French Like Me (Part 4)
Days after Sunday School night at Le Trabendo, I sat with Christine watching five Senegalese drummers play in front of a kiosk in the square Léon, pounding out rhythms on djembe drums for a large crowd. A tall dred with SENEGALprinted across his T-shirt rapped on the microphone, urging us all to shake our bodies down to the ground. Tourists with digicams recorded the dancers and drummers in front of a huge handwritten sign hung on the wall reading Nous Sommes Tous Des Africains (We Are All Africans). Waiting for Christine’s girlfriend to meet us, we watched the show sipping plastic cups of iced ginger juice and nibbling powdery beignets. An African mother eating nearby wore fabric tied around her midsection as a baby sling, an adorable baby boy wrapped comfortably on her back, asleep.
“We should have a baby,” I mentioned casually. It wasn’t my first time.
“You’re really crazy,” Christine answered, flashing a smile.
Leaving New York, I told some close friends and family that I might be getting someone pregnant soon. When Christine met me at Charles de Gaulle airport eight days ago, I mentioned a baby right away. She just laughed. Testing the waters with my playful proposition was a way to say that my light was on, something I knew she would understand as a lover of Sex and the City. In one episode (men claim we’d rather be shot than watch the show, but I always found the stories funny) the redhead compared men to taxicabs roaming Manhattan with our lights either on or off. “On” signaled that we were ready for marriage; “off” meant we were still only looking for sex and the single life. At thirty-three I was giving serious thought to settling down, and Christine was the rare ex whom I felt I could make a future with.
Christine answered her girlfriend Magbé’s texto about running late. We left the drummers behind to meet her at the open bazaar of the marché Dejean. The rue Léon runs through the eighteenth arrondissement, an area heavily populated by African residents, and it was teeming with locals. Some hustled black-market goods on the street corners: Dax hair pomade, Tenovate bleaching cream for skin lightening. Many men and women sported patterned headscarves and boubous—colorful wide-sleeved robes decorated with embroidery—while others wore smart suits despite the springtime heat.
We turned onto the rue Myrha, where shops sold discounted international phone cards, DVDs and CDs of popular African singers like Amy Koïta and Meiway, next door to seamstresses with boubous in their windows and on sewing machines, next door to food markets stinking sharply of smoked fish with palm oil and Arôme de Maggi seasoning on their shelves. I noticed a lot of Asians busy ringing up sales as I looked into the windows of the marchés, strange for such a heavily African section of Paris.
Rounding the corner, we saw a few police officers guarding the park entrance on the rue Cavé; even more stood watch on the rue Saint Luc. A century-old hotel in the thirteenth arrondissement housing immigrants from Senegal, Ghana, Mali and Tunisia caught fire recently, killing seventeen people. Thirteen were children. This heavy police presence was meant to provide a sense of security for the area, but as usual in cases like this, the officers seemed more threatening than protecting. Christine noticed Magbé approach while I watched the police demand ID from a band of possible sans papiers French-African teenagers across the street. They greeted each other with double bises.
Magbé—casually dressed, with a neat close-cropped perm—kissed me twice on each cheek.
“Bonjour, Miles! I hear a lot about you,” she said in English. Half of Christine’s friends spoke only French, and so far my vocabulary in their language consisted of ten words. Getting to know each other, Magbé started telling me about her German partner and their four-year-old daughter, and soon we started a pleasantly long discussion in Franglais about her native Africa. A resident of Paris for the past twenty-one years, Magbé moved from Dakar, Senegal, with her mother at the age of fourteen. Her family originated from Guinea, but her French dad was stationed in Senegal when she was born, serving in the marines.
“He died when I was six,” she said. Christine seemed surprised; maybe she’d never heard Magbé talk about her parents before. “My mother decided after that to come here so that she could give us the best education and social security.”
“How is it better or worse for Africans here than living in Senegal?” I asked.
“It really depends,” Magbé said. “Probably for the work and the comfort you can have here. I don’t come from a rich family in Africa. For a middle-class situation, I prefer to live here. If you can be in your own country, of course you feel stronger. You have the family around, you’re not alone. You know the rules, you know the language, and you are not seen immediately as someone different. I don’t see the color stuff in France every day. It’s only in some situations that you remember you’re black. I really feel full-percent French. As long as you are in the middle class, the whites accept you. If they have the feeling that you are getting more than what they can have, then you’ll have a question of xénophobie. So I don’t know if it’s racism or jealousy.”
Christine’s comment from days ago still stuck in my mind, about the lack of a black community in France. I wondered if Magbé agreed. “The people who live on the second floor of my building, they own a Chinese restaurant nearby,” she began, unfolding a story by way of her answer. “And I notice they only buy their things in Chinese stores. They are willing to pay a little bit more to a Chinese instead of paying less to the foreign people. But black people, they would say, ‘It’s cheaper from the Chinese? I’ll go to the Chinese, I don’t care.’ So that kind of solidarity does not exist in the black community here.”
I mentioned Carol’s Daughter and Nubian Heritage from back in Brooklyn, telling Magbé I supported these African-American businesses, even banking with the black-owned Carver Federal Savings Bank. She voiced her regret that French blacks hadn’t yet established such companies. The only French-African businesses in Paris were restaurants like Le Petit Dakar and the stores we passed in Château Rouge selling boubous and African material, she said. Walking back to the drumming at square Léon, Christine reminded me about the Asian cashiers I noticed in the African shops.
“In Château Rouge, businesses are in the hands of the Chinese, all the food and everything,” Magbé told us. “But of course, the customers are African. Business is also largely in the hands of Jews from North Africa. The only business held by black Africans is African clothes.” Magbé explained how she recently sought a loan to start her own cleaning company and was ultimately turned down. “I went to one of these special banks that are supposed to lend you money with a very high interest compared to normal banks. The difference is, you don’t need a guarantor. If the business seems okay, they take the risk. For one-and-a-half months I worked like hell to get credit through them. They just called while I was on holiday last week to tell me it’s not going to work. I don’t know why. I’m a French citizen, I studied at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, I have experience and everything. And it’s still difficult.”
Magbé bought a plate of salt fish accra and spicy creole rice from a vendor at a makeshift table near the kiosk, and we all sat down together. The drummers took a break off to the side, smoking and laughing with each other. Magbé told us about her daughter’s second year at école between bites, but I could tell she still felt challenged by my questions about a shared esprit de corps between blacks in France. When she finished her food, she jumped back into the real conversation.
“Actually, a kind of unity does exist in some African cultures, like in Mali and Senegal. It’s called a tantin,” she explained. “Every month a group of people pay a certain amount into a pot of money and won’t spend it.” I had heard about this concept of collectively pooling cash once from a Jamaican ex-girlfriend; she called it a sousous. “That’s how they start the small businesses that they do, and most of the time they also do it to help people that want to leave the country. If people want to leave Senegal, they’ll join one of these tantin and get the money. They can pay the ticket to come to Europe that way and get the money back by working here.”
When Magbé asked me in turn about the state of the black community back in America, I realized how reductive my questions must have sounded. I couldn’t expect her to speak for the entire African population in France any more than I could be put on the spot as a spokesperson for all black Americans. As the drumming resumed I thought, They’re no more of a monolithic people than we are.