Friday, February 3, 2012

I am white and white is black and black is white and black is black

I need a post to do some thinking, or else the thinking just won't get done.  Lately I've been asking myself what I'm doing this for.  What's the point of doing all this work?  How does it apply to me when I'm looking at history and not necessarily interviewing people?  And who will I talk to, and what will I spend my time doing?  And what do I want to come out of this field study with?  What do I want to know?  Why do I have to go to France to know it?

People have written all sorts of things on the blacks in France, especially those who went there after the Great War.  And I think most of the people who have written biographies or histories of appreciating these people have far more authority and understanding than I do.  I'm not really trying to compete with them on any publishing level, and I'm aware that next to no one will read whatever it is I come up with in the end, but I have to do something that I find worthwhile.

What got me interested in this idea is that I haven't met a whole lot of people who know about the blacks in Paris the way they know about the whites in Paris.  The elephant in the room is Midnight in Paris in which no black expatriates are present apart from Josephine Baker in the back of the room.  Sure you see F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway--all important American players in Paris at the time, but why the hell didn't he talk to Josephine Baker, and where were Ada "Bricktop" Smith, James Reese Europe and Gene Bullard?  Why wasn't he having conversations with intellectuals like Langston Hughes?  Or at the very least, why weren't they present the way they should have been?

This is what American Studies is about for me--why are we so certain that American=white when it doesn't?  What I want for myself is to put these people in an American context as Americans and I don't want the most famous of these people--Josephine Baker--to be a "who's that?" anymore.  Now I guess I can't change anything, and I'm more than aware of that.  So what's the point then?  What do I want out of this given that I can't make a difference?  If this is just a jumping off point, a place where I can learn how to develop some important skills.

More and more I'm thinking maybe I do want to find an African-American community in Paris and talk to the people I find.  In English, in French.  But whose to assume they'll let me if I do find them?  And that's why I want a backup plan.  What I would want to interview these people for is to put the people I'm currently interested in, in context.

Why I have to go to France is a harder question to answer because I could theoretically just study African-Americans in Paris and Paris itself and the 1920s and black history and then apply all the things I want to about American Studies to my book-learned understanding.  The reason I want to go to France is purely selfish.  I want to be an American in Paris.  I want to know what it's like, and I want to know how it differs from the things I read about these people going through.  I want to walk the streets they walked, and I want to learn they language they had to learn.  I want to live in the city that is well-known for racial equality, and I want to know if that's true.  I want to meet people, especially black Americans, and I want to know what life has been like for them in Paris.  Is it like the Paris of the 1920s in any way?  But most of all--what is it about France and Paris in particular that attracted these people?  Is it just the romance of the place, or is it something else?

I never believe that romance jazz about Paris.  Then I went there, and somehow I understood what people meant.  That's why I think I need to go for a longer period of time.  Because you can be told a lot of things about a place, but can you really put yourself in the context of it without experiencing it?  I don't think you can.

Why are we so set on not including the African-American experience in with the study of "America."  We talk about how slavery affected the black American population, but always with the intention of switching back to "white mode" and how it affects whites now.  Who the hell cares how it affects whites now when it's still something that's present in this country for blacks now?

I loved Midnight in Paris, but I remember thinking at the end of that movie, after thinking about how much I thoroughly enjoyed it, that it was still a white-washed American history, even if it was in Paris.  And I KNOW you can't tell every story at once, but I don't understand why it has to be a white story OR a black story, when we've been together, whites and blacks, all this time.  It's the 21st century.  Isn't it about time we started talking about how separate our histories are?  Isn't it about time we started melding them?  After all, I, a white girl from Los Angeles couldn't be American without the African presence, and a black girl from Virginia certainly couldn't be American without the Anglo presence.  That's kind of what makes us uniquely American.  Is anyone else willing to admit that?

This project idea still needs a lot of work, I guess that much is obvious.

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