The American in Europe is everywhere confronted with the question of his identity, and this may be taken as the key to all the contradictions one encounters when attempting to discuss him.
—James Baldwin, “A Question of Identity”
Lost in front of the turnstiles in a Paris Metro station many years ago, I stopped a stranger to ask him for directions. He politely gave them to me, then switched to English:
“You’re not African, are you?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m American.”
“Whew,” he said, an audible sigh of relief. “That’s good.” And then he left, with nothing to add but a wave.
I imagine that his being Parisian could’ve meant that, for political reasons, he wouldn’t have taken kindly to me being African in the first place. This wasn’t what stopped me, though. What stopped me was the fact that he could vocalize it so easily: That’s good, he’d said, and I then wondered what might’ve happened had I given a different answer. I’ll imagine the worst here: would I have been threatened? Beaten? Mugged? Stabbed and left for dead? Him saying “That’s good” could’ve meant he was worried about me because he could tell I was foreign; perhaps he’d been paying attention to my accent—surely distinct among Parisians—because he would’ve expected an African to speak with a more perfected French sound. “You’re not African, are you?” could also have meant “Your French isn’t good enough.”
Regardless of the quality of my French, the event called the level of my American blackness into question, far differently than I (or anyone else) had regarded it in America. At this moment I began to look at blackness as something distinct, layered, and a little more complicated than America makes it out to be—I began to look at my own blackness not merely as a measure of my race, but also as a measure of my status and privilege. In this particular situation my blackness was complicated by my Americanness, while in America things would’ve been reversed. Normally my being black makes my being American complicated, but in Paris I found myself perhaps saved by my nationality, by a particular foreignness, with my blackness possibly somewhat overlooked.
It didn’t matter that I was what we could’ve once called negro, or now black—I now had to consider myself being African-American. In my home country, the emphasis here is usually on African in order to highlight otherness. To highlight origins. It’s culturally (and politically) loaded, as the debate about what we call ourselves rages on. I’ll say that I’ve never cared to call myself “African-American” because when it comes to Africa I’m a dozen times removed, and I prefer “black” because it encompasses my paletted lineage. I myself would not exist without procreative help from the French, from the Irish, from German Jews, from the Louisiana and Haitian Creole, from the Chinese, from the Cherokee.
Being in Paris made me think of myself in another way altogether: as a privileged foreigner. I’d already gotten the feel of this from having studied in Prague, where I learned what it was like to feel richer than others. But in Prague, my privilege was a matter of my wallet; in Paris my privilege was a matter of my being both black and American, and the idea that I could be a “better” black by being American was introduced to me.
This is the only thing I’ve wanted to write about Paris. My younger self might wish to write about the Eiffel Tower’s lights or seeing Mona Lisa’s smile or my drunken strolls through the city, but where I sit now has me thinking about what might be a problem of Paris: it’s too easy to look at the city, such an emblem of romance and beauty, and neglect its complications.
Last night, on a short walk to a street mailbox, I wore a hoodie because it was chilly out, but because it was night and because I’m black, I think that I scared a few white people. Race can be so much about actual color here, and so much about the things people first see when they look at you: how dark your skin is, how neat your hair is, whether or not your pants hang below your waist. In America race is sometimes literally superficial, the idea of race itself centered on what we can perceive.
Had I dressed like this in Paris, I doubt that on my walk I would’ve felt the need to look at myself through white eyes. Wearing a hoodie in Paris, I wouldn’t have felt so black. I just would’ve felt warm. Or perhaps I still would’ve felt black but in that ambiguous sense, that what exactly are you? sense that whites get when they hear me speak. I’m purely Midwestern, born and raised in central Illinois, and I sometimes throw white people for a loop by speaking without even a hint of Black English.
Perhaps this is an issue unique to my living in America, because in America I encounter far fewer language barriers with the people to whom I speak. My Czech is shitty, my French is OK, and thank God I’ve never had to test my Spanish in Europe. When in Europe, I think it might be expected that I speak English, though, because although I’m black my skin is also centrally toned, and my blue jeans, never tight, might point to my nationality.
The other day a professor asked me what, exactly, makes me consider my blackness when I’m in Europe. She’s a white professor, academically interested in issues of race, and when sitting in her office I found it a little difficult to verbalize what exactly it is I feel when I’m in Europe. When I think about it, I suppose it depends on which country I’m in. In most I’m just curious, wondering what passers-by are thinking when they look at me—western European countries like the Netherlands and the UK make me feel pretty all right, in Germany I wondered who might’ve seen me as some bastard of Europe, and I once saw a surprising number of other black people during an overnight layover in Finland. In certain places in the Czech Republic, some—but not many—people are open with their racism, whether in their graffiti or when shouting at me from cars. But in France, myself so suddenly thrown in with blacks from French-colonized African countries, the tangibility of my blackness was somehow second only to that of Central Europe.
It may be cliché at this point to say, as many Americans before me have said, that I didn’t understand what it meant to feel American until I left America, but I’m steadfast in saying that I didn’t understand what it meant to feel like a Black American until I left America. I don’t mean to say that the Black American is a rare and evasive creature, but rather that this combination of nationality and race seems remarkable to me now, perhaps like the rarity of being born with red hair and blue eyes.
A few nights ago my roommate and I drunkenly talked about the things that seem to be static about race in America and around the world, that seem not to change no matter where you plant your feet. He brought up the “brown paper bag test,” the idea that a paper bag can be used as a litmus test for racial acceptance. When I researched this I learned that a brown bag was even once used at public events, for those offering admission to check the skin tones of their patrons. Imagine, for instance, going to the circus or a saloon and finding a brown bag nailed to the wall on the outside of the building—if you’re as light as (or lighter than) the bag, you may enter.
I’m not qualified to talk about how this idea might or might not still be carried on, or how the Black community itself might handle the considerations of the brown paper bag test, but I know it isn’t (physically) applicable only to black people. Hispanics can be darker than a paper bag. And mixed-race people. And Asians. And Middle-Easterners. And Indians. And Native Americans. If I follow this line of thought, it takes me to an idea that dark means dangerous.
My roommate once told me about parts of South America, Asia, and India where the brown bag could still be used today. There, the way caste systems are put in place allows lighter-skinned locals to leverage their skin tones against their more darkly-skinned neighbors—this literally ghettoizes them, making sure their geographic mobility is limited by the tone of their skin. What should instances like these, when race is as superficial as can be, make us think about the history of racism outside of America? Or about race in countries—so far only Liberia, Thailand, North & South Korea, and Japan—known to have evaded European colonialism altogether? (Colonialism is, of course, its own issue, but in places where there are few or no white people living, does an “inner-racism” teach us anything about how race is regarded by the world? Or about our American perceptions of race?)
“The American Negro in Paris is forced at last to exercise an undemocratic discrimination rarely practiced by Americans,” James Baldwin writes in “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” “that of judging his people, duck by duck, and distinguishing them from one another. Through this deliberate isolation, through lack of numbers, and above all through his own overwhelming need to be, as it were, forgotten, the American Negro in Paris is very nearly the invisible man.” My time in Paris, which was only about a week, can never compare to the glut of experiences Baldwin had throughout the period of his life as an expatriate, but I go to Baldwin—return to him, really—not just because he writes about race compellingly but because he highlights a part of racial discourse that I’ve been forced to think about since I first encountered his words: the significance of the Black American. And though Baldwin’s use of “American Negro” was appropriate for his time, place, and level of comfort, I carry “Black American” with me as both two words and a label, “black” and “American” both standing on their own as well as holding a distinct meaning when combined.
“Negro” is just too simple in that thinking only about language, with its connection to the Italian nero or the Portuguese negro or the Latin nigrum, I’m able to imagine a color palette when I hear a word that, in a number of languages, just means “black.” But when I hear “black” in English as applied figuratively to race, just like when I hear “white,” I neglect the palette and go straight to society. Maybe this comes from my being a nerd, wherein in comics and graphic novels I often find characters who are actually green or purple or red, and these colors serve as distinctions of their culture, origins, and place in society. But “black” and “white,” in America and in the real world, aren’t used literally, and connecting them to our origins isn’t exactly a straight shot.
“American,” added to the distinction of figurative color, gives us a necessary modifier for discerning where a person might get their beliefs about race. It might show off just as much as one proudly stating they’re Irish or Mexican or Italian, which is a proclamation not only of origin but of tradition. Americanism is being developed here, too, and this -ism, encompassing the beliefs and traditions Americans hold, is a starting point for talking about race in this country. Race is complicated even without America, but America’s history has, in some ways, treated the concept with its own uniqueness by making it a black and white issue.
James Baldwin was the writer who first got me thinking about what it means to be both black and American, and I haven’t stopped searching for this meaning since our first encounter. Whether I’m in America or not, I’ve come to look at the Black American as his own social species, a people reluctantly brought into existence and who’ve not only had to discover their identity but create it. “The African before him [the Black American] has endured privation, injustice, medieval cruelty,” Baldwin writes, “but the African has not yet endured the utter alienation of himself from his people and his past. His mother did not sing ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ and he has not, all his life long, ached for acceptance in a culture which pronounced straight hair and white skin the only acceptable beauty.”
Baldwin believed alienation was key to the formation of the Black American identity, but has the Black American somehow become more alienated from his home because it’s so difficult to find his way through his origins? Is it because he was carried across the ocean not as a passenger but as property? Or is it, as Baldwin suggests, that he was brought to a place where the dominant idea of culture itself was confused about what it wanted to become?
Baldwin also writes that alienation “causes the Negro to recognize that he is a hybrid. Not a physical hybrid merely: in every aspect of his living he betrays the memory of the auction block and the impact of the happy ending. In white Americans he finds reflected—repeated, as it were, in a higher key—his tensions, his terrors, his tenderness.” And “perhaps it now occurs to him that his need to establish himself in relation to his past he is most American, that this depthless alienation from oneself and one’s people is, in sum, the American experience”: he implies that the Black American helps to define the quintessential American, because this alienation is something we’ve all, at some point, shared. Americans constantly connect to their genealogical pasts, and in doing so come to realize just how distant we’ve become from where our ancestry began.
This distance might also bring desperation, getting Americans into Irish pubs to celebrate their last names or eating at Italian restaurants only to cling to their grandmother’s nostalgia. The descendant of Europe, however, has not totally had to don new cultural clothing, as the Black American has—they’re able to retrace or hold onto artifacts of identity, perhaps even in conversation with a relative who fondly remembers the home across the pond.
While I went to France to visit a good friend, it also pleased me to know that I was visiting one of my many “homelands.” I’ve sort of embraced my hybrid status, understanding and accepting that it took the mixture of many lineages in order for my own family to become a reality. But this also comes with an understanding of my American status—knowing that I’m more or less a cultural mutt makes me feel all the more American, especially when, in a place like Europe, I can visit multiple countries and touch the ground of my ancestors. And I feel more American because, as an American, I feel the need to touch these countries. I’m not sure that I’d want to retrace so much if I’d been born where generation after generation had built their homes and lived and died in the same place.
This doesn’t equate my American status with an immigrant status, but over time I’ve come to better understand the conflict that exists between trying to be an American and trying to honor where my family came from. If Baldwin is right in that Americans are made by forgetting their pre-American history, then the task of defining Americanism is all the more challenging, and one that all too often feels impossible.
The older I’ve gotten, the more interested in sociopolitics I’ve become, which is to say the more interested in people I’ve become. I’m interested in how our identities work, not just in the ways nature and nurture come together to form us but also in the ways our borders give us an idea of who we are. It’s interesting to me the way that looking at my Americanness helps me to understand something about myself, isolated from idiosyncrasy or nuance, and knowing that I wouldn’t exist as I am today, had I been brought up somewhere else, is an idea that deserves all the attention I can give it.
In the end, my thinking isn’t so much about why the man at the turnstiles in Paris thought it was better that I was American, but rather about the reasons why I reacted internally the way I did. But I still wonder: would some hostility from my side have been appropriate in that situation? What about asking the man what he actually meant? To be told, essentially, that one is more inherently acceptable because of where (s)he was born should surely breed curiosity—an interrogation of how one interprets certain cultural facts, no matter how factual, is warranted by the weight of this praise.
I can remember the way the Eiffel Tower was lit up in one of my favorite shades of blue. I remember strolling along the Seine at night with friends, often twirling myself around for a more panoramic view of city lights. I remember getting lost many times, worried that my French wasn’t good enough to guide me back, and certain that the little map I carried was turned the wrong way and I, therefore, was turned the wrong way. These are memories of Paris I enjoy carrying with me, and even the memories of meeting elderly women and schoolchildren in the small towns outside of the city are pleasant and warm. But these memories are beautiful, and I should ask myself, when I’ve seen the uglier parts of a city, whether I should remember the city as it truly was, or as the romantic tapestry that’s woven into my mind. The nakedness of Paris is surely worth the look, but without the sight of the city’s scabs, might I find myself gawking?