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Equal in Paris?


In another compelling perspective on the attack against Charlie Hebdo, Thomas Chatterton Williams invokes James Baldwin at the n+1 website. Like Baldwin, Chatterton Willliams is an African American who has lived in Paris for several years. And also like Baldwin, Chatterton Williams’s outsider status gives him an intriguing point of view on France’s history of colonialism and racism:

In the five years that I have lived in France, I have more than once been welcomed into well-furnished rooms where I have been left to silently puzzle over colonial detritus—Sambo-like dolls and figurines, thick-lipped, bug-eyed, disembodied brown porcelain heads—cavalierly displayed on illuminated shelves and marble tabletops. The first few times I saw these mementos I was jarred, though it is also possible for me to talk and laugh and drink in such spaces, because I am with friends, and I am comfortable in my status as an American who has made his home in Paris but is always free to leave. And yet, I would be lying if I denied that there is some small part of my consciousness still tender with ancestral ache, which cannot ever allow me to lose sight of these outlandish trophies and souvenirs. They seem to somehow comfort or amuse my hosts, reminding them of nothing at all or of some far less complicated and stressful past, and fit smartly in the décor alongside equestrian prints, layered “oriental” rugs, and grandfather’s antelope heads from Africa mounted on the wall.

To my mind, in addition to the French tradition of anti-authoritarian satiric wit, this is also very much a part of the context of our current crisis, whether we want to talk about it now or not: France has a violent, racist, and unexorcised past.

Read the full piece here.