Ó by Jean Migrenne, 1/8/05


  An essay written after attending the Conference on African American and Diasporic Research in Europe held at the Sorbonne, in Paris, December 2004.


  Over the last decades, distinguished scholars from Universities both American and European have regularly met, often at the Sorbonne, to discuss issues related to African American literature and culture, in a transatlantic context. Always pertinent, extremely well-documented, often challenging, their papers fly high above personal, individual experience unless when related to famous names in the fields of art, music or literature. Early instances of the perception of the African American's image in some European countries have also been discussed, although on a minor scale.


  When referring to the loss of female virginity, the French say, with a wink, that this is how 'l'esprit vient aux filles' (How girls get wise.) Paraphrasing the quip, I think that a few lines should be devoted to how difference came, and what it meant, to a white French boy.

  I was born in Paris, in 1938, the son of parents (carpenter and office clerk) who had left their villages some years before, in order to find work in the City of Lights. My father had soon been drafted and I did not actually meet him until 1945, when he returned from Germany where he had been a prisoner of war. I was soon dubbed a 'refugee' by those French people who saw us fleeing Paris. But I was too young to realize what was going on. Then I was sent to stay with one of my grand-mothers in a village, North East of Paris, situated in a region where, for generations, the populations had been once or even twice in a lifetime driven from their homes by invading troops. My two grand-mothers told me about their experience as 'displaced persons'. From which I derived the idea that the populations of such southern, or not so southern parts of France who saw them arriving did not like them. The phrase, often heard, was that those refugees were 'des Boches du nord' (Krauts from the North.) Others.

  In the village where I stayed, there were not more than fourscore inhabitants, distributed in forty odd houses, along five streets radiating from the small central square. I first went there when I was four or five years old, and attended school in the village: one class for all children up to the age of fourteen. Not many children, as a matter of fact. In particular, there were three boys of my age or slightly above. I was bright for my age and could read fluently (but not yet write) when I joined them. School was definitely not their cup of tea, and they could not properly read, nor write. We spoke the same language, with different accents. I was the Parisian and they used to chase me, rapping out 'Parisien, tête de chien ; boyau rouge, tête d'andouille. (Paris boy/hound's head/red gut/chitlin head.) My grand-mother soon told me how to reply in kind; they more or less got tired of the game and we played together, but never became real friends. Otherness.

  Our house was the first/last one uphill on the only road in the vicinity that was paved and led to civilization, six miles away as the crow flies, and we had only our feet to travel on. Nothing but high horizons of fields and forests all around. Isolation.

  Two other of the five roads petered out in dirt tracks leading down through marshy fields, gardens or wood lanes,  reaching places unknown. Two Polish families, one on each road, occupied the last/first houses. Five children altogether. Each family kept to themselves, and had been doing so ever since they had immigrated in the thirties. That part of France still needed farmhands after WWI. The children went to school and did rather well. The girls were good-looking. The parents did not speak French. Though I never heard my grand-mother say anything derogatory about them, there was no contact. Next to one of those families, there was also one Italian family, six or seven children. No one knew why they were there and when they had come. One soldier left behind the Italian regiments that liberated the village in 1918? But what about the wife? The Poles were tall and fair-haired. The Italians were short and dark. I may have played with some of the children in the schoolyard, but never in the village streets. The group of four I became part of never had anything to do with them. Yet, there never was any hostile word spoken, nor was there any violence. As far as I know, they finally married French locals. From apartheid to exogamy.

  Hatred, nevertheless we had an inkling of. There was some in the air, concerning the Germans.  Those villages had been under fire for 5 years between 1914 and 1918, but during WWII they saw little or nothing of the belligerents. One platoon of retreating Germans in 1944 lodged in farm barns for a couple of weeks and, a week or so after, a platoon of Allied (US?) armored vehicles did some reconnoitering. Hatred, because of fathers, uncles or relatives held prisoners, of older cousins dodging forced labor in Germany and hiding in the woods. Because of propaganda clichés inherited from the 1870 and 1914-1918 wars. The first words in a foreign language we mouthed were in German. From the Paris Metro I remembered the Rauchen Verboten notices. And we knew that they would say Kamerad when  surrendering. We also knew that the troops that fought the Germans during WWI in that part of the world spoke French in a funny way and that they would shout Couper cabèche (Cut head off) when they stormed enemy trenches. We were too young to know that much of our own cannon fodder, then, came from North and Black Africa. Enemies.

  The only son of the richest farmer in the village was said to fancy one of the Polish girls, much older than I was, the eldest. Good-looking, intelligent and dynamic as she was, she was soon given to understand that she'd better stop playing her little game. I don't really know how far it went, I was too young. But for many years she was never to be seen in the village again. Gone. Years later, the farmer's son finally married the 'nice girl' his parents had chosen for him. Classes.

  We had no car. Nobody had. We walked. Just like those Algerian peddlers who came to the village with their load of carpets, bed sheets, blankets on one shoulder and sewing or kitchen equipment in small bags. We called them Sidi (Arabic for 'Monsieur') or Monzami: That's the way they pronounced the French words for 'My Friend'. Not quite so dark as our Italians, but definitely foreign and at the same time welcome, and occasionally invited to share our meager fare. Popular figures in the villages they regularly visited. Messengers from one village to the other. Colonial.

  When the Germans had retreated to the Rhine and beyond, the US military took over their air fields and other bases in the vicinity and trucked tons of food and equipment towards the Eastern front nonstop. We watched them from the roadside a couple of miles from the village. Many drivers were black. Negroes we had heard of before and seen on pictures of Africa in school books: grass-skirted, grinning, capering natives from the French Empire. Those I now saw were real. They wore uniforms and threw us food rations, bread, gum, chocolate, cigarettes and what not, as they drove past slowing down up the steep hills. Funny taste all. Difference.


  1946-47. My parents who had tried to resume their pre-war activities in Paris had to give up for various reasons. They soon moved to Normandy to take over a small carpenter's business. The man had been sent to some camp and finally shot by the Germans, because he was a member of the Resistance. In conservative Normandy it was enough for us to be dubbed Communists, and my father and his partner (a fellow POW) found it very hard to find work, although that part of Normandy had been bombed down. Discrimination.

  Paris. In the war years much had happened there and, after the Liberation, people, the press and radio stations kept writing and talking about Resistance heroes, Gestapo and Collaborators. Sometimes about Jews. The eight-year-old I was had never heard of them, never seen, never met any, and knew as little about them as all the children and grown-ups I had met so far. I was not in Paris in 1942. My mother worked for an insurance company and was busy surviving, striving to persuade officials to give her vouchers so that she could send a parcel or two to my dad. Economically non existent, she had never had any opportunity to get in contact with Jews before the war. Not being church-goers, there was no opportunity for us to discuss them. During the war, they had either fled, or been wiped out of Paris. The only thing I knew was that they had to wear yellow stars on their lapels. Ignorance.

  Just as I had been chased in my grand-mother's village streets, I was chased on my way from school in Normandy. Same pattern, same mentality. But it did not last long, as I was sent to a boarding-school some 10 miles away to begin a course of secondary education. I only came home at weekends. Those were the days of jazz, broadcast by the Voice of America on the short-wave band in the evening. The host was called Willis Canover (spelling?) I wrote him and was sent an autographed photo of Lionel Hampton. On the air, too, on the French radio, there was Sydney Bechet, playing his clarinet and soprano sax in post-war Paris. Black sound all over France. Josephine Baker (J'ai deux amours/Mon pays et Paris…) was a Resistance heroin. Exotic.

  I began English as first foreign language and, in 1952, the teacher gave us pen-friends in England, which I first visited in 1953. That was the year when I had to change schools for reasons that are not relevant here, and I spent the years 1953-1956 in another boarding school, further away. I came home every other week. But the difference was that the new school accommodated North, and Black African students who stayed in France even during the summer vacation. My first real contacts with non-Caucasians. We became good friends, but there was a difference of age and status that made it impossible for us to get intimate. On my ID cards, the line for 'complexion' has always mentioned 'mat', something like 'off white', although there is no known colored ancestry in my genealogy. Yet, when I first arrived in that school after the Xmas recess, some of my future class-mates took me for a relative of the Tunisians they already knew. The same confusion cropped up 20 years later when we had a quarrel with an old hag who lived two houses down the street. She shouted 'sale nègre' at me and 'sale juif' at a neighbor whose name was beginning with the 'Gold' prefix. He was no more Jewish than I was Black. Ambiguity.

  I visited England and London regularly afterwards. There, in the streets, and for the first time, I came across people dressed in saris, or traditional  African or Muslim robes. I went to University and took a major in English. I then realized that difference/racism, was as old as the world. Had not William Shakespeare immortalized the Merchant of Venice, at the same time as Marlowe was writing about the Jew of Malta? And didn't the Moor of Venice fall because of his color, as much as because of his jealousy? (By the way, Othello is not a black African, as so many believe he is, but a Berber chieftain from the southern fringe of Morocco, where populations are often of mixed blood: his name derives from the Berber+Arabic roots Aït Allah, i.e. Son of God…). There was the discovery of William Faulkner's works, and particularly of Intruder in the Dust and of his Go Down Moses stories. I started teaching and also  became a fossil hunter/collector. Some of my lifelong friends I met then while digging in stone quarries or roaming the fields: Germans. I took to translating poetry in the eighties and have produced translations from Jews, Blacks, Gays, Lesbians, Arabs, Whites, Americans, Europeans. I have met with them all, visited them all, entertained them all at my place. All God's children. Mixed.


  African Americans who came to Paris have often declared that they liked it there because for them it was like breathing a different air. And yet I understand why, a quarter of a century ago, the technician who sliced and polished ammonites for me decided to leave his flat in the banlieue (outer cities) North of Paris. The district had turned ethnic and violent, and he had reasons to fear for his family. There were also thefts, drugs, too much and permanent noise at night and, anticipating President's Chirac (in)famous soundbite, the omnipresent smell of exotic cooking, in the hallways of the high-rise they lived in… And I know, too, how one can feel not wanted in certain districts of French or other European cities where the majority of the population no longer dresses, looks, eats or speaks like the former snow white locals. A matter of numbers, and in/difference. Ghetto and exclusion.

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