Naomi Jackson, To Be Young Gifted and Black: A Travelogue of Black Women Artists in France and America

In 2003, I was a year out of college and knee deep in self-loathing. I was working at a job for a person I despised, which meant I was, like all of my friends in our early twenties, messy and dissatisfied. In the midst of all this, I decided to take a ten-day vacation to Paris with my girlfriend at the time. I went, with what money I can’t remember, though I do know that the majority of our meals were crêpes and croque monsieurs, with an occasional splurge for Orangina. There was conflict, caused by my laissez-faire attitude towards tourism, versus my travel companion’s intense scheduling. I trudged along to where the guidebooks directed us, taking in the Pantheon and the Tuileries gardens, finding Richard Wright’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, contributing my rusty––but still useful––high school French. Everywhere, we heard Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday singing “April in Paris,” an almost oppressive call to romance.

It was one of those mornings when my laziness trumped my girlfriend’s enthusiasm, that we lay in bed watching Nina Simone’s funeral in Carry-le Rouet, the town in Southern France most famous for its winter celebration of oursinades (sea urchins). As I watched Simone’s funeral procession, I found myself grieving the death not of the woman, but of what she represented––une âme souveraine, a sovereign soul, as the title of Meshell Ndegeocello’s 2012 tribute album to Nina Simone suggests.

I marveled at the idea of a state funeral for a black woman, which I’d never seen before in America. On that first trip to Paris, I’d recently read Simone’s strange biography I Put a Spell On You. I wanted the freedom to dance on tables in Monrovia as she had, to fall in love with the prime minister of Barbados, where my mother’s family was from. I couldn’t see the complexity of Simone’slife––the abuse she endured, the calcified bitterness wrought by her disappointment in America, the alcohol and drugs she used to self-medicate, and the mental illness they were likely meant to heal. What I wanted was the image Nina sold me in that book: a black woman artist who had overcome racism, who was free to travel—someone who even an audience full of white people hushed long enough to listen to.

The French people’s adoration of Nina Simone moved me and puzzled me in equal measure. Was it possible, as a black woman, to be so beloved by the country she’d adopted? I kept waiting for the veil to fall and for the ugliness behind it to be revealed; to find that America’s racial injustice had followed Simone to France. But I didn’t. Simone, like Josephine Baker before her, was among a group of black women who’d found refuge and freedom of expression in France. I admired and wanted to be like these women, though I worried that my life circumstances and self-doubt would conspire against making this dream a reality. Simone, Baker, Barbara Chase-Ri-boud, and other black women artists who found refuge and artistic freedom in France, mapped out a new space of possibility for my life as a black woman, as an artist, as a traveler (whom my parents diagnosed as having a “hot foot”).

Over the next eight years, the music of Nina Simone was a constant companion as I made a life for myself as a writer in New York City. I worked at jobs I hated less than the first one; took writing workshops at night; begged off drinks with my co-workers to go home early to write; spent my lunch hours getting books from the library, mailing stories and poems to literary journals, and befriending the postal workers who sent off my MFA applications. In my last year in New York, every day on my way to work, I listened to “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” the raspy, live version of Nina Simone’s song based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play of the same name. It was a reminder of my own worth, and a call to be courageous; to risk the comfortable lifestyle my job afforded me for an unknown life as a writer. “To be young, gifted and black/ is where it’s at,” I reminded myself each time I questioned my direction.

*

My complicated love affair with France began many years before my first trip to Paris in 2003. Nine years before, in the fall of 1994, I was a chubby black girl from Flatbush (then the West Indian section of Brooklyn), just starting the first of four years at a prep school on the Upper West Side. I didn’t yet know what a country house was, and I had a hell of a time trying to keep track of the categories used to describe my white classmates (blonde, brunette, redhead), most of whom looked identical to my eyes. It helped that they were equally as bewildered by me as I was by them. I’d recently read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and been transformed, which didn’t help my integration into the foreign world where I’d landed.

In junior high, I considered myself cultured, a French speaker. I was at the top of my class in my predominantly black junior high school in Bushwick. When I entered prep school, I was placed in the honors French class. I was ready to wow my peers, but quickly learned that I spoke French with an accent and that my classmates regularly spent holidays in Paris to improve their French. My previous teachers were a lecherous Haitian man, and an African-American woman whose Francophilia was manifested in copious amounts of perfume that hovered over her classroom like a cloud. The new teachers were actually French—white women who spoke their mother tongue fluently and were enthusiastic about cultivating a love for Le Pays and La Langue in their students. Still, my teachers’ dynamism couldn’t overcome the cruelty of my classmates, or the overwhelming sense of isolation that being a student there planted inside me. In high school French class, I learned how to make my ample brown body, large and wrong in every way, disappear into a sea of whiteness.

The one thing I had in common with the kids at my new school was MTV, which had just come to Flatbush, and where the music video for Meshell Ndegeocello’s “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” was playing on heavy rotation. Watching Meshell strum the bass guitar blew my world open. Here was a woman who didn’t look like a woman, and she was singing about having a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and wearing a ribbed white t-shirt––like the boys on my block––atop a pair of suspenders and men’s pants. I watched that video over and over again, the image of her and the sound of her voice my everything. Meshell’s music put a name and some soul to a feeling I’d been having, but didn’t yet have words for. Meshell’s video showed me that black women could love other women, bend gender, and be artists with swagger for days.

My classmates’ snobbery and Eurocentrism inspired me to begin educating myself about France’s colonial legacy. Whereas my classmates’ French studies were designed to facilitate their claims to European inheritance (backpacking trips to Europe, cocktail party conversation, perhaps academic studies), I wanted to learn French so that I could travel to the countries France had colonized, starting with the Francophone Caribbean and West Africa. Clearly, our studies of French language and culture had different aims. I began to understand the experiences of blacks and Arabs in France, and its colonies, through cultural artifacts like the films La Haine and Black Girl, the novels L’Étranger and Kiffe Kiffe Demain, and the Asterix comics. What I found was a record of brutal subjugation that paralleled my parents’ experiences as colonial subjects of the United Kingdom in the Caribbean.

Still, I hoped that my traveling shoes would take me to France, so that I could form my own opinions. I especially wanted to know more about the black artists who found refuge there. In addition to well-known male artists like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Beauford Delaney, and Melvin Van Peebles, I wanted to know about the women artists who’d made lives for themselves in France. By the time the early 2000s arrived, one of my favorite writers, Shay Youngblood, had written a book about a struggling writer, Black Girl in Paris (which now is a short film of the same name). In the back of my mind, I knew that one day I would be a writer, and live in France, though I wasn’t sure exactly how either would happen.

*

I leave my job and life in New York to spend three years living as a full-time writer, traveling to Barbados to conduct research for my first novel, attending writing residencies, completing my MFA degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While the cold, white landscape of the Midwest is difficult to adjust to, some distance from the Brooklyn I’d known, loved, and lived in for so long is essential to creatively rendering its contours, and imagining my characters there.

It is fall of 2014, and I am a resident artist at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, a quaint seaside town in the South of France. The writing is going well, and by the end of my time here, I’ll have written three chapters of my second novel, and the first short story I’ve liked in two years. It would be hard for the writing not to go well with such a fabulously easy life––baguettes every day, an open-air market twice a week, long days that stretch wide enough for writing and reading, and wine in luxurious quantities. A sewage leak halfway through my two-month stay forces me to move into an apartment closer to the sea, so that I can sit on my bed or lie in the bathtub and see the astounding view of the small town––mountains, the lighthouse, the rooftops. A seagull comes to visit every morning before breakfast; he hunts his prey in the sea below while I drink my coffee before beginning the day’s work. The Mediterranean crashes against the shore, forming the soundtrack as I go deeper into the lives of my characters, who are thousands of miles away in Brooklyn.

Reading and writing in Cassis is a revelation. It is only in conversations with the other fellows that I realize how far I’ve gone in my reading habits, reading almost exclusively contemporary writers of color. Casting aside the great, white literary canon was essential to my upbringing as a writer. And while that choice was an important one, one that made me the writer I am, I ease up on my political convictions and literary choices so that I can learn from people who look and think and live differently from me. For the first time, I enjoy reading Albert Camus and Susan Sontag alongside Marlon James and Lauren Francis Sharma, and learning much about storytelling from all of these writers.

Before this trip, I didn’t realize that I’d been holding a grudge against an entire country and people. I’d been bracing myself for rejection in the same way I was rejected by my prep school peers. Instead, I find a warm embrace—people are fascinated by my accent, they want to hear more about my life and my work and my thoughts about America. Still, I recognize that more than a bit of my welcome is due to my American-ness (my ‘special black’ status)––Arab, African or Caribbean immigrants, or even black or brown people native to France, aren’t afforded the same privilege.

Even as I find my time in France both liberating and healing, my self-discovery is set against the backdrop of France’s mistreatment of immigrants and its resonance with race-based violence in the United States. I attend a rally in Marseille commemorating the 17 Octobre 1961 massacre of dozens of Algerian men by the French police. They were murdered after a peaceful protest, their bodies dumped in the Seine. It is hard not to hear echoes of Eric Garner’s last breaths in the voices of the survivors who tell their stories, difficult not to hear the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” refrain of American protesters in the rallying cries of the Algerians remembering their dead.

Halfway through my trip, as part of a newfound ritual of watching films every Sunday night, I see Bande des Filles (Girlhood), a film about African girls in the suburbs of Paris. The film is problematic, including a painful sing-along to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” the camera’s questionable focus on the thrusting pelvises of dancing pre-teens, and an exploration of same-sex desire that seems to arise from the filmmaker’s interests rather than organically from the characters and the story. Still, I feel buoyed by seeing girls like me––with gorgeous skin in all shades of brown––experimenting with their sexuality, talking loudly, visiting stores where they can’t afford to buy anything, fighting with girls they encounter on the metro. In this film, I see the commonality between growing up the child of Caribbean immigrants in Brooklyn, and growing up the child of African immigrants near Paris; it expands my point of reference for the world and for my own experiences.

Two weeks before I’m set to leave, I decide to abandon the stultifying beauty of Cassis for a weekend trip to Nîmes, where Meshell Ndegeocello is playing the last show on her annual French tour. I’ve seen Meshell play countless times in New York, but I’m convinced that it will be different to see her play in France, and I am not disappointed. This time, unlike in Brooklyn, there are no audience-side theatrics among the women––many adoring black lesbians among them––who’ve come to see her play. Instead, there is a crowd of twenties, thirties, and graying white French people, with the occasional brown person. They are exceedingly polite, swaying to but not singing along with the music. Meshell’s show is incredible, maybe because it is the last night of the tour, maybe because performing in France frees her of playing old standards or summoning the showmanship American audiences demand. All I know is that from the moment Meshell sings Simone’s “Be My Husband,” until she closes the show, the music grabs me by the collar and won’t let go.

A little birdie tells me Meshell is staying at the hotel, and I try to take smoke breaks to coincide with her comings and goings, but I haven’t succeeded yet. When I go down for breakfast the next morning, I see her. Before I can recover from my shock and vanity (no makeup, puffy eyes hiding behind a pair of dated spectacles), Meshell asks me who I am and where I’m from. I answer, a writer, from Brooklyn, with none of the angst and self-doubt that once nagged me. My heart beats fast, so hard I’m sure anyone watching can see it threatening to fly up and out of my throat. But it doesn’t. She wishes me luck, and I feel as if my next steps have been ordered. In that moment, I realize that I have finally become the person I have spent my life aspiring to be.

*

Writing in the lineage of black artists who came to France before me inspires reflection on the necessity and nature of this sanctuary. Ellery Washington, in his essay for The New York Times on James Baldwin’s Paris, quotes from Michel Fabre’s book, From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840 to 1980, which says that France, “No longer a haven for American blacks…is no longer needed.” Washington goes on to write: “Even if France is no longer a haven for people of color, Paris remains a beacon, a vital connection to a time when, for many of our most important artists, writers and political thinkers, a much-needed shelter was sought and found.” While the United States has drastically changed in the seventy years since Baldwin first moved from Harlem to Paris, there is still much work to be done before black American artists feel that home is a place without hostility. As artists, the most important asset we have is the freedom of our imaginations. The kind of racism that exists in America today—generally less obvious, and therefore more insidious––burrows into our hearts and minds, planting seeds of paranoia, inferiority and dread, making it challenging for beautiful art to bloom there as well. This state of affairs demands that black artists find refuge outside of America, and makes retreats to places like France (and countries where black people wield political and social capital: the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America) even more crucial.

But, as the streets of my city are aflame with tension and demonstrations and righteous indignation, I am still in France, steeped in my daily rituals of writing and reading and filmgoing. The news from home, though disturbing, is at a remove. This distance allows me a tenuous freedom; this distance makes it possible for me to write as if the nightmare of America’s violence isn’t the only dream on my mind.

 

Cassis, France, December 2014

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