Momentary Migrations: Paris

Laurent Chevalier



Paris is a beautiful city. We've all heard the stories and seen the images glide across our televisions: The accordion hums gently in the background as a bespectacled man takes a slow drag on a cigarette, his lover adjusting her scarf, and you can almost smell the croissants coming out of the oven, fresh and light, waiting to help you start your day. I was really in Paris this time, and not watching a representation of it on an LCD screen. Being present in Paris made me discover a beauty that went beyond croissants and love songs.

Mere days after the peace of the city had been shattered, I still felt relatively at ease there. I discovered in Paris an ability for the city to regain its stride after tragedy. I still saw old men reading newspapers over coffee, and children playing soccer in the park. And I was still enamored with Paris, even though Parisians lamented that I hadn’t gotten to experience the city prior to the attacks. Now, they said, the police presence was extremely intense and the city felt crazy. But I came from New York City, and they say “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere".  

That is not to say that New York is some sort of proving ground dispensing unconquerable people, but more that nothing seems crazy after life in New York. Because I arrived in New York after its own tragedy on 9/11, a regular Tuesday morning involves swiping my MetroCard after opening the contents of my bag to an assault-rifle-toting officer. And if that MetroCard swipe takes me into the caverns of Penn Station, it feels as if I have suddenly been placed inside the jurisdiction of every law enforcement group ever. NYPD officers walk by New York County sheriff’s deputies, who in turn tip their wide-brimmed hats to the National Guard soldiers in full fatigues. If the zombie apocalypse goes down, my first stop is Penn Station, because that place is practically an armory.

The constant intensity is what makes New York the exciting place it is. However, if only for a moment, stepping out of that tension felt freeing. Considerations of police presence aside, a deeper source of that sense of freedom is tied into my personal and historical connections to each city. In the U.S., the concept of race is omnipresent, making a constant impression on me as a black man. Part of the reason for my sense of ease in Paris was the result of finally being on the outside of the racialized system I've spent my life navigating. There is something to be said about being in a land that I know my direct ancestors were not slaves in. A land where no one has burned a cross in my yard. A place where the American Civil War was watched from afar. Though I was only there for a few days, I understood to a greater degree the draw to Paris that great writers have felt, writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates today, and James Baldwin before him. The  sense of freedom that descended upon me was unsettling in its unfamiliarity.

Paris isn’t utopia. If you are black in France, then generally you’re of African descent, as is often the case in the States. A difference is that the history of blacks in France is generally much less muddy than it is for blacks in the States. Thank slavery for that. But even in Paris, no matter how much a black person knows about his lineage, to be the darker brother is still to be subject to the negative perceptions of others. The question is, what prejudices will take precedence? As a Black American in Paris, I felt that the questioning looks seemed related to curiosity about my faith first, rather than my Blackness. Bald head. Full beard. Brown skin. “Is he Muslim?” their faces seemed to ask, a hint of fear passing through their eyes. Sadly, this trepidation concerning a brown person's faith is a rapidly growing problem. Sikhs are being barred from flights to New York for wearing turbans, and a GOP presidential candidate is running with the idea of registering Muslim people into a “Muslim database.” The scary thing is that he’s winning.

Pain and ignorance often beget fear. Pain from an attack leads to fear of a faith. Ignorance of humanity leads to fear of a race. American fears shape my U.S. experiences, but it is amazing how I found it beautiful to step out of that environment, even if stepping into Paris also meant stepping into a new fear.

Paris is still a beautiful city. It just turns out, for me, that the reasons for its beauty are rather complicated.

Also, you can see this piece in its previously published form, as well as an interview of me, through the No Home Gallery Journal on Art and Activism via the link below.