(Listen to the audio version of this essay via my new podcast, https://soundcloud.com/hopechestpodcast/ep-3-dont-forget-paris. Subscribe at iTunes and please rate and review!)
I do not have many romantic stories to tell you. Even the yarn about how your father and I managed to spend four days traipsing the cobblestoned arrondissements of Paris is an unsentimental one. I do not suppose that you’ll swoon. But, because we did not remain a couple after you were born, because you will likely grow up knowing our relationship simply as an amicable one, this is, perhaps, a tale worth telling you.
For a certain kind of Black American, several generations U.S.-born, but without many relatives who have left this country of their own volition, rather than because of an obligatory military deployment, international travel can be a vague, lofty, often elusive, ideal. We want to go. These days, far more of us do. But leisure travel abroad can require an intentionality, a precision of thought and planning that can prove somewhat prohibitive.
For the barely middle-class among us, it is a desire close enough to fathom attaining. If corners are cut or we have sudden financial windfalls or we fashion ourselves into spendthrifts, seeing the world becomes quite possible. This does not, however, mean the attainment will be easy.
I have only left the country once. It took me 28 years. And even after such an interminable wait, I could only afford four days and nights abroad. I chose Paris, but given the circumstances, I could just as easily have chosen Milan or Accra or Dubai. I chose it because of a sudden flight deal that, as serendipity would have it, coincided with the delivery of my tax refund, which combined with my post-graduate, crashing-on-my-aunt-and-uncle’s couch as an adjunct savings, to create a bit of a travel budget. I also chose it because I had recently read about a series of walking tours that traced the Black American experience in the early- to mid-20th century through the streets of present-day Paris.
For reasons both obvious and ineffable, this seemed a trek worth taking.
Sometimes I feel pinned to the contiguous United States by forces far beyond my control, forces that far predate me. I have never felt alone in this. It is the kind of tethering one feels when she knows for certain that at some point in her not-so-distant lineage, members of her family were chained to this land and forbidden from leaving it, first by centuries of enslavement and then by generations of bureaucratic policies extensive and dense and obtuse enough to feel all but unnavigable for a people who have had to fight through reams of red tape and a bottomless pit of administrative fees just to be able to vote or uphold even a pretense of property ownership.
In truth, if you have the means and an unbesmirched public record, the passport process is relatively easy. Because I left the country in haste, the way one does when she isn’t sure how long she’ll still be able to afford to, I paid the expedited fee and was able to feel the gold embossed navy blue vinyl beneath my fingertips in just three weeks.
I did not initially plan to include your father. I thought instead that I might go with my aunt and, failing that, I might just go alone. I may have planned the journey hastily but it could not have been more important to me. It was a milestone so many of us Black U.S.-born descendants of slaves do not reach. It was an opportunity I may never have seen again. I knew just one year removed from graduate school that I had chosen a discipline and career that would never render me financially solvent, let alone flush enough for frequent globetrotting. And, in fact, 10 years later, that remains true.
Your father, then a fellow non-corporate artist (meaning: intermittently broke, like me), had always longed for Paris. It was not a whim for him and I will have to let him tell you why. I don’t remember. What I recall is that it seemed to pain him to hear about the trip without being included it in it.
So we went together. And it nearly broke us up.
With just four days to spend, I wanted to rush through everything: museums and tours and cafes and monuments, wanted to lay eyes on as much as my mind could store. He was, as he often is, unhurried. He wanted to meander, to spend literal hours looking for small-cut European clothing and shoes that would fit his 6’5” frame. He wanted to talk to people, many of whom pretended not to speak English, even though between the two of us, we knew only ten phrases of French. By the third day, our second-to-last full day, as I waited for him to exit several stores in a mall that looked exactly like one we could find in his city of residence — Los Angeles — or mine, Grand Rapids, MI, I began to wish I had come alone, wished I were wandering the Louvre (where we never did find time to go) or returning to that cafe in the 14th with the incredible pain de chocolat and the bitter but perfectly foamed cappuccino.
I was as I have often, unfairly, been with him: resentful. We had finally escaped the confines of our own country. But I still felt confined by him. This is, perhaps, the moral of the story: you do not arrive at freedom. It is not a travel destination. You do not find it in the companionship of fellow meanderers. Freedom, if you are ever able to feel it, must be worked out within. Freedom, when you believe you have found it, must be taken with you.
My devotion to the country is an uneasy one, and perhaps as dotted with scorn as any ill-fated love affair. Even as long as we’ve been together — America and I — I remain unconvinced that what matters to me matters to it or that my needs, regardless of how clearly or loudly I voice them, will ever be met.
I am never sure how much I owe for citizenship. My citizenship and the supposed range of benefits attendant to it have never felt full.
To wit, I told you that the process of obtaining a passport was an easy one. But when the time came for a Parisian official to stamp it, I felt just as nervous as I do at the entrances of stores in every American mall. I know full well that I haven’t stolen anything but I still worry that the theft alarm will sound as I cross the threshold. That is to say, the first and only time that I traveled abroad, I did not entirely trust my American passport to protect me. I did not trust your father’s to protect him, either. We are Black. We traveled from entirely different origin airports, he from LAX and I from Gerald R. Ford. We are Black. His connection was in Germany, while my flight was direct to Paris. We are Black.
At Charles de Gaulle, it took us hours to find each other. We did not know that we had landed in separate buildings. We did not know we would have had to make special arrangements with our cell phone carriers for our phones to have functioned overseas. We did not speak the language.
And in those intervening hours, I did wonder if he had been detained. I wondered what I would do if he were. Keep going? Wander out into the unfamiliar city without him? Turn back? Try to pin down his whereabouts, wait for his safe release from wherever he was being held, for whatever reason?
It’s been nearly ten years since that trip. It was as uncomplicated an excursion as it possibly could’ve been, for both of us. But it could just as easily have been a nightmare. Our skin makes all the world potentially transgressive terrain. We carry that awareness with us as surely as we do our shoulder bags.
We did not know it then, not with our walking tour stories about Black American expatriates who remained fond enough of Paris to live out their remaining days and be buried there, not with every gift shop’s J’adore Barack and Michelle souvenirs, but France is neither safer nor more welcoming of black and brown women and men than America is. White men proposition and assault Black women walking alone in metro terminals and on sidewalks. And, as in America, police in Paris disproportionately brutalize black men.
I remember, at the end of our four-day excursion, feeling ready to abandon my own country and to live in the clichéd France I’d fashioned in such a short time, one of baguettes and fromage, a river of wine. I was sure that I would miss America no more than it would miss me.
There is an expression for this: no love lost. And there may truly have been none. But I cannot imagine that French discrimination would’ve felt any finer for its foreignness. I do not believe that, over time, that country’s reception of me would have been very different than my own’s.
There are worse things to lose than love.
Your father flew back into L.A. and I returned to Michigan. For days afterward, I felt the phantom taste of clementines and Leffe Blonde, of tart cheeses and cheap red wine and the Newports he’d ducked into a half-dozen corner shops to find (and for which he had to pay an astounding 8 francs). I felt closer to him and infinitely farther. I felt a roof raised and lifted, adjusting my worldview.
I also felt relief. It was nice to be alone. I would never again be a woman who knew nothing of the land that lay beyond the borders of home. Neither would I travel so far from home again, unless I could be sure that I would feel free upon arrival.
These days, it is much harder to reassure myself of that possibility. Our home has chosen a new patriarch — and he is not a liberating type. In fewer than 50 days in office, he has tried to render VISAs as meaningless as freedom papers were in the woods and wilds of 19th-century slave states. He has alienated several of our international allies, stoked hostilities between nations that had barely been concealing their contempt for this one, and shown little respect for the processes that have, for generations, enabled us to cross into new countries and welcomed those desirous of entry into ours to make their way in, undeterred.
Paris may well be my only parable. I do not believe it will be yours. I am willing you a far more wayfaring life. I am instilling in you the belief that, in the end, you are your own nation. Your freedom will not be outwardly governed; your Blackness will not render you the same reticence as mine. When I am gone and I bequeath to you this home, I hope it will no longer be broken. I hope you will not be treated like a squatter, but that you will instead feel the full weight of its keys — and that, for as long as you are able, you will open its doors to whomever will come.