What Good is Knowledge if You Cannot Solve Problems? A Year in Grenoble
by Phillip Richards
At the beginning of the academic year, Colgate professors receive a computer file displaying thumbnail color portraits of their students’ faces. Intended to help instructors memorize individual identities, these pictures actually emphasize the nearly interchangeable nature of these fresh faces. This appearance of homogeneity is reaffirmed in face-to-face contact with these young people, who are similarly fit and wear similar clothes, as they walk between granite stone classroom campus buildings. The school cultivates the top 10 percent of the American population and appears, at first, to be a harmonious egalitarian society. Reinforcing this impression, the college administrators refuse to keep percentile records tabulating the students’ median family earnings, race, or other markers that might reveal profound differences in the community.
Largely inconspicuous in dress, and often speech, black students only arouse the attention and sometimes disdain of the white majority when they become visible in separatist (or allegedly separatist) groups. These seemingly innocent groups are so disturbing because they underline Colgate’s most socially retrograde feature: its self-conscious appeal as a homogeneous community for the white upper class.
However, teachers cannot ignore the unspoken, racially based, two-tier academic system by which many minority students are graded. I was thus not shocked to find, as a member of the faculty committee for pre-medical students, that virtually no African Americans had graduated in the pre-med program. This failure persisted despite eight years of minority science initiatives. Having established the program without monitoring the progress of its African-American students, the school easily forgot—as the school’s deepest customs demanded—the inevitably poor preparation of black students in most city high schools.
Ten years ago I wrote an article on the racial tiers of student achievement and expectations for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The fall it was published, I was asked to give a talk to a selected faculty group to explain the article and ended up giving an account of the failure of the minority science initiative. The session spilled over into a rambling discussion of whether African-American students were succeeding in the sciences at Colgate. Some scientists rose to defend their colleagues, against what is a universally acknowledged fact of life in the university.
Both the article and my criticism of the minority pre-med program created a remarkably deep rage at the school. For a moment the institutional workings of inequality became explicit. Despite my racial connection to colored students, I was presumed to be unconcerned about their most basic academic welfare, because I pointed to a tacit agreement among a white academic elite to give African-American youth a second-rate academic credential but not a real education. A shared assumption of black inferiority sealed this agreement. And the black students who were recruited did not complain about the school’s inadequate academic and personal support for them.
In Gabon as a Fulbright professor I had seen a bourgeois black professoriate so rewarded for its indifference to the obscene neglect of university education by the wealthy national government. All the same, the best of the under-endowed African schools had produced an intelligentsia that had flourished in the universities of the colonial powers. This group included, in no particular order, George Padmore, Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Chinua Achebe, Sir Arthur Lewis, Orlando Patterson, Abiola Irele, Oliver Cox, and Eric Williams. Pushed into ethnic enclaves and bohemia, they thrived amid radical politics or intensive self-education. The racist educative process of the imperial academic world only sharpened their response to the material, intellectual, and psychological realities of their condition. They had seen past the disingenuousness of the West to the dynamics of black oppression. Amid Colgate’s tree-lined quadrangles set atop broad grassy swards, generations of African-American students had in contrast been ignorant, unconcerned, or cynically compliant with the basic inequalities of American academic life.
AFTER THE contentious fall at Colgate, I decided to go to France to confront these realities in a less mystified academic and intellectual world. Such a world, I believed, would allow a more profoundly subversive inquiry into American university education at Colgate and in general. Under the scrutiny of French inquisitiveness, American educational assumptions might be parsed and submitted to examination. I discovered and applied for a visiting professorship for the 2003–2004 academic year advertised in the University of California system. I sent my credentials to L’Université Stendhal (Grenoble III), where an outside board of examiners reviewed them. I received an appointment as a full professor (professeur assoçié). For a brief while that summer I was satisfied. I thought of myself as an academic newcomer to a French world ouverte aux talents (open to talent), legitimized by academic credentials from Yale, the University of Chicago, visiting professorships, and residencies at think tanks. This scholarly currency, I assumed, would be accepted in the French academy, to which my education had pointed me since fourth grade. This quickly proved to be a misapprehension.
Within Colgate’s enchanted, pastoral environs I could easily forget the reality of my peripheral status in a world dominated by Western white power. During my first encounter with the French bureaucracy at the Consulate on Park Avenue in Manhattan, those soft blinders disappeared, and I saw the face that France directs toward strangers: eagerness to cater to a global elite while preliminarily rejecting all deemed unfit to enter.
As it turned out, I could not enter France without university credentials heretofore unknown to me. For two weeks I negotiated with a cadre of insolent and bored clerks (and tested the abundant patience of a friend from whose Brooklyn apartment I daily took the subway into Manhattan). About to raise my voice in protest at one point during this endurance test, I noticed a sign opposite me with the inevitable French response to the étrangèr: “A French VISA is not a Right. Disruptive persons will be Dismissed.”
I was a displaced person, alienated and suddenly aware of the blandishments of university patronage I usually enjoyed. I quickly recognized my compeers. One was the middle-aged francophone woman with whom I chatted on the stoop of my friend’s apartment upon returning from the French consulate in the evening. Discovering that she was Algerian, I began speaking to her in French. As I listened to her, it occurred to me once more—I had occasionally heard Parisian French in Africa—that I too spoke a provincial discourse. No matter how grammatically I expressed myself, I was an educated outsider, a particular kind of étrangèr in France. I spoke the French I had learned in Alexander Hamilton Junior High School in Cleveland, an innocent reproduction of the Parisian master recording.
As we became acquainted, her conversation grew more open and her tone more confidential. In a few days she addressed me with the discreet frankness that well-acquainted people use to discuss race. France, she told me, was franchement (“frankly” being the favored French introduction to a discussion of race) becoming untenable for the children of Maghreb immigrants such as herself. Like the Africans—who had ironically (in her eyes) become somewhat better off than the Arabs—few Arabs completed their final year at lycée, succeeded at the bac (short for baccalauréat, the final comprehensive high-school exam taken throughout France), and proceeded into the university. The few young Maghreb youth who did tended to fail after their initial year. Limited to the most menial jobs or totally unemployed, they lived in the suburban slums, the banlieues now surrounding most French cities. They had become France’s permanent class of défavorisé (disadvantaged).
The neighbor was identifying herself to me as an outsider to the cosmopolitan French world, one-upping me by insinuating that black people had found an easier way in France’s racial hell than her fellow Algerians. However, there are outsiders and outsiders. She seemed to assume that my relative acceptance by the French had misled me into thinking myself chemoi la bas (at home over there). Outsider though she may be, she was not naïve. False consciousness was in her view (and many others, like Fanon’s) a far worse estrangement than any material social exclusion from the colonizer’s world.
BY THE time I got my visa, I was as bedraggled as the other displaced persons I saw flowing through the multi-ethnic streets of New York. There were other shabbily dressed people in line for my Delta flight; like them I was given special attention. My tennis shoes, worn without socks, were removed and their soles inspected. The electronic wand was passed over all parts of my body. I suspect that my silvery researcher’s visa—scrutinized by the security guards before I boarded—saved me from a more comprehensive investigation. But the experiences of the last couple weeks had broken down my last vestiges of personal organization and prudence. My cash was depleted by my stay in Brooklyn and I was unwilling to borrow any more money from friends, so when I arrived at the train station after landing at Charles De Gaulle airport outside of Paris, I found myself without enough money to reach Grenoble by train. Confecting an explanatory story, I telephoned my program director, who arranged for a friendly colleague in Paris to buy me a train ticket from Gare du Nord to Grenoble that afternoon.
Following the colleague’s directions I wove my way through a bewildering maze of subway trains connecting to Gare du Nord. I was to meet with the director’s friend under a clock at the station. I was instead found by her, immediately before the train left the station. She met me, enraged that I could not find the clock and thus disrupted her lunch plans. I had little time to do anything else but to get the ticket and install myself on the train.
Through the front door of the cabin where I sat entered three black teenage boys who carried long, black sports equipment bags with Nike logos. Following them were two large black women wearing broad-shouldered African dresses of bright, variegated colors. They had come into the cabin chattering not in Parisian but in the slower-paced African French. They took their bearings and proceeded to comment on the occupants of the cabin around them. Like me, they settled their attention upon the black boys up ahead. They spoke with the embittered alienation of the poor everywhere. They were particularly contemptuous of the curving symbol on the young men’s bags.
“All of them,” one said pointing to the boys’ sport bags, “want to have a swoosh.”
There was a pause. Then the other grunted. “That’s what’s going on everywhere. The bags. The swoosh.” As she said this, her hand flew from her lap like a plane taking off from Kennedy over the Atlantic.
The other, looking back at the bags, shrugged her shoulders. “Listen, they will have enough of this soon. The bags will be gone, the swoosh dissolved, and the air empty. Only the niggers will be left.” “That’s right,” said the other. Here again were the défavorisé. After a while, these boys—like the black Colgate students struggling through their science classes—would hit the ground, the swoosh having disappeared into the empty air.
I was picked up at the train station in Grenoble by the program director, a tall, bearded, friendly expatriated Texan. Seeing my disheveled figure, he smiled and took me to my host family, who had been expecting me for about a month. They were not so pleased by my appearance. Looking first at my distracted, sleepy face and then at the torn knees of my pants, they nevertheless maintained a posture of genteel good will and with visible effort composed their faces into welcoming smiles.
I arrived to a situation no less complicated than the one I had left. I had come to the university late, missed the orientation seminars for new teachers, and was a day away from the start of classes.
THE AFTERNOON of the next day, I entered into my first afternoon lecture and saw a plethora of blonde, brown, olive, black, and yellow faces, from all over Europe and Asia and Africa. I gave from memory my customary lecture to begin my African-American literature classes. I spoke about the origins of black literacy and writing in eighteenth-century New England. The students took notes diligently and were generally quiet. One young African man asked about Phillis Wheatley’s political views and racial awareness in the Age of Revolution, an incisive question that I had never heard asked at Colgate—the kind of question from the kind of person for whom I had come to France. I would learn the fate of this politically astute young man when he failed my course at the end of the term. He was a Nigerian who had failed the highly competitive test for entrance into the University of Lagos. Consequently, he (an Anglophone) came to Grenoble, where the tuition was cheap, and spent two years in intensive language study at the Maison des Langues. From there he plunged himself into what was then a two-year program called DEUG, which he failed during the first year. This erased whatever ideas I had about the intellectual benefits of African life in the imperial university. The idea of a worldwide Francophonie had not meant much to me at Omar Bongo University in Gabon, where nearly everyone was black. But here at L’Université Stendhal the word’s real meaning became clear: it was the colonial French world deployed around a cosmopolitan French center.
Stendhal students crammed into my first lecture, sitting in the aisles to listen. I, of course, misread the students’ exceptionally attentive demeanor and slight curiosity, which were later translated to me by two young friends who became my de facto native informants. The friendly students—a short, slender, elegant African girl whose parents were Air Afrique executives, and her tall white boyfriend—told me, jokingly, that everyone had expected to hear the reincarnation of Malcolm X. There was, the boyfriend said, some disappointment when they encountered a traditional literary historian. A second answer was even more deflating: the students had been so attentive because I was speaking too fast.
The director, an immensely generous and thoughtful man who eased my way throughout the year, had similar concerns about me, according to a woman in late middle age who had earlier become my closest friend in France. Was I, he queried her, black enough? He had consulted a good source. She was a retired historian who had taught American studies in the English department at Stendhal, kept up with local political affairs, continually attended political talks, and translated works concerning the AIDS health crisis in English and French. During our first dinner, we spent two hours talking about current black intellectuals—we knew the same ones—and their life in the American academy. (One could not know one black American intellectual, she laughingly observed, without knowing them all). Her answer to my chairman was yes, I was black: very, very black.
French students who make it through the first two years of DEUG are remarkably literate. My older undergraduates in the African-American literature class easily placed the writers I discussed in their literary periods, identified their use or neglect of period cultural conventions, spotted important allusions, and performed incisive explications of texts. These were not only academic abilities, I was to learn, but civic credentials.
MY HOSTS were cultivated people in the mode that the French university system intended to produce. They were people of a distinguished niveau (level). They discussed ideas with an intensity that I do not see in informal gatherings at Colgate. They saw chamber music performed in their living room, a slide show of a far-off land, or a literary discussion in a local bookstore as deliberate intellectual undertakings. These activities defined them as intellectuals bearing a shared cultural tradition. And as they listened to one another, they implicitly judged whether each “had the niveau” to join their particular intellectual class. This niveau signaled not only cultivation but the perquisite of their social contract as bourgeois citizens. It gave their views among themselves—and I think among the wider circle of their educated acquaintances—legitimacy and currency. My silver-starred research visa, my professorship at a distinguished college, and my intelligible expression in French won me initial plausibility and even respect as an intellectual. My host father was a physicist and the son of an engineer, and the mother was trained as a lawyer. Among the children’s aunts and uncles were biologists, mathematicians, and other scientists. Among their friends were other cultivated people—a beautiful Russian singer, the American studies program director and his Russian émigré wife (a pianist), and an American woman who sculpted and taught English at the university. On the second-floor landing in front of the bedroom doors was a small library containing the French canon of philosophy, literature, and history, clearly the traditional texts of the bac.
Despite their posture as members of a longstanding continental intelligentsia, they were not wholly at ease. As I lived with them, I perceived their anxiety over the encroaching American and Asian worlds. They feared international capitalism and the technocrats who did its bidding. In my discussions I surprised myself with the casual way in which I had internalized the capitalist agenda, which looked much different abroad. I told the father that the United States had already chosen its course. We had long ago accepted a deep structural transformation of the American economy, from one based in material production to one grounded in finance, high technology, pharmaceuticals, information, communication, and professional services. In doing so we had written off much of our population as an inadequate human resource. The country’s leaders were willing to accept the consequences of this negligence with complete sangfroid.
He responded that he felt that a nation-state might better base its economic order on providing its people a high level of human sufficiency. But beneath this high-mindedness was a foundational concern: he worried that his French culture, despite its depth of tradition and learning, seemed outdated. “Who cares whether French students know more science and math in college than their American counterparts? What good is knowledge,” he asked a little ruefully, “if you cannot solve problems? In the second or third year of graduate school, something happens to American students in science and technology that simply propels them past everyone else. It is as much a cultural style as anything else: a sense of endless possibility of all kinds.”
The growing number of Asians in France posed another threat to him. Speaking of those entering the French scientific and technical world, he moved his outstretched arms up and down, palms open in a typically French gesture, and remarked, “They work hard, very very hard.” He finally came down to the least of these minorities, the Arabs, whom he characterized based on the one Algerian in his research team. They were a threat of another kind: “He is very intelligent but ill-bred.”
The family was also anxious when they heard that I had been to French Central Africa and had a daughter who was then a member of the Peace Corps in the ex-French colony of Niger. The father—like many other Frenchmen—had a relative who had worked in postcolonial Francophone Africa. He knew that the French petroleum companies in France exploited the resources of Gabon, propped up Omar Bongo’s authoritarian state, and leveraged their corporate power into political influence in the French assembly. In the heat of expressing his disgust about this political-corporate-racial nexus to me, he began to say “les nègres” and then caught himself. Later during my appointment in Grenoble, my daughter sent me a letter and photos of her village in Niger. These pictures depicted Nigerian children on sandy ground, thinly covered by long grass. They were stunning even to a viewer used to accounts of malnutrition in Africa. The children had swollen black bellies, spindly legs, and pencil-like arms. Each one looked like a black fetus propped up by twigs. The host father and his wife took these images in with visible shock and then lengthy, painful concentration. They had not considered the possibility that knowledge of the great African horror was now a commonplace among educated American blacks, and now they assumed I must hate the French for their crimes against humanity.
The nocturnal black presence in the Île Verte neighborhood in Grenoble, however, clearly occupied a more overt place in the racial consciousness of my host family. I did not notice blacks at all in this well-heeled neighborhood until I had occasion to leave my family’s house late at night, to stretch my legs on a walk to Centre Ville. I saw young black men with braided hair in low-slung jeans, nondescript t-shirts, and occasionally pieces of gold jewelry. They walked up and down the sidewalks, many close to the city square, a tramway nexus adjacent to an area with department stores and restaurants. That spring, when I moved from L’Île Verte to St. Martin d’Hères, a working-class Maghreb neighborhood, I saw more young black men—obviously unemployed—drifting through the streets during the day and loafing at the nearby drug stores and all-night groceries after dark.
At night, they occupied the trams in thick knots and were always accompanied by police. At least two varieties of police were involved in this surveillance, one uniformed in different regalia from their daytime counterparts, the other conspicuously turned out in plainclothes outfits of shirt, tie, sport coat, and gray pants. These officers observed the blacks—their gatherings, comings, and departures—and the blacks in turn observed them. I never saw an open act of hostility. But the conduct of the police in Grenoble corresponded perfectly to accounts of the young black slum dwellers in the summer of 2005 who claimed that the police were “looking” at them. No violence transpired, but the air nevertheless seemed tense enough to explode.
AMERICAN BLACK power advocates, black lumpen, and revolutionary nationalists delivered on the promise of retaliatory black violence against the white establishment throughout the second half of the 1960s. In the light of my French experience, I saw the American riots in a new way. They had been exemplary in containing black violence and destructiveness within the ghetto, thereby demonizing lower-class blacks and depoliticizing a cohort of angry black middle-class students. I was the beneficiary of this social arrangement. Blacks were left with a shadow of social inclusion, with the stratified benefits of the economic boom, but were left outside of an economy increasingly defined by high-powered education and well-cultivated cognitive skills. Indeed, my literature courses in Grenoble may not have been a site of instruction for the French but instead a careful French examination of myself as another American innovation: a misdirected but angry colored presence. I may not have been the teacher of my courses but their subject matter.
A tall, beautiful mulatto woman who strolled downtown in the afternoons with a hint of a model’s runway swagger recognized me on the street one day as a visiting American professor. She invited me to her advanced class of English students, a group of angry, aggressive Maghreb boys. After briefly introducing myself to them, they ignited with invective. They had no doubts about my complicity with the American state and its racial policies. Was our support of Israel a legitimate role in the region, they demanded? I was taken completely aback. They had apparently been waiting for me.
Phillip M. Richards is the Arnold Sio Chair of Diversity and Community in the English department at Colgate University.
Learn more about Phillip Richards here.
This essay was previously published in Dissent Magazine, and is printed here with permission.
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