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Where are You Really From: Race, Identity and Power in the U.S. and France

By Kaila AllisonNovember 3, 2016

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates Ian Douglas

Since President Barack Obama first stepped into office, the American people were startled by a possibility that there didn’t have to be a “Black America and White America,” anymore, but just “the United States of America.” According to New Yorker contributor, author, and associate professor at the University of Connecticut, Jelani Cobb, that was some promising presidential rhetoric, but overall, a lie. Anyone who’s read the headlines or seen the news for the past few years can recognize that race relations are far from stable, and the U.S. is far from “united.” With issues such as police violence, racial profiling, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement as our modern-day Civil Rights movement, the rift between black and white transcends skin color—it’s also a matter of class, power, and the notion of our republic. 

As a long-time ally of the United States, France has played an integral role in its development. France has had its share of race problems of its own, seen most prominently through the Algerian War (1954-1962) and lingering racism against people of North African descent that largely populate the banlieues, or suburbs. The war prompted a silence that was only sort of broken recently, by French president François Hollande, who acknowledged the war’s brutality, but didn’t really apologize. Immigration has always been a hotbed issue in France, but it is especially now more important in preparation for their 2017 presidential election. On the other hand, Americans have a little less time to figure out new policies as the “changing of the guards” is decided next week. Even so, Paris was (and still is) a destination for African-Americans. James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, all found inspiration on French turf.

Panel
Ian Douglas

You may know Coates as the National Book Award-winning author of Between the World and Me. But Coates has also had a history struggling to learn French, as he told us at the opening reception of Festival Albertine last night. He just returned from Paris after a year-long writing fellowship, and there, had various interactions with African-Americans. He used his research to help curate the 3rd annual festival of the famed French-English bookstore housed by the French Embassy in New York City. 

During last night’s gathering, we were among a room of French, American, White, Black, and more. Coates stood before us and explained the process of selecting his panel for the November 2nd discussion, When Will France Have Its Barack Obama? Joining Cobb on the panel was journalist Iris Derœux, and historians Pap Ndiaye and Benjamin Stora. 

What first struck me about the title of this discussion was the use of the word, “when.” It suggests that France will have a Barack Obama, and it’s only a matter of time. But will France ever have a Barack Obama? The French perspective is so used to seeing White males in political positions that a Black president would seem revolutionary, but would it be more revolutionary than what happened in America? 

Ndiaye recounted an anecdote of a modern iteration of W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of double-consciousness. As a Black French man from Paris, when people ask him where he’s from, he always answers, logically, “I’m from Paris.” But then there’s always a follow-up question; “Where are you really from?” This implies that because of the color of his skin and the language that he speaks, people don’t feel comfortable accepting him as a Parisian. He must therefore be from somewhere else. 

Audience
Ian Douglas

Both France and the United States have had different forms of racism. Americans had slavery, the French had the Algerian war, and that’s just two examples. But these major tragedies in world history do not come without aftershocks. Festival Albertine will explore race and identity in the modern age through a series of panels highlighting a number of artistic forms, including art, film, literature, and dance. 

The festival runs through November 6th, 2016. For more information, click here. And if you can’t make it to New York, all of the events are livestreamed to help spread the messages of these scholars, artists, and writers to people in the rest of the United States, in France, and beyond.