Notes from France

On Nations and PR


Editor's note: New Orleans author Brenda Marie Osbey is currently writer-in-residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, where she is working on a bilingual literary project addressing the history of slavery and rebellion in Louisiana under French colonial domination. This dispatch is the first in a series.

CASSIS -- When I arrived in southern France, I was dutiful about sending letters, postcards and email to family and friends at home. Mostly I wrote that I had arrived safely, had begun to find my way about town, was settling in to work on my project. In return I received a flood of queries about the "cosmopolitan atmosphere" here, where and how often I was eating out, my ability to communicate effectively in French and, oddly enough, whether I felt a "greater sense of acceptance, tolerance and freedom" here.

For the record, I am not in Paris but Cassis, a small village on the southern coast. There is no cosmopolitan atmosphere. Unless one counts the groups of tourists -- from the rest of France and all over Europe -- who come backpacking in increasingly large numbers now that "warmer" weather is beginning.

Although the town sits on the Mediterranean and is therefore, geographically, part of the Côte d'Azur, this is not the Riviera of film or of fashion magazines. Cassis is a 12th century fishing village that grew into a tourist destination, at least in part because of the numbers of visual artists and writers who summered here regularly at the beginning of the 20th century. It has a population of fewer than 7,500 that tops out at about 50,000 during an especially good "high season." It is socially, culturally and politically part of the Provençal region. And a large part of what that means is that, in spite of its being perceived as a suburb of Marseilles, it is, in every sense of the word, conservative. Marseilles -- a city about the size if not nearly the mix of New Orleans -- is here often described as over-large, sprawling, dirty, crime-ridden and populated by far too many "blacks" -- much the way too many Metairiens and others in our outlying parishes view New Orleans. And yes, the English word "blacks" is used here in that way. It applies to blacks from everywhere, but most in Marseilles are from Senegal, North Africa and Réunion.

Which just goes to show that good PR works as well for nations as for individuals. Because there is a tendency -- isn't there? -- to associate France with the principles of its revolution. As if Haiti's revolution to achieve independence from France had not been absolutely necessary. As if Martinique and Guadeloupe were not -- in their status as overseas departments of France "with full rights of citizenship" -- in effect, black ghettoes of the Republic. As if the Senegalese tirailleurs who demanded their pay for having served in the French military during World War II had not been slaughtered outright in 1944. As if all of francophone Africa had not happened. As if the Négritude Movement of francophone Caribbean and African nations had not of necessity persisted well past the period when most had wrested their independence from France. As if France were not among the European nations at this very moment, today, refusing to make a formal international apology for the slave trade.

I am old enough to have come of age during the Black Power/Black Arts Movement and young enough not to have experienced segregation. I have no direct experiences that would cause me to leave New Orleans in search of "acceptance, tolerance and freedom." I grew up knowing New Orleans as a black city, from which I have had no desire to escape. I had an idea for a book in French about that very blackness. I needed both time and a certain creative distance to work out the germ. So I applied to a foundation that funds French language projects. Had black Louisiana not come into being under France, I would not have been able to conceive a proposal for a book project in French addressing that very topic -- slavery and rebellion in Louisiana under the French colonial regime.

And the rest? Well, as a non-meat eater residing in what is very high-pork country, I rarely go out for meals here. On a couple of occasions I've had other fellows over for a taste of Creole cuisine. I do, however, frequent the many coffee houses and brasseries and have settled nicely into a couple of portside cafes where I am able to read and write comfortably for hours on end. My French, though a bit formal for these environs, is holding up nicely, thank you. In a few weeks, I'll be on the road for a series of presentations at universities and libraries -- a combination of poetry readings and lectures on Black New Orleans. And then, in a little bit, I'll be back home.

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