale fingers intertwining with the darker digits of her boyfriend. Christine hurriedly explained that I meant tissages (hair weaves) and not métissage (Black and White couples), which were as plentiful everywhere around us as the weaves. Everyone laughed.
“Thoughts about mixed couples are different in the U.S.,” I explained once the performances finished. “Black women look at Black guys choosing White girls and think they have a problem with blackness, or they’re scared of Black women, or they think they’re too good for sisters.”
“I think we’re growing up more together here,” Christine said. “You told me before that you grew up in the Bronx with all kinds of races. But in New York, this is not what I experienced.” She’d lived there about 15 months before returning to France. “I remember taking the train to the Bronx, and after 116th Street there’s no more White people on the train. I’m not saying we’re going to see Black people in the 16th arrondissement, not really. But in the average neighborhood here, you’re going to have une mixité. What makes the real difference is that we’re growing up together, so we’re going to learn the other person’s culture, and maybe enjoy the person for who they are.”
“At the same time,” she began with a smile, “there’s love as well. When I see, par example, Patoche and Paco, to me they were meant for each other. Paco, he dated African women in the past, and Patoche dated White and Black before. But I saw when they met. They were meant to be, besides race.”
“Do you think it’s easier to look beyond race in France?” Most Americans assume this is true, but even from my few days in the country so far, I’d seen evidence to the contrary. Christine’s favorite leftist newspaper Le Canard Enchâiné regularly satirized former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his hardline approach to dealing with immigrants of color.
“Maybe,” she answered. “You’re less ‘not supposed to do something’ than in America. I think the pressure is stronger over there because society is not going to want you to mix in that way. Even inside your family the pressure is going to be stronger. And not every mixed couple lives in Manhattan either. Imagine if you live in Arkansas; your life can be hell! In France it can be the same thing if you live in a small village. Mais, the less you are together, the less they are going to expect you to be together, and in France we are not as apart from each other. You don’t have a separate Black school here where they’re teaching you how wonderful it is to be Black and what Black people did to make humanity grow.”
Some of us matured away from the idea of a Black culture that thinks with only one point of view about things like interracial marriage, and others never would. My opinions now are a lot different than they were before I graduated my own Black college alma mater, but I tried explaining to Christine—the product of a supposedly colorblind society—my younger attitude about preserving and protecting the Black community from being watered down. She laughed.
“To me there’s no real Black community here like you have,” she explained. “Living in France, I think what we lack is a real community. I come from Martinique, but Martinique is far. The cuisine, the music, these are my only links.
“The fight that you had in the United States became the fight of Black people around the world. For your parents and grandparents, I understand they feel responsible to keep fighting. But here, there was no such fight. Slavery ended aux Antilles in the 19th century, and then people came to France from Martinique and Guadalupe to work. There’s no fight that happened here on the territory. La France, the Republic, is no race! There’s no statistics of how many Black people are here. We have an idea but not really. That was shocking to me when I was in New York, to fill out stuff and see race questions. C’est incroyable.”
As her friends approached us at the bar, I quickly reviewed in my head the friends and family of Christine I’d met so far. At least seven couples were interracial. Back in New York I knew of only one mixed couple even peripherally, an old classmate from high school I hardly spoke to anymore who’d married a White guy. No one in my own family had gone there, while several of Christine’s cousins, nephews and aunts had. This made me even more curious about the reality behind France’s colorblind reputation, and the truth of Black Parisian life beyond all the good publicity.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at@furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.
“Expat Diaries” is a weekly series detailing the varied experiences of Black Americans living abroad. If you’ve ever wanted to pack up and leave the United States to soak up foreign cultures in search of adventure, live vicariously through the “Expat Diaries.” From Paris and Berlin, to South Korea and beyond, “Expat Diaries” dips into worldwide cultures and tells the truth about blackness all over the world!
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