Crossing the Color Line
Linda Hervieux spoke about her recent book, “Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War,” for the fourth time last week at the Columbia Global Centers (Reid Hall). Linda jokes that I must be bored having heard the lecture so many times, but NEVER. The subject is fascinating and improves each time she gives the talk — especially for a “honky”* like me who grew up in the Deep South during the time of desegregation.
Linda’s talk was in direct competition with the opening of exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, “The Color Line,” but I didn’t waste time in getting there to see it for myself. Whatever you do, don’t miss it, and allow a lot of time — at least three hours to take in even a fraction of it.
As it’s publicity touts, “The exhibition pays tribute to the African-American artists and thinkers who contributed, during a century and a half-long struggle, to blurring this discriminatory “color line.” Why does it take a museum in France to point out what we Americans should already know in great depth…but don’t and weren’t taught?
When I was a kid attending Wilson Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana, desegregation was instituted. The summer before school was to start, many white parents enrolled their children in private schools, but not mine, nor my best friend’s, Kathy. When we arrived at school that first day, there was one little black girl who arrived there dressed in a pretty white dress with a big white bow in her hair. Kathy and I looked at each other with awe and asked ourselves, “Is that what all the fuss was about?”
Clearly it was a memory that has never left me. We couldn’t understand what all those parents were afraid of — afraid of that cute little girl we both admired and so wanted to get to know? How dumb was that, we thought. We hadn’t yet turned eight years old.
That little girl wasn’t THE Ruby Bridges, who was the first black child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, and who inspired Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” but she inspired me. Somehow, unlike most everyone around me, I escaped the ideas of racism and crossed the Color Line.
This, as a tiny part of the massive history of Color in the U.S., is documented in this amazing exhibition. You will be struck by the incredibly fine collection of art by Black artists and the detailing of the history of Blacks in America, including the horrific lynchings that took place as recently as 1981 when Michael Donald was murdered in Mobile, Alabama, by two Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members.
Of course, I could argue that police brutality in the U.S. is simply a legal continuation of a form of lynching — did you know that police killed at least 102 unarmed black people in 2015, nearly twice each week? (Source) It’s time this stopped!
I got to know a lot of the African-American community in Paris thanks to Chicagoan Sharon Morgan who came to Paris and opened a restaurant called Bojangles in January 2001. Sharon tested her first gumbo in my own personal kitchen, then served it up every Friday night along with live jazz, blues and gospel. I was there often as one of the many other Honkies who felt at home. Sadly, the restaurant suffered a blow when the residents in the building won a case against it for the music as a nuisance. We all grieved its loss and Sharon returned to Chicago leaving us all hungry for her soul food and fine musical talents who played there.
Sharon hasn’t forgotten her days at Bojangles and Paris. She’s written a memoir that is soon to be published titled “Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light” — her experiences in establishing Bojangles. Order a copy NOW so she can ship by December. You can bet I did — I can’t wait to read it! $20 covers the cost of the book and shipping worldwide. (Visit the Bojangles Facebook page for more information.)
In an article last April 2015 by Thomas Chatterton Williams in the Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly, he questions, “Is Paris Still a Haven for Black Americans?” While discrimination has been rampant in their native country, Black Americans were a privileged minority in France who benefited from the French fascination with their color as well as Americanness. They came to France from Louisiana not long after Napoleon sold the territory and then largely after World War I. They introduced jazz to France and thus began a serious love affair by the French with the music and its artists.
From a personal perspective, the American community in Paris does not see Color. I have never known Americans living in the City of Light to be racist in anyway or to segregate themselves from their fellow Black Americans. As a Honky among those of Color at Bojangles, I never once felt different in any way.
African Americans who made their mark on France include Josephine Baker, Tony Parker, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Nina Simone, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to name just a few. And let’s not forget Sharon Morgan and her side-kick, Benny Luke, who played the role of Jacob, the domestic of Renato and Albin in the trilogy of films La Cage Aux Folles.
Many Americans living in France offer up a variety of tours and events supporting their culture and crossing the Color Line. Here are just a few for you to enjoy:
Fellow Americans, it’s shameful. The exhibit boldly states: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.”
I agree. Cross it.
* Honky is a derogatory word for white people first used in 1946, although the exact origins of the word are generally unknown. I used to have a white cat named Honky and a black-and-white cat named Creole. We have always been a multi-raced family.
Writing a memoir (as I and so many others have discovered) is one of the hardest things to write. BUT Lisa Anselmo, of My (Part-Time) Paris Life, “No Love Locks” and House Hunters International (this is how we first met, actually [hgtv.com/shows/house-hunters-international/episodes/finding-happiness-in-paris]) and a zillion other things she does (including a new TV series about Paris), has done it with real style! She is launching her new memoir titled MY (PART-TIME) PARIS LIFE:
HOW RUNNING AWAY BROUGHT ME HOME this week…finally HOT off the press and for sale as of tomorrow, October 11th!
I’ve had the good fortune of reading an advance copy. Even knowing Lisa as well as I do, I learned bucket-loads about her, as she dug down into the depths in good memoir style, to expose both her fears and foibles, endearing herself to us with every word of her brilliantly written prose. I didn’t meet her mother, but I do wish I had, as “Ma” plays a significant role in her life, her love of Paris and this poignant story about how she came to truly know herself via the loss of “Ma” to cancer and then plunging head first into an apartment in Paris — the very one she chose and documented on House Hunters International. Through the book, I cried, I laughed and I marveled at the talented wordsmith that she is. You will, too.
Lisa will be speaking at Après Midi on December 13th, so you can bring your book with you to have her sign it…or buy one while you’re there!
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(Declaring Herself a Staunch Liberal)
P.S. YOUR APARTMENT ON TV!?…House Hunters International is looking for an apartment in which to film with me sometime between October 27 and 31 — so perhaps you have or know of an apartment that fits this description: 40m2 to 55m2, monthly rental of 1,400€ to 1,750€, any where within the city of Paris (all 20 districts). The apartment NEED NOT REALLY be for rent — it’s ENTERTAINMENT! The filming takes place during approximately 3 hours, morning or afternoon, depending on the schedule. The crew consists of a cameraperson, sound engineer, “fixer” and director, plus two “contributors” and me — so seven people in all. We have never had one iota of damage in any way and I am there the entire time to ensure of that. The owner of the property must sign a location release. If you have any ideas for me, please email me immediately at [email protected]