Laplante-Collins founded Paris Soirées in 1994 as African-American Literary Soirées, settling into its current moniker in 1999. Held in her living room every Sunday, the weekly get-togethers feature a wide range of guest speakers. Writers, photographers, singers, painters and businessmen give spirited talks over the hostess’ own Southern-style soul food. Like the famed French salon gatherings of writers Gertrude Stein and Madame de Sévigné, Laplante-Collins carries on the storied tradition of basking in the arts by rarified Parisian sunlight.
Raising two preschool-age boys in Paris has me constantly gauging France’s racial politics with an eye toward America. Current neo-conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy once stoked controversy with a promise to clean the country of racaille (scum) during weeks-long rioting in 2005. (Nationwide civil unrest spread over the accidental electrocution of two Muslim teenagers who fled police interrogation in the suburban Clichy-sous-Bois projects.) Last year, Sarkozy also targeted the Islamic burqa-Muslim women’s religious traditional covering-as unwelcome in France, stopping short (as yet) of passing prohibitive legislation against it.
While I visited Harlem for a family Thanksgiving in 2006, an all-too-familiar news report broke: Local police had murdered an unarmed black man, 23-year-old Sean Bell, in Queens on the night before his wedding day. Recounting the historical police victimization of other African Americans to my French wife, her horror served as a reminder that this type of thing went largely unheard of in her country. We are both appalled by Sarkozy’s Muslim scapegoating, but thankful that police killings of blacks in cold blood on a semi-regular basis isn’t part of the French social fabric. And the Gallic president has yet to extend his anti-immigration stance to American expatriates, no matter what our color.
I have learned that the comfortability of being black in France clearly depends on one’s origins. Renewing my annual residence permit every summer (ultimately being granted a 10-year card in 2009), I always breezed through the préfecture office’s heavily bureaucratic process while watching African immigrants be hassled over minute details. Following in the footsteps of Baldwin and Wright as a black American expat in the 21st century is one thing, but navigating French life with Algerian or Cameroonian roots is quite another.
Miles Marshall Lewis is an American expatriate author, living in Paris since 2004. He blogs at Furthermucker.