Jake Lamar: The Furthermuckin Expat Q
The first time I ever ran across Bronx-raised author Jake Lamar’s name was in the blurbs section of Touré’s The Portable Promised Land, a quip from Lamar’s 2002 Washington Post review of T.’s story collection. Grad student Vanessa Agard-Jones found me on the old Cafedelasoul.com message board back in January 2006 (remember message boards?), and wanted to hook up an inteview with Lamar and I at the Le Cépage Montmartrois café of his 18th arrondissementhood. Incredibly nice guy, Jake.
That was meeting no.1. Since, I’ve read his 2003 crime novel Rendezvous Eighteenthand seen him lecture a couple times in Paris. From my early days here, I’ve considered him a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future: what my life might be here if I stay for 17 years like he’s done. Most of Jake’s books have been translated into French; he’s an expat French media pundit, often discussing President Obama and racial politics on the télé; and if a modern-day, black-American community in Paris can be said to exist at all, he’s one of the figures at the epicenter. A Harvard grad and former Time writer, 49-year-old Jake Lamar spends most of his time in France teaching and writing thrillers like Ghosts of Saint-Michel and The Last Integrationist.
Welcome to the Furthermuckin Expat Q series, first installment Jake Lamar. Photographer Vincent Germain sat with Jake and I at Le Cépage Montmartrois last week for some atrocious hot chocolate and much better conversation.
You first arrived here in 1993. What’s the major difference between Paris ’93 and Paris 2010?
Like all the big cities, it’s gotten more expensive, more bobo as they say in French: bourgeois bohemian. Things just cost more, places are more posh looking. But at the same time, I think it’s gotten more multicultural. I think people have gotten more a sense of multiculturalism, but that could also be a function of where I live, up here in the 18th. Barbès is up here, the biggest African-Arab neighborhood in Paris. Where I live with my wife near the mairie has been a very mixed area since we’ve been there.
Politically, I think since the riots in 2005, the denial is gone. Until then, you would hear French people say all the time, “One day, the banlieue is gonna explode.” Well, the banlieue did explode. And I think since then, people at least have talked more about the questions of integration, racism. I just wrote a piece for the The Root about the protests about [Jean-Paul] Guerlain. Because the head of [perfume giant] Guerlain said, “I started working like a nigger.” But 10 years ago, nobody would’ve jumped on that. That just would’ve passed. But a newscaster, she brought attention to it, she attacked him in the media on France Inter. Two days later, it became a big story. They protested on the Champs-Elysées, they shut down the store. That would not have happened 10 years ago.
You’ve met with many visitors and would-be black expats over the years. What shocks them the most about Paris compared to the Paris they expected to find?
If you’re talking about black tourists, one thing that people always say to me is, they’re surprised by the number of couples and groups of friends that are mixed. New York is a melting pot, but you keep to your own for the most part. It’s much more common in Paris to see interracial couples, to see groups of friends of different backgrounds, even though, I would say, it’s a paradox. Because you don’t see in France black CEOs, you don’t see major black politicians. You don’t have a lot of black people in the media. It’s starting—[news anchor] Audrey Pulvar. It’s just been in the last five, 10 years. So you have that sort of institutional racism here, but people in their day-to-day lives are much more relaxed with each other. In America, you don’t have the same institutional racism, but there’s more of a “stick to your own kind” mentality. And so often, I’ll just meet strangers in a café, African-Americans, and strike up a conversation. And they’ll say, “People aren’t looking at us in the same way here. People aren’t flinching when you get on the elevator.” I hear that a lot, especially from young black men: “Oh, I’ll pass a white woman on the street and she won’t grab her purse.” It’s not the same paranoia, it’s not the same kind of distrust on a daily basis. I mean, it happens, but it’s not like in New York where you’re conscious of this all the time.
The grandes écoles here are equivalent to the Ivy League colleges of America. You don’t find anywhere near the amount of people of color in the grandes écoles as you do at the Harvards and Columbias of the US. Why?
I think it’s a mentality. Harvard in the 1930s, 1940s, there were very few black students, very few minority students. But what happened in America with the Civil Rights Movement is, people made an effort. Harvard and other Ivy League schools said, “Diversity is in the best interests of our society. We’re not gonna remain isolated with Wasps and some lucky Jewish kids from Boston. We’re gonna go and look for qualified minority students.” That has not been the mentality in France. But again, this is something that I think has changed since 2005. Sciences Po, which is the big political science school in the grandes écoles, they’ve started a French version of affirmative action. The professors of Sciences Po will go out to Bondy and other communities and basically teach classes to the students, give them drills to prepare them to take the test to get into Sciences Po. In a French high school, if you want to go to a grand école, there’s a whole year between the end of high school and the beginning of university, and it’s called prépa. You go to an elite high school, you’ll spend a year in prépa, basically being drilled to take the test to get into the grand école. But you have to go to an elite high school for that. What they’re doing in the banlieue now, at least at Sciences Po, is basically giving the kids in the banlieue a prépa to prepare them to take the test to get into Sciences Po. So that’s the French version of affirmative action. They’re hung up on this idea of, “We’re all equal, we’re all French,” so they have a blockage with affirmative action. But this is a way of going out and identifying the most qualified students in the quartiers disfavorisés, the disfavored neighborhoods. So it’s starting. But again, it’s where America was in 1965.
What accounts for the lack of blacks on France’s silver screens? France has no really well known black actors or actresses, and we’re barely on TV despite being at least 8% of the population. What’s up with this invisible man syndrome?
A difference that can never be underestimated between the USA and Europe is that in Europe, you had colonialism, but you had the colonies far away. You had Europeans going to Africa, selling slaves and colonizing African lands. In America, the colonialism was in the territory. They went and got their colony and brought it to the US. So you had a huge presence of black people in America since the 17th century. After the end of slavery, there was hardcore segregation, there were lynchings, there was refusal of the right to vote. But you still had this huge black presence. So black people did for themselves. So you had black universities, you had black doctors, black lawyers, black politicians, black filmmakers: Oscar Micheaux. You had the whole black entertainment industry. It was totally segregated, but it existed for a long time. So by the time you got to the Civil Rights Movement, people were ready to integrate. You had black journalists, you had black actors, etc., ready to integrate.
Here, racial questions were always linked to immigration. So there was not a large black presence in France. I mean, they were here: there was Aimé Césaire, there was Léopold Senghor going back to the 30s. But there was not a sizeable black presence in France until after the war, until the 50s and 60s, until immigration. That started then. So you did not have these networks of people to help each other and to get each other to integrate. The NAACP started back at the turn of the 20th century; CRAN[Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires] started in 2005. That’s because you didn’t have these networks, you didn’t have this infrastructure. People say, “When’s there gonna be a Barack Obama?” It’s gonna be a long time, because you don’t have the infrastructure. Obama didn’t come outta nowhere. He went to Chicago. There was a black political infrastructure in Chicago going back to at least the beginning of the 20th century. So he could step into that, find people who knew the ropes, find people to help him along, and to have him find his constituency. That’s just starting to happen in France because there just wasn’t the presence here.
So it’s the same way with the media. I think I saw my first black newscaster when I was still in the 1960s in America. But there had been black journalists. And because of the entertainment industry, it wasn’t unusual to see black people on screen. Because there wasn’t that infrastructure in France, it is still unusual here. Ebony, Jet, The Amsterdam News, that stuff is just beginning here. And I think that plays out on every level of the society. Every profession, it’s the same problem.
What made you move to Paris, and do you ever think you’ll move back?
My initial inspiration to move to Paris was James Baldwin. I read Go Tell It on the Mountain at 12 or 13, and I was blown away by that book. I asked my teacher, “Who is James Baldwin?” and he said, “He lives in Paris.” And so I thought, that’s really wild. Someone with a background like this lives in Paris. It was very exotic to me. I was just starting to think maybe I’ll be a writer someday, maybe I’ll go to Paris. So when my first book was published, I won a prize, it was just a bunch of money. I knew one person in Paris, I didn’t speak the language, but I shared an apartment with an old friend, and just loved the city right away. And met great people, like Ted Joans, James Emanuel, Hart LeRoy Bibbs. These old writers, they sort of took me under their wing.
Ted Joans is credited with the first recorded use of the word “furthermucker.”
[Laughs] That’s very Ted; he was a great friend. And so I just met great people, and I felt very comfortable here very early on. Eventually learned the language, met my wife, decided to stay. And once my book started to get translated and published in French, my career sorta moved over here too. I mean, I still publish my books in English in the States first, but my presence as a writer is certainly felt more here than in the US. I have no plans to move back, but it’s not because I feel so alienated from the United States. I just feel really grounded here, and I really like it here. And after 17 years, my friendships, all the structure of my life is really here. I would feel like I was starting from scratch to move back to the States, it’s been so long