Drawing courtesy of Ben Heine of Flickr
Race. When you say the word here in America, the reaction is a knee-jerk one. Like getting hit in the lower part of your knee with a hammer at the doctor’s office, the idea of talking about race often creates a quick eye-roll, a huff and/or puff, or in many cases it’s simply ignored. As diverse and open-minded as we would like to believe that other countries in this wide world of ours think differently, when it comes to race, we may unfortunately all have more in common than once thought.
From our own perspectives here, France is more of a progressive place comfortable with people of all colors and creeds; and France has always seen itself as one that avoids racial discrimination and pushes for tolerance, as it has seemed to do for so many years. According to the website BME news: “It regularly denounced racism in the United States…inviting talented American blacks like the dancer Josephine Baker, musicians like Sidney Bechet, and writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin.”
But that was long ago, and times have definitely changed.
In France today, blacks don’t shimmy around topless portraying primitive images of blacks, collecting the praise and awe of white people anymore. Instead, from my own experiences, immigrants from places the likes of Senegal and Cameroon stand around Paris selling novelty souvenirs to put food on the table; according to The New York Times, black’s with degrees find themselves working menial jobs at fast food joints because of the few and far between alternatives; and blacks have realized the sad reality that they have no political representation in France. The French don’t even conduct census-like surveys and studies that count people by race, so the number of blacks in the country to be accounted for and helped is unknown. The façade of equality portrayed by the French is becoming just as much of a fraud as the Declaration of Independence has been for minorities in America. Through the anger of feeling misunderstood and ignored, many French blacks have returned to the idea of “negritude.”
According to the New York Times, “negritude” is the ideology of black pride that was created in the ’20s and ‘30s by French poet and politician Aime Cesaire and Leopold Sedar Senghor, a poet who became Senegal’s first president. Breeding off of the influence of Harlem Renaissance writers who had lived in France, negritude tries to push for a Europe without race and class divisions. But in reality, the division is ever-present. Many neighborhoods across France, such as Chateau Rouge and Vitry-le-Francois, places filled with a large number of blacks who are poor and frustrated, have become centers for crime and violence.
With the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, negritude is becoming as strong as it ever was, with more blacks restoring their hope and pride in their heritage.
Youssoupha, a black rapper documented in a New York Times article on “negritude,” claims that with Obama as America’s new leader, even if it is not in France, makes him believe that “everything is possible.” They hope to get help, as many seek to take their college degrees they earned but were discouraged from getting, to move out of the oppressive working class and run-down neighborhoods into more stable jobs and living.
While the election of Barack Obama has moved a great number of blacks in the U.S. to strive for bigger and better things, the same sentiment is being felt abroad. Negritude has always given French blacks the faith they need in their heritage, but seeing Obama’s achievement in the flesh means a lot more. To hear his words and feel his message is to know that there is hope for not only the oppressed and depressed blacks residing in France, but for all minorities trying to find their way.
For more information on the legacy and impact of Aime Cesaire, watch the following YouTube video on his life and work.