In the Fugitive Diaries, Jamika Ajalon, brings devisive opinion (for some) and discusses her experiences over the last two decades, as a queer WOC expat in Europe. From the year of President Obama’s election, to the present, when a politically stoked xenophobia consistently feeds Western nationalist fervor. In it, she navigates the complex dynamics of the Western gaze across ‘color lines’ and its perversion among the leftist, anti-facist, and anti-racist.
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No. 863 was the random seat I nabbed on the TGV en route to a gig somewhere, a 2-hour train ride from Paris. Assigned seat numbers were invalid due the chaotic fallout of the grève * national. I noted the digits in my head, as always when travelling, playing a kind of nerdy numbers game. Also noted, I was facing backwards, not in the direction the train was going. The frames whooshing past my window I shared with the passengers facing the other direction, but perspective changes everything, even the sensations of moving through time and space.
On this journey I had the uneasiness of being pulled towards something almost against my will. That I wasn’t moving forward but being dragged back into something… a past that threatened to keep me prisoner.
The big nostalgie machine
The first time I stepped foot on French soil was in 1998. I was among the hyped-up Parisians celebrating their victory. Le Blue had won the World Cup. I remember being impressed with the absence of flags. The nationalist fever I’d known in America and more recently in the UK seemed practically non-existent. It never crossed my mind, then, that ten years on I would be witnessing a similar enthusiasm on the streets of a small town in Pay de Loire France. It wasn’t the World Cup. Barak Obama had just been elected president of the United States of America. Angers celebrated. I’d just planted my feet in what would become my ‘home town’ Français. It was amazing that the excitement around Amerika’s first POC president would stretch all the way across those rough Atlantic waters to this small province.
Indeed, celebrations of his election were happening all over the world. A big, huge exhalation of relief. The Bush regime was finally out and the new ‘yes we can’ Obama era was in. It was a slap in the faces of corpses that still felt superiority over all that was not Anglo. No one suspected that we could ever go back to a time when ‘make Amerika white again’ would become a feasible rallying cry.
Thousands of miles away from my birth home, baguette, bonjour, si vous plait et merci were the only French words I had, but I was invited, none-the-less, to do a telephone interview for a French radio station.
Q: So how do you feel about Obama being elected president? Do you think this will make a difference? (The real question: so how does the black lead-singer of the predominately white French dub band feel about finally having a black president elected? Are you naive enough to think that this will really make a difference?)
A: Ummmm, (pushing up my Daria glasses, blasé expression barely shifting). Of course, I am happy and moved by this historical moment, but Obama is still a politician, and I’m in no way expecting the Messiah.
But it did mean something.
Simply the image of a black first family ‘owning’ the White House spoke volumes. And sure, they were intelligent, charismatic and a pride to the black excellence committees the states over. The Obamas passed laws, set precedences that gave us hope; though deep down we all knew real change wasn’t happening fast enough. The kind of change that would NEVER allow number 45 and posse step foot in Washington, let alone roll back decades of civil rights advancements. If we look back on those ‘glory’ years, which so many of us grieve over, there was a tide approaching- one that neither Obama nor any other world leader was poised to stop.
At the time of his election, I had a sense of conflicted pride which can be best expressed in an artistic intervention I toyed with: fly-posting photos of Michelle Obama with natural hair-styles, including a demi-dread mohawk all over the city. When I had a president that looked like that, I might even be moved to take off my Daria glasses.
It was all about my look and played to a public that found me exotic, disregarding the power and content of my message.
Riding my bike one night after a couple of pints at a Pub in Angers France, beery smile in tow, I cruised down a one-way street the wrong way, directly toward my doorstep. Feeling nice, but not wasted, I noticed a cop tailing me. I mischievously continued for a bit, though it was clear that they wanted me to pull over. A couple of meters later, I got off my bike. I understood that in this town they were diligent, even with bikers, in enforcing traffic violations.
I explained in my broken French that “je suis juste en route a chez moi” pointing in the direction of my flat, acknowledging that I had made an infraction. They asked me for my “papiers”. I was slightly amused and slightly incredulous. Had I slipped back into the 1950’s? In fact, it was already a decade into the 21st century. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, was doing a bad Napoleon and reigniting La Pen’s zero immigration sentiment along with the resurrection of the equally antiquated “national quota”.
Though all potential illegals and/or those classified under “situation irregular” felt the heat. The wrath of this burgeoning xenophobia fell squarely on the ROMS (Roumanie immigrants). Ironically, they are European citizens free to move through Europe under the Schengen Law. Historically the ROMS were seen as a nuisance. Their caravan cites, a blemish on the French landscape, were evacuated, their homes crushed and trucked away. Many families were left without a place to sleep and no plan B in place.
All of this happened despite local and national protests. Those who took the idea of solidarity and fraternity to heart argued that ROMS were indeed doing their best to become French citizens, learning the language and making every effort to be a self-sufficient, productive members of France. They came from extreme poverty and were willing to take any work to earn their keep. For many this was not enough. The foundations on which La Republique stood required that citizens unequivocally assimilate. I learned later, even if one has lived here their entire lives, to acquire nationality, you are encouraged to even change your name if it is not French enough. The French are very proud of their culture, as just about any other citizen of any country might be. Proud of what they see as an openness to other cultures. However, there is a general expectation that you acquiesce to its cultural codes often with the assumption that if you did not, that you lacked the moral character that was valued in France.
This also was apparent in the rising Islamophobia where French citizens felt justified in insulting women in full hijabs. Even the more liberal feminist and/or those with socialist leanings, argued that this kind of “oppression to women” could not be tolerated in France. They were totally unaware how patronizing and paternalistic it was. One alarming example is the bathing suit law still enforced by many parts of the country where its illegal not to show skin.
I was not aware of the complexity of French social and cultural politics at this time, nor did I realise that I was taking chances traveling without ID in that quaint provincial town.
“Papiers? “I asked the cop, “ma passport?” “Oui Oui votre passport”. The French flique (cop) asked annoyed adding a few other sentences I couldn’t catch. I responded “SVP lantement parce que ma premier langue c’est pas Français”. His reaction was to say something like yeah sure, you understand French perfectly, so give me your papers please. I told him that I was a student here, (saying that I worked with a dub band would have made matters worse), that I was living just up the road, and where I’d left my passport. I didn’t have my carte de sejour yet and was considered “irregular” in the meantime. He brought out his clip board and asked me for my name. To impress upon him the fact that I was not lying, I intentionally pronounced all the letters of my name in a broad American accent. “Jaaaay Aaay Eeeeemmm Aiiiiii Kaay …” By the time I got to my last name he ripped out the sheet of paper balled it up and sent me on my way.
I realised that he assumed I was coming from one of the countries on the Continent (Africa) and that he would be less of an asshole with me if he suspected that I was a touriste Americaine. In America I would not have gotten away with that, would have paid for any undercurrent of insolence, more than likely, with violence. However, on some deep level this did not really make me feel better.
I’m a paper cut in this post card town/ left hand glove in the lost and found…. forget what you heard forget what they said, I’m just a hologram in your head
As a traveller, it was part of my personal code to respect the ways of the country that allows me across their borders. I often found, regardless of my intentions, my actions through the prism of the perceived “uncouth arrogant American” meant I couldn’t win. Couple that with my skin complexion and gender ambiguity, and there you have a potent cocktail of potential and or willful misconception. I unconsciously began to ‘shrink’ so I would not appear too flamboyant. However, I often stood out in those small towns and cities I toured through, no matter how ‘small’ I made myself. It was a strange contradiction- to stand out and simultaneously be fundamentally invisible.
There were POC in Angers, and in many other smaller towns in France, but an androgynous queer WOC with unprocessed hair was much rarer. Some of the melaninated people in the town also regarded me less than positively. I observed all too familiar cutting glances. Assimilation was Rule 101 for survival. I sometimes felt as if part of myself was diminishing into a version I’d thought I’d left behind as a newly politicized twenty something, exacerbating deep rooted self-doubt and socially conditioned low self-esteem. I did not change how I dressed, wore my hair, nor did I drop my political views. The changes I speak of were subtle. Something deep, however staunchly resisted such changes. Eventually I found people who, (at least on the surface), understood the difficulty of being ‘different’ in France and genuinely celebrated and welcomed that.
However, there were conditions. Unspoken and insinuated. The French are masters of such tactics. They love to play with the ‘grey’ area. Ironically many are quite unaware of their often unconscious colonial gaze. Though this is slowly changing, it is almost impossible to talk about racism without being reminded that I am not in America and France is different.
In their defense, they would grace me with their knowledge of African and Black American culture- their artefacts from Bamako, their ‘metisse’ niece, and so on and so on, as proof of their expansive awareness. It didn’t matter that I’d been living in and touring all over France for some years now. Or that I also spoke with many POC here who would corroborate my observations, even if they too made sure that I understood that the performance of racism here was not the same as in Amerika. And it’s true, most everyday French folks, well in the blue regions I should say, frown upon overt racism and will call it out and ‘turn their backs’ on said perpetrators. However, there is a strong resistance to understanding the less overt ways racism expresses itself, and I was often called paranoid or just brushed off as ‘American’. Even when boundaries to my person were disrespected; the hair touching, the insistence on just un autre petit bisous or uninvited embrace. My protest would be seen as prudish or in many instances, just disregarded.
I was horrified to realise that I had almost began to believe that the hologram image some had of me was indeed my true reflection.
At one point I was sent a write up, along with other band members, that would be used to promote the group. In it the male singer was praised for his strong afro-futurist lyrics (though he was ‘metisse’- Afro-futurisim was trendy concept bandied about without any real understanding of its roots). This was a real slap in the face. I had been writing political and thoughtful futuristic lyrics over the last several albums and yet was once again I was described as the songstress whose voice was as sensual and or pantheresque, (etc) as always. It was all about my look and played to a public that found me exotic, disregarding the power and content of my message. I wrote back to the manager and the group to protest saying that I found the descriptions very sexist. I didn’t use the ‘r’ word knowing that calling racism would cause anything else I said to go unheard. What I got back was simply “notè” and nothing else was discussed or changed. It was as if my words were air, I was just being a difficult ego-centric ‘princess’.
By then, my tolerance for all of this had already been waning for some time. I knew that something had to change. I knew that moving to Paris would be the first step. It was hard enough being on the road traveling as the lone WOC with 7 other dudes, most of whom were white. I felt suffocated mentally, spiritually and creatively and I needed to move to a place where I could be more anonymous, though Angers had and will always have a place in my heart. I was horrified to realise that I had almost began to believe that the hologram image some had of me was indeed my true reflection. In any case I was exhausted from feeling I had to constantly prove otherwise.
I had “allies”, but it quickly became clear to me they saw me as a simulacrum of their own projections. It was easy to understand that I was often being exoticised. Under the white gaze, this is our experience (WOC) no matter where you are in the Western world. However, the biggest downer was that there were POC peers who seemed to see me through a perversion of the same lens.
Once a very talented and respected artist, whom I’d known in London, and his band passed through the Chabada, Angers to perform a concert. A fan, I came along to support him. Backstage I gave him a copy of one of the latest albums I recorded with the band based there. He held it in his hand as if it was something of no consequence, feigning a look at the album before putting it aside. I had the feeling that he thought that my popularity had absolutely nothing to do with any talent I may or may not have. It was clear he had no intention of really finding out. Of course, that stung but not as much as the sticker of their band I found plastered on my back after I’d left the concert. For them I was also just the exoticised “billboard” on which to advertise their wares.
Saltine tears and the troisieme degree
It was a relief to move to Paris – to be in the dirty stinking streets of a cosmopolitan city where every kind a strange can exist in virtual anonymity whilst simultaneously finding community. I soon found myself engaged with a motley crew of artists /activist from all over the world with mental space to build on my own projects. Paris is not France in a similar way that New York is not America. Wherever there are lots of people in a concentrated space, something happens. Cities like these become a culture in and of themselves simultaneously of the country and autrement.
Not long after I moved to the city of romance, though, the air began to change.
On the heels of some the worst terrorism France had seen-Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacre the spectacle of solidarity between our politicians, in France and abroad, under a banner of uniting against terrorism, became a platform for regaling national pride. This would seep into and infect those who considered themselves leftist, as Islamophobia and xenophobia in general seemed to be given more righteous air to breathe. But this intolerance is only a symptom of an infrastructure which increasingly values money over humanity. And, I would also argue, from a deep-seated resistance to changing the fundamental idea of what it means to be French.
The recent reaction from many in France to Trevor Noah’s joke that France’s World Cup victory was a victory for Africa speaks volumes. I found it ironic that the same sort of folk who criticised Noah, would insist that I simply did not understand the “troisième dégrée” of French humor when I considered a certain joke or caricature racist or sexist. Yes, the team is French and just because they come from various African countries doesn’t change that. The fact that there was such a vehement and explosive response to what was initially part of a comedy sketch is very telling to a certain kind of hypocrisy when it comes to who is at the center and who is (boohoo) left out.
Another example occurred earlier this year. There was an Afro-feminist conference in Paris, which included an event that was for WOC only. The white saltine teary temper tantrum hit like a tidal wave in France-we don’t discriminate. It was argued that it was an infringement on civil rights that just because you were white you where– uh– left out. Sadly, it’s hardly a surprise that this kind of reaction would come from intellectuals, who have no understanding of privilege, let alone what it means to be French and Black in a country which still hasn’t really acknowledged its colonial infrastructure.
For many, it seems there is an inability and sometimes down right refusal to see France for the country that it is. As if it is moving forward with its eyes firmly fixed on what’s passé all to cling to its national identity, that is quite frankly, more chimera than reality.
However, there is a movement among Francophones, which against all odds is challenging outdated thinking about what it means to be French. And in French tradition, taking it to the streets, resistance to authority regardless of its guise is a core value. I am speaking about a France mélange, that because of difference, is rich and has the potential to move forward in inspiring revolutionary ways.
The day after the concert on the train back into Paris I felt as if something shifted. In this city I had made home, I’d had space to re-find my center and follow an inner voice and vision that had been repressed. Gigging with the Angevines again had resurfaced a parcel of emotions that I had worked hard to untangle within myself. What I realise now is that the person I thought I was regressing into when I was living in that small town was a self that had to re-surface to completely heal and let go. Ironically, as I headed towards the problematic city I had made my own, I found myself in the same random seat no 863. This time facing the way I was going.
*greve = strike
Featured image unknown/Second image unknown/Third image unknown/Fourth image courtesy of The National/Fifth image courtesy of News Front/ Sixth image The National