Tag Archives: Racism

Beyond the Sea, by Vicki Lindner

Vicki with JimBeyond the Sea

An excerpt from Baby, It’s You,  a memoir

By Vicki Lindner

 

Author’s Summary:

“Beyond the Sea” is Chapter 17 of Baby, It’s You, my memoir-in-progress about love, race, and rebellion. This story of an ill-fated interracial relationship begins in the early ‘sixties, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Birmingham Crisis, and the church bombing that killed four African American teenagers in 1963. Also yet to come is the March on Washington, the Assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Bill, and nation-wide protests against the Vietnam War. With no computers, we wrote on typewriters, and couldn’t imagine the feminist or sexual revolutions. In spring, 1962, however, when the scene below takes place, these changes were blowing in the wind. Although I’d won the “Miss Morris Hills” contest for reciting my own funny “odes,” and was the high school’s star journalist, as well as an actress, I was a renegade, a self-declared Existentialist, determined to defy cultural expectations that all girls were meant to become mothers and housewives. “Jim,” as I call him, the handsome, sensitive boy I fell for, (and address as “you”), was an amazing track star, and the only African American in my large high school. Ready to take on the world of discrimination and prejudice, personified by my southern mother, I had no idea that New Jersey was a surprisingly racist state, known to blacks as “The Georgia of the North.” As for Jim, he wanted, reasonably, to be accepted for who he was, but he rejects the Civil Rights Movement, and when prejudice and taboo come down upon us, he runs from me, only to return declaring his love. We are apart more than we are together. When this chapter begins, the reader knows that the important adults in my life are trying to persuade me that Jim and I, and the “mulatto” children they believe we will have, do not have a future. My Dad, a brilliant engineer, who has worked for the local Arsenal since World War II, will soon become an internationally known authority on conventional ammunition, including weapons now banned by international law. My mother has threatened not to send me to college if I don’t stay away from Jim. My father, as you will see, has another solution. But both of our lives are full of secrets.

Beyond the Sea

Dad suggests we take the rowboat out. “Come on, it’s too nice a day to sit around mooning.”

“I’m reading!” I retort. I hold up The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s new essay collection. I know this was the book because I wrote, “I don’t see Jim as a ‘priapic black stud,’” a Baldwin quote, in my journal. Still, Dad is the only family member I can stand at the moment, and I’m pleased he’s asked me to join him.

Recently, he’s traveled to a lot of foreign countries. The Arsenal sent him to Vietnam. From Germany, the last place he went, he sent me two postcards. On one, with a picture of a fountain surrounded by marble monkeys, he wrote that Braunschweig had been hit badly in the war, but was rebuilding fast. In Cologne he’d visited the university, an “awe inspiring” cathedral, and traveled down the Rhine by ship: “While I didn’t see maidens beckoning to me, or hear any irresistible siren calls, I saw the impressive country side and fabled castles,” he scrawled. On a page of thin blue parchment stamped “Hotel Europa, Weimar,” he described the “torturous streets full of hurrying students,” Goethe’s house, herring and black bread, and said he hoped I’d someday find a professor and settle down to raise my brood in a university town. (I pictured a hen pecking worms into cheeping beaks, but didn’t wonder why my father failed to imagine that his bright daughter could become a professor herself.)

He never said what he was doing in Europe. Mom, who complained that Dad didn’t discuss his job with her, had no idea either. But from a newspaper clipping I recently found in his desk, I now conclude that he was making sure West Germany’s defense system was interoperable with ours.

“I want to make you an offer,” he says, as we slam out the door. Suspicious.

We plunge down the steep bank that leads from our backyard to the lake, our shoes sliding on slippery dead leaves. Spring is underway. The maples and oaks have untwisted their twigs into yellow-green sheaves; soon they’ll thrust shady umbrellas above their black trunks.

Although we’ve lived in our big new house in Randolph Township less than a year, my secrets already infuse the grey boards of this dock. Dad has no idea that we kissed down here one winter night, you holding me inside your letter jacket, warding off the sky’s cold glitter. Now it’s too risky for us to be together this close to our house.

I also hang out here with Izzy, my tall skinny friend. He told me about the book he found in a box of his dead father’s stuff—Love without Fear, by Eustace Chesler. “It explains how to explore a woman’s body,” he said. He and Edie, his rich New York girlfriend, had gone through all of Eustace’s preliminary exercises; he wanted to do it with her so bad he could hardly stand it, but she stuck to her goddamned rules. I was dying to know what these exercises were; I didn’t think you and I did them. Sometimes I thought I loved Izzy, too, platonically, of course, not the desperate yearning way I loved you. “Your words are like sun on brown water,” I wrote in a poem dedicated to Iz. “I need not watch your face to know how your eyes crinkle to ripples and what shade of blue they are.”

Mystical events, I’d found out, could happen on this dock. Last week Lorraine and I dangled our feet over the side as she complained about her mother, who’d forbidden her to go to the senior prom unless she lost five pounds. “With Dean, for Crissakes!” Back in October they’d promised to go together if neither managed to score a real date.

“Oh pu-leez,” I’d groaned, clutching my throat. “Dean pushes that huge belly of his around like a baby carriage!”

Lorraine’s laugh clanged like a can of pennies spilled on the floor. (She didn’t tell me her mother had taken her to a doctor who’d prescribed “diet pills” for appetite-control. Later, she figured out how to get more herself.) “I did make out with him once,” she confessed, “when I was insanely frustrated.”

This weathered platform on the windy lake, near yet far from the manicured lawns of the suburban world above, freed us to be our disconsolate, alienated selves. After we quit laughing we screamed “Crash!” at a passenger plane flying overhead. Oh God, the aircraft took a sudden dive toward the trees, spewing exhaust fumes. “No, please, it was a joke!” we yelled at the sky. Miraculously, the plane heard us and righted itself.

Now Dad unlocks the chained oars. After I clumsily maneuver to the rocking hull, he pushes the “Renee Dee” into the lake. Mom named the second-hand rowboat after her step sister, Renee. Recently we’d learned that my aunt’s fifth husband, Horace Dee, was a bigamist. He had other wives all over the place, and the stores came to take back the fur coat and diamond ring he’d bought my aunt on the installment plan. “When it comes to men, my sister never had an ounce of sense,” Mom summarized.

The water is olive-colored, clear; you can still see to the bottom, not yet strangling with slimy seaweed, as it will be in the August heat. I see the skeleton of another house, sprouting in the new development on the opposite shore. The foundation scars the red dirt that was covered with thick sumac and birch. Already this place is ruined, I think.

Dad rows, his brown hands, not too hairy, gripping the oars. Though it’s chilly, he’s wearing his oil-stained gray shorts; his legs, permanently tanned, are shapely with graceful ankles, like mine. In an old photo of him at 16, he posed, slender and muscular in an old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit; he’s still handsome, and his eyes are still blue, but his greying hair is no longer black. Today he’s wearing a bag of salt around his throat to ease his chronic laryngitis, an old Polish remedy from my Jewish grandmother. I trail my lily-white fingers in the sorrowful green water, like a captive princess in a fairy tale.

“Ahem,” Dad rasps, clearing his hoarse throat, “are you aware of what’s happening in Viet Nam?” He already knows the answer: I’m not aware. When I do read The Times, not that often, I skip those parts, always boring and confusing, and focus on theater reviews and ads for linen dresses with wide leather belts. All I know is that Vietnam is a tiny country somewhere in Asia. We never talk about it in American Civilization class.

“We’re putting more of our people in there,” Dad tells me. He was right. In October of ’61, we had increased American troops and advisors from 600 to 16,000. According to an April, 1962 edition of Life, we’d just sent an additional 4,000, plus helicopters, transport planes, and tactical aircraft, armed with rockets, bombs, chemicals that defoliated jungle along the highways, and sentry dogs to flush out the Viet Cong. All this had cost billions. Yet, President Kennedy warned that it would take “skill, stubbornness, and perhaps ten years” for the South Vietnamese to win the war.

In fact, contrary to official reports, the Vietnam conflict, really a civil war, wasn’t going well. Ngo Diem, the Catholic monk that President Eisenhower had pulled out of a U.S monastery and sent back to Saigon to rule the South, was a problem. The shy, reclusive President ignored our military advisors and listened only to his brothers and flamboyant sister-in-law, Madame Nhu. He seemed to believe the U.S. was in Vietnam to keep his wealthy, elite family in power. He put on big parades in his own honor that Vietnamese citizens weren’t allowed to watch, and did nothing for the Buddhist peasants, who the Viet Cong either killed or helped.

When I scrolled through microfilms of Morris County papers, looking for articles about you, I discovered that on February 27, 1962, three days after you won the National Hurdles Championship in Madison Square Garden, two pilots in President Diem’s own Air Force bombed the Saigon Palace. Borrowing U.S. Navy AD-6 Skyraiders, they engulfed the former home of the French high commissioner in napalm flames, frightening the tame deer on the lawn. Finally they crashed and were captured. This was the third failed coup against the leader, but the histories I’ve read never mention it, and my father didn’t either.

What he was likely to say is, “I trust you understand The Domino Theory.” His tone indicates his doubt.

“Not exactly.” On my forays into Greenwich Village, I’d seen old men knocking walls of black and white dotted squares onto concrete tables in Washington Square.

“It means if we let South Vietnam fall to the Communists,” Dad explains, “the Russians and Chinese will swarm in and take over that entire part of the world.” (In fact, after the third failed coup, the Russians had warned that U.S. aggression against the Viet Cong, in violation of the 1954 Geneva Accord, threatened “alarming consequences” for world peace.) (“Consequences” signified nuclear war.)

“No kidding,” I say. “Is that why you went there?” A Mallard takes off, its tiny wings twittering to hold its heavy body aloft. The duck flies toward the island where “Spring still coys her petticoat frill of first green,” as I wrote in Izzy’s poem.

Then Dad gets to the reason why he lured me into this No Exit boat. “I understand the Wellington boy will be going to Georgetown.” Here we go again. I clutch my red cotton cardigan to my torso, wishing for the warm wool letter sweater you gave me, now hidden from Mom’s prying eyes in my bottom drawer.

“Maybe,” I say, pretending indifference. “I think they want to give him a scholarship, but I’m not sure he’s going there.”

This is the truth. When I bring Georgetown up, you don’t say how great it will be for us to be together in D.C. next year. Recently you’d mentioned trying to get into Michigan, where Hayes Jones is, and I didn’t know whether to feel hurt or relieved. I couldn’t quite picture us in D.C. Would we have an affair? I liked the exciting, dangerous word, but the actuality was hard to imagine. What if you dumped me? Or I met someone new? (I couldn’t see myself wearing a scarf and sunglasses in a fraternity boy’s convertible, like the coeds in Glamour.) If you dated other girls would I flunk out, deranged by jealousy and suicidal despair? (I don’t consider that under different circumstances I might get to know you.) Anyway, no one picked a college because it was close to someone from high school. Couldn’t you be in love in two different places?

Now Dad comes out with it: “Your mother and I are thinking of offering you a chance to study for a semester or two at a French university.”

“Huh?” I’m startled out of my musings. “I’m going to American University in the fall as you very well know,” I say with the contempt that denigrates my parents’ intelligence. (Today I’d ask, “What the fuck?”) How did they dream up this bizarre-o punishment? A breeze riffles up wavelets that slap the Renee Dee with a resonant blip.

“Europe would provide a wonderful opportunity for a future writer,” Dad argues. “‘Fabulous,’ as you would say. Think of the interesting characters you’d meet—poets, actors, jazz musicians…. You’ve been studying French for a few years now, and the Sorbonne offers language courses for foreign students. You could postpone American, and enroll there next year, a more knowledgeable and mature young woman, truly prepared for what higher education has to offer. I can attest you’d enjoy experiencing another culture.” He clears his sore throat. “I’ll be kicking around over there myself, consulting with the allies, so we could dine in authentic cafes and explore the Louvre together.”

“Not France!” My squawk flies out of my mouth like a goose.

“But you’ve always said you wanted to live in Paris someday.”

“Someday, not now,” I sob. “You’re just trying to get me away from Jim.” Tears gush out of my eyes. “I hardly ever see him anyway.” This is more or less true. Last weekend, you told me, you were up in Lake Telemark, playing pool with your new Scandinavian buddies. “Maybe I’m part Swedish,” you said, “Why I have these blond hairs on my arms.”

The boat moves farther away from the shore. “You’re just trying to get rid of me,” I rant at my father, “for no earthly reason.”

“That’s not what your friends are telling us.” The slack muscles in Dad’s arms are straining as he leans into the oars, and his soft furry stomach contracts into folds.

“What in high holy hell are you talking about?”

“Watch your language,” he warns. (He’s slapped me for saying “shit” at the dinner table.) “As it happens, a friend of yours called to tell us they’d seen you with him.”

“Who?” I retort. None of my friends would rat me out. Or would they? For the first time, I feel paranoid. I flip through a mental rolodex of everyone who knows about us. A few weeks ago we hung out in Morty Barr’s kitchen listening to his mom tell how she eloped with his dad a week after they met. She’d hugged you and didn’t act like she minded seeing us together. But maybe she did.

“Someone you think of as a very good friend,” Dad says mysteriously. Was Morty himself the tattletale? I wouldn’t put it past him, the double-crossing little skunk. Could it be Ruthie? Quel Horreur! She definitely qualified as one of my best friends. But recently she’d hinted that the girl hosting the Thespian cast party was against us coming together. I felt shocked and betrayed when Ruthie said, “I don’t think it’s such a good idea either.”

“Maybe they’re lying,” I say to my father. “Did that ever occur to you?”

“You’re the one who’s been lying,” Dad states. “To your mother and myself.”

So people I believed were allies were spying on us. “Where did they see us?” I demand, my voice wavering. I consider jumping over the side and swimming for shore in the icy water. It would serve Dad right if I drowned, or came down with pneumonia, but if I made it, he’d be there at the dinner table, angrier because I worried him with that stupid stunt.

“You have no idea where I go or with who,” I rave on. The last time we got together, we were making out in a strip of woods bordering a two-lane highway while Lorraine and your older brother, Nat, just home from Europe, waited in the car, swigging red wine straight from the bottle. Nat, who’d been a major baseball star at Morristown High School, amazed Lorraine with his stories about the West Bank of Paris. Neither of them would have called my parents.

Dad’s mouth tightens, meaning he’s fed up with me.

“You were the one who taught me that all people are equal,” I say, keeping my eyes on the bottom of the boat. Dad doesn’t reply. He turns the Renee Dee around, his arm pulling one creaky oar.

“I REFUSE to go to France!” My self-control cracks; I’m screaming now. “If you make me go, I’ll run away! I’ll kill myself!” These are my favorite threats but they sound hollow, unconvincing, leftovers from the distant past. As Dad knows, I haven’t run away from home since I was twelve, bundling my babysitting money in a scarf like a hobo would. I’d planned to take the bus to New York, and after that? I didn’t get far. Now I lock my door and run away to my secret thoughts, my poetry and journal. When Mom put me “incommunicado” for not cleaning my room, and wouldn’t let me talk on the phone, I wrote to Lorraine, “I may kill myself. I will swim out to sea and drown like the girl in that Moss Hart play, “The Climate of Eden.” Then I admitted, “I’m only toying with the idea of such a dramatic gesture.”

Now I come up with a more original bombshell to drop on my father: “If you force me to go to France, I’ll become a prostitute on the Champs Elysees.” The girl knows she’s losing it—while she maintains a haughty dignity in fights with her mother, her father quickly reduces her to an infantile fool—but she can’t resist adding, “And I won’t take money from Negro men!”

Dad assumes the bemused expression that distances him from his own Irritation. “That might prove a fascinating subject to write about,” he responds coolly.

After more weighted silence, he asks, speaking just above a whisper, “Do you want to try rowing for a while?”

“No,” I say sullenly, folding my arms across my chest. “You got us out here, you get us back.”

“You’re hurting your mother,” Dad croaks, implying he feels no pain himself.

As I suspected, this all came from her, the Racist. Maybe she dreamed up this Paris scheme when I told her I was moving to France after college. The girl believes that her father, who is big on civil rights, secretly approves of Jim, but sides with his wife to save his marriage.

Now he says, “It may not seem like this to you, but Mother and I are mainly concerned with your happiness.”

About Vicki Lindner, Writing for Peace Adviser

vicki Lindner (3)Vicki Lindner is a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist who has published a novel, Outlaw Games, and many short stories, essays, magazine and newspaper articles. She has written about a wide variety of subjects: cooking, bird watching, loneliness, dinosaurs, sculpture, not having children, travel, and medical malpractice. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies, including The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Fiction, Chick-Lit; Post Feminist Fiction, Witness, the Best of Terrain, Del Sol, The American Literary Review, Gastronomica, New York Stories, In Short: An Anthology of Short Creative Non-Fiction, American Nature Writing, Northern Lights, and The Seneca Review. Her short story about karate, “Barefoot to the Bridge in Winter,” was the Fiction Premiere for New York Woman. Most recently, Lindner’s essays were published in Shadowbox and Western Humanities Review. Learn more about her work here.

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A Year in Grenoble, by Phillip Richards

Phil Richards, Colgate Professor of English. 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.

Dissent MagazinePhillip 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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