Thursday, July 24, 2008

What Black and Browns in Paris Think of Obama

During our Walking The Spirit tour through Black Paris in June for the Richard Wright Centennial, folks were asking me for insight into the pleasing but somewhat mystifying 'Obama Effect' in France. His face jumped out at us from every newsstand, from monthly mags to special editions. And though I didn't have time during my trip to actually stop and read the articles, I was more than thrilled to find a consumer magazine on my flight home with a cover headline: The Obama Phenomenon - France Votes for Him.

So I thought I'd share some of it with you.

The source was 'Elle', whose target audience is hip young ladies, so I figured we'd get it, yes, straight from the hip.

Here are some of the comments gathered by journalist Lena Mauger.

  • Obama fans are divided into two camps: a) the new Parisian class known as 'bobo' bohemian bourgeois - Obama fits right into their left-wing/environmentalist/admirer of revolutionaries stance - he is, quite simply, cool. On the less fortunate side of town, Obama fires up a heated passion in the immigrant-majority suburb teaming with mixed-race youngsters distressed by discrimination.
  • One high school student exclaims, 'if he wins, it will be the liberation of all Blacks in the world'.
  • For some, he represents nothing less than the reincarnation of the American Dream. He serves as an example to a France still sketchy on its own immigration.

Obama's avoidance of divisive politics highlights the hurtful actions of their own President, immigrant-born himself, who, they believe, shows contempt for immigrants.

  • Obamamania reaches all generations. The older generation who were brought into France as laborers, when jobs were plentiful, now lament their lost fantasy of a kinder workplace for their well-educated kids being turned down for jobs because of the un-French name on their resume.
  • For the hip-hop generation, whatever their country of origin, they're sick of answering the question: 'do you feel more French or Moroccan, Malian, etc.' They're coming up with their own responses inspired by Obama's ease with his multi-ethnic background. One slammeuse Delphine 2 says that Obama 'de-complexes them because he assumes his African and white origins'.
  • Obama is also a symbol of political accessibility practically non-existent in France, where the only members of the present government of African or Arabic origins were appointed - not elected - by a right wing President.

Mohamed Hamidi, economics professor, and Karim Zeribi, ex-president of Parliament of the Suburbs, were part of a French delegation to Philadelphia recently. They were astonished to find themselves at an Obama meeting, in a room full of blacks, whites, men and women. "You'd be crazy to be an Obama in France,' they said. 'They would say, oh he's the candidate for the Arabs, that one's the candidate for the Muslims, etc. Obama is a hope for those of us who walk with our head down. They had Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Mohammed Ali but in France we haven't yet had the person who will denounce inequalities and who will last.'

I would love to be caught up in the crowd, cheering Obama as he passes through Paris. I think it would be the very first time since moving there in 1990 that I'd witness most Blacks in the city - African, Caribbean, American - actually sway in one united movement, eager to embrace and align with the same cause. And to acknowledge our common origins, and dialogue in real time about our present and linked future. But also, it's been decades since being American (of any stripe) was considered admirable overseas.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Do The Josephine in July

I'm making July Josephine month in Black Paris. Why? Because there's a couple more exciting ways for you to celebrate La Venus Noire.

The Josephine Baker Pool

In her debut, she got a reputation for 'taking it off'. Test your own sense of adventure by stripping off the summer finery, slipping into a swimsuit, and taking a dip in the Josephine Baker pool. Encased in glass, this floating barge of serenity is moored to the Seine River at Quai Francois Mauriac at the foot of new Francois Mitterand Library (Bibliotheque Francois Mitterrand) in the 13th district.

The pool opened in July 2006 but closed unexpectedly because of a fire in the gym section. It re-opens July 21st. It's not exactly for Olympic swimmers - but you can get in a 25 meter (82 ft) lap. Or take it easy and just soak up the rays streaming through the sleek, retractable sun-roof, meditate on the Paris skyline, or watch the kids paddling around the hedgehog fountain in their own pool. And if paintings from bygone days ever had you wishing for a swim in the Seine, this is the closest you'll get - the pool is filled with recycled water from the river.

Though the location may seem off the well-traced tourist path, it's a great introduction to this 13th district, once an obstacle course of industrial buildings now home to branché artists' squats, very hip clubs (some on the boats nearby) and the new library. Until Aug 20, the piscine Joséphine Baker offers a cool dip off if you're lounging on the makeshift but hugely fun Paris Beach Paris Plage set up nearby - after the workout, check out the free newspapers, books on loan, WiFi access, and art classes.

If you go: Metro: Bibliotheque F.Mitterand, line 14. Tel 01 56 61 96 50 Entrance:5E.

'In Search of Josephine' Show at Casino de Paris

If you never got to see Josephine in one of her dazzling shows, you've got until August 17 to check out the spectacular 'In Search of Josephine', now playing at the Casino de Paris in the 9th district, Lower Montmartre area. The revamped Jerome Savary production has pulled out the mesmerizing costumes, her dances, and the New Orleans swing that livened up the 1920s and 30s.

Josephine actually performed at the Casino in 1930 (it's not a gambling casino, in fact, but a luxurious concert hall), shaking up the entertainment world and enraging her rival Mistinguett. Josephine's 'The Show That Shakes' did just that.

Just as important: this place is home to African-American jazz in Paris. It was here in 1917 that drummer Louis Mitchell brought his hand-picked band, The Jazz Kings, to delight throngs of fans of this new music. For five years upstairs at the Perroquet Room, the fans and the venue showed their love with their wallet. Mitchell raked in the dough - making ten times more than a French cabinet minister. The Jazz Kings accompanied the biggest names in Music Hall of the times, including Josephine and her 'Revue Qui Remue - Show That Shakes'.

One our tour participants (Shirellia Moore), kindly took these photos as we visited the Casino during our Walking The Spirit Tours Tour #2 The Entertainers. This is upstairs at the Perroquet Room today, same as in the 1930s.

Official Stamps

Stateside, the US Post Office has just issued a series of stamps commemorating the greats of Black Cinema, including our Josephine. Buy them at your nearest outlet or through the website. France did the same for Josephine in 1994, which I am proud to own, and for Sidney Bechet in 2002.