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Feeling American in Paris

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As an African American, multi-media journalist Mary C. Curtis enjoyed a welcoming interest among the French—a respect for black culture too often missing back home.

If it wasn’t complicated, it wouldn’t be France.

It’s true that the country’s “colorblind” republicanism, which leads it to avoid statistics on race—because, after all, everyone’s French—works better in theory than in practice. Avoiding the word minorities merely means officials can’t keep track of the discrimination against blacks, Arabs and others; it doesn’t make that discrimination disappear. It does nothing to assure a visible pathway toward the French equivalent to President Obama, someone of color at the head of the government.

But while the country struggles to integrate its own minorities throughout all levels of its business, culture and political life, as an African American in Paris (and St. Tropez, Nice and neighboring Monaco) I found a bit of liberation on a recent trip. Maybe I should thank the legacy of expatriate Josephine Baker or, closer to the writer’s life, Richard Wright and James Baldwin, for all that good will.

It felt a bit uncomfortable, succumbing to the temptations knowing others with a greater claim on the country aren’t quite so lucky. Accompanying a travel writer friend, an African American woman tasked with sharing the five-star pleasures with black Americans with the means and opportunity to partake, I was catered to at every stop. That didn’t keep me from noticing there wasn’t a whole lot of diversity in our travels. In Paris, mingling with more multicultural crowds, I especially noticed more people of color in jobs driving the buses, doling out metro tokens and keeping the parks beautiful than as news readers and shop owners. And in its last presidential contests, though Francois Hollande claimed victory, candidate Nicolas Sarkozy criticized immigrants and the rhetoric of National Front leader Marine Le Pen went much further. To be a French person of color is no paradise. Still, I have never felt more positively American than during the week I spent there.

In America at regular intervals, as though on a dreadful and depressing loop, the old discredited rumors of President Obama’s foreign birth pop up. Remember carnival barker Donald Trump and the caught-on-tape GOP Colorado congressman who had to apologize after questioning the president’s birthplace and saying of Obama that “in his heart, he’s not an American.” A recent echo came from former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Mitt Romney surrogate. Another apology followed his comment that “I wish this president would learn how to be an American,” but the words stuck. Even after he showed “his papers,” there are those who say the president doesn’t truly belong.

In this country’s GOP presidential primaries, I had to listen to candidates take turns lecturing African Americans on the need to demand jobs, not food stamps (Newt Gingrich) or be labeled brainwashed if they choose to vote for a Democrat (Herman Cain). At a Mitt Romney South Carolina campaign stop with very few black folks in attendance, I asked the presumptive Republican candidate about minority outreach and he pointed me to his Massachusetts record. (Subsequent news stories point out that as governor, his scaling back of long-standing affirmative action policies caused a public outcry). In Romney’s appearance before this summer’s NAACP convention, as I wrote about in the Washington Post, his words seemed designed to lecture rather than persuade.

It can be disheartening to see statistics and a skewed sense of history used to justify pat-downs by police officers, to have generations of contributions by ancestors dismissed, as African American identity is instead used to define poverty, social ills, an “entitlement” society and all that is wrong with this country. The entertainers who have historically been praised, copied and exploited are nonetheless put under the microscope, with rap musicians occasionally being blamed for the downfall of society.

Despite its nostalgic romanticism, France’s appreciation of black American life and culture is refreshing. And whatever they feel about President Obama’s policies—and there are criticisms—most of the French people I spoke with appreciated his intelligence and thoughtfulness, qualities not often acclaimed in American political battle. No one wondered where he hailed from. To them, Obama’s story is the American story. He is admired for what his life’s progress says about America’s democratic documents and lofty goals. As proud as they are of everything French, they will admit, after a glass of wine—and who doesn’t have at least one—that they could learn something from us on that score.

In Monaco, the Black Legend, a combination restaurant, bar, lounge, live-music venue and nightclub, pays tribute to black artists, from the photos of Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye on the walls, to George Clinton on the sound system to the Maxwell sound-alike onstage, a black Frenchman who didn’t speak English very well but sung everything from Sam Cooke to Prince perfectly. If I had spent another day in Paris, my last stop, there was a must-see jazz concert where even as an audience member, I’m sure I would have been treated royally.

Black America is seen as the best this country has to offer, the definition of the strengths and attributes that my fellow countrymen and women seem to forget when it suits them.

Yes, it’s always easier to deal with far-away ideals when the ones at home are messy, a sin the French are not alone in committing. But as I recall my recent trip to the land of croissants and enough compliments to last awhile longer, I am exhilarated and a bit sad that it’s been a long time since I felt that positively, quintessentially American.

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