Archives For France

Passing, and Not

August 28, 2021 — 11 Comments

Reading at the moment takes place in spurts – paragraphs interrupted by the demands of my granddaughters. Interruptions to which I am happy to cater, such is the treat of seeing them after two and half years. 

I am in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a country reopened in mid July to returning nationals, and those non-citizens who are fully vaccinated, yet still under a State of Emergency (SOE) which has recently been extended until the end of November. Masks are mandated everywhere, even in the privacy of your own car, for everyone over the age of eight. And yet, and yet, the Delta variant has spread its tentacles. At the moment confined but we’ve been lulled into false security in other parts of the world. 

Bella da Costa Greene

Aside from the vagaries of COVID, my willingness to put down my book was severely tested whilst reading The Personal Librarian, brilliantly written by a new partnership of two authors, Maria Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. A book that tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, a young Black woman passing as white in the early 20th century. The woman who became personal librarian to J P Morgan, who travelled to Europe on manuscript buying trips and who controlled his library for over forty years. Belle rubbed shoulders with the rich and very rich whilst living a dual life. I can only imagine the sheer exhaustion invoked by having a public persona so different to that of her private one. It puts the much-touted travails of Megan, Duchess of Sussex, rather in perspective.

The lure of The Personal Librarian nudged me to pick the book up each time moments of grand-parenting respite loomed. My knowledge, I would not presume to say understanding or the emotional toll, of Black passing as white has increased a hundredfold.

Josephine Baker

The book reminded me of a recent headline on BBC.co.uk – “Josephine Baker to be first black woman to enter France’s Panthéon.” The mausoleum in Paris, where she will be inducted in  November, is where those deemed French icons are honoured. Her neighbours will be luminaries like Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marie Curie and Louis Braille. A Black American woman who fled her segregated home country to be recognised for bravery as a spy and resistance worker during World War II in her adopted country, France. That’s quite a story for the baby born to a washerwoman in St Louis, Missouri, who helped support her siblings by cleaning houses from the age of eight before running away at thirteen to work as a waitress. As the French embraced American jazz, they embraced Josephine Baker – as ironically did fellow Americans, Ernest Hemingway and EE Cummings. As fame came to the girl born Freda Josephine McDonald, so did an insistence that every contract signed contain both a nondiscrimination clause and assurances her audiences be integrated.

Perhaps it is this heightened awareness of the inequities, along with slavery, that darken American history that prompted me to read more fully another snippet spotted in the news – “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act”. Who, I wondered are the Harlem Hellfighters? And why are they being recognised?

Again France plays a role.

Harlem Hellfighters

Against the backdrop of Jim Crow’s America during the First World War many white servicemen would not bear arms with Black men and so the 2000 men who made up the 369th Infantry Regiment, 70% of whom came from Harlem, were assigned to the French Army. They  wore the US army uniform but their weapons were French. As a fighting unit they spent longer than any other US military regiment in the field of combat during the War – 191 days, and were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine. At the Second Battle of Marne and Meuse-Argonne, the last major German offensive on the Western Front, the 369th Regiment suffered huge casualties, with 144 killed. 

With the end of the War, and only a month after armistice, and in recognition of the Harlem Hellfighters pivotal role in Europe, 171 members of the regiment were awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, with a citation for the same award being presented to the entire unit. Two members, Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were singled out for courage beyond the call of duty and were awarded the Croix de Guerre with “a special citation for extraordinary valour.”

It took the United States many years to recognize the tenacity and bravery of these two men in particular, finally posthumously awarding them the Purple Heart. In 2002 Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross which in 2015 was upgraded by President Obama to the Medal of Honor.

In August 2021 President Biden signed into law H.R. 3642, the “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act,” giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, a long overdue recognition of an incredible fighting force known variously as: Black Rattlers, due to the rattlesnake insignia; Men in Bronze, the name given them by their French comrades; Bloodthirsty Black Men which was how German soldiers saw them which morphed in the Hellfighters. 

The Harlem Hellfighter motto, “Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go,” is perhaps also a fitting adage for Belle da Costa Greene and Josephine Baker. And in another touch of irony, it was the Harlem Hellfighters who introduced jazz to France.

As I read to my bi-racial grandchildren each evening, savouring the time I have with them, I hope the love of the written word will lead them, when they are older, to follow tidbits of news from which they can learn of the true heroics of people often overlooked, or looked down upon, by their own countries. To stir their curiosity to better understand that courage comes in all colours.

Paris – ooh la la!

November 27, 2018 — 1 Comment

I came to a staggering stop, gasping to catch my breath as another forty or so steps glared down at me. The chill of a Parisian November afternoon felt at the bottom of the hill had given way to an unpleasant clamminess and I loosened my scarf, undid my coat, and tugged at the neckline of my woolen sweater. I even dispensed with my gloves. Gathering what small amount of fortitude I had remaining, I hauled myself ever upwards. The effort was worth it. In the 38 years since my last adventure in the French capital very little had changed and I gazed in wonder at the glistening marble dome of the Sacre Coeur. Inside the same smell of candles mingled with a thousand tourists and devotees. The priest, I’m sure the same one, intoned a passage from an aged Bible. A nun, her arms spread not in supplication but in order to conduct the choir, wore the black and white vestments of her vocation, her hair chastely hidden. The voices were still sweet as they soared in harmony to the arched domes high above. Christ continued to gaze at his followers from the ornate stain-glass windows.

A sense of continuity, of history that is all pervasive in European churches is on one hand comforting, on the other, almost anachronistic. Nothing changes. Possibly a reflection of my somewhat conflicted feelings about organised religion.

We left the murmuring worshippers to see Paris stretched below. The grey louring sky punctuated by famous landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Bourse cloaked in tenting, and curling through the city like a sleek satin ribbon, the Seine. Lights began to wink through the misty evening and an image came to mind of a thousand gas lighters striding the streets before electrification in 1878.

Coming down from on high, tawdry shop fronts selling pink rubber dildos shaped like the aforementioned tower reminded me we were nearing Place Pigalle, and the famous sails of the  Moulin Rouge and ooh la la Can Can dancers in frilly knickers. I clutched my handbag closer and strode along, daring interference. Paris’s red-light district is not the place to show uncertainty. Entreaties to enter one sleazy, curtained establishment after another made me hanker for the windows of the Wallen, the rosse buurt of Amsterdam where girls and women display their wares from the windows – the older the prostitute the higher up the building she goes. Somehow the Dutch equivalent seems less vulgar.

My companion for the weekend was my sister Val, and heading in the vague direction of our gracious host’s flat on rue d’Hauteville we realised we needed sustenance. Perhaps an aperitif and hors d’oeuvre. We were in Paris after all.

The reason for the trip – as if one needs a reason to visit Paris – was research. Though the manuscript for my next historical novel, Transfer, is  firmly in the hands of OC Publishing, Val suggested that rather than research, the visit would be confirmation of various places mentioned. To that end, dinner was to be at Le Bouillon Chartier – founded in 1896, it plays a minor part in the book. Very little seemed to have changed from information gleaned from various websites – certainly not the decor, nor the uniform of its bustling but pleasant waiters. The food was unremarkable but the ambiance unbeatable, and yes, the bill was totted up on white paper tablecloth. No calculators allowed.

The next morning, flaky crumbs of fresh croissants clinging to our lips, we made our way across Pont Neuf where the Seine shimmered in the cold brilliant sunshine. Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité tempted us but we continued along Boulevard Saint-Germain to our destination, Musée de Cluny. We were not disappointed. The “Lady and the Unicorn” woolen and silk tapestries were magnificent – works of art from Flanders in the Middle Ages depicting the five senses. The sixth tapestry with the words “À mon seul désir” has a more obscure meaning, possibly representing love and understanding.Cluny

Museums are thirst inducing so we found respite and refreshments at that most famous of writer’s establishments, Les Deux Magots, where I could imagine Hemingway and Baldwin sipping cognac as they solved the problems of the world, or at least the comma. Perhaps Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre chatted with them. Now it is patronised mainly by tourists, and people like me hoping some of their genius might still linger and alight on my shoulders.

Another ooh la la moment came after recrossing the Seine via the footbridge, Pont des Arts, when the ground rumbled from the throaty revving of about sixty motorbikes waiting at traffic lights. All the riders wore yellow safety vests and we learned they were part of an organized demonstration against rising fuel prices and the Macron administration. The bikes roared past us, then again as we walked north but apart from shouts and roaring engines there was little of concern.

The tear gas and police cordons of the following weekend did not thankfully impinge on our Paris sojourn, and I left the City of Light comforted that whilst German and Allied tanks might have rolled along the elegant boulevards, and discontented citizens might harangue politicians, it is still a city of culture and excitement, imbued with that wonderful air of  je ne sais quoi!

And I won’t be waiting so long time for my next visit to Paris!