Black and White, En Français
One day we’ll all be brown, and issues of blackness and whiteness will be a distant memory of the inexplicably bad old days. But for today, the question of race is on everyone’s lips, licked openly and lingeringly as if to verify that the bitter taste still remains, at least in France.
We’ve just spent a couple of days in Lyon, a city with a nicely mixed demographic. In between a seemingly endless round of medical consultations, I asked everyone I could what they thought of the recent elections. I couldn’t have had a better topic. Every person I asked was eager to spill the beans, about soon-to-be-President Obama, about race, about America past and present, and about a new world order.
I started interviewing people right after we didn’t eat an American hot dog. We passed a stand that advertised “American Hot Dogs” and stopped to have a look, to see what vision of a hot dog had travelled to a street stand in Lyon. The hot dog vendor, upon discovering that we were Americans, told me that she’d gotten up at 4:00 a.m. to find out the election results Since I myself had been up since 1:00 a.m. watching it all unfold, I knew that the results weren’t posted until 5:15 a.m. French time, and I knew she’d had a wait. She didn’t mind, she said, because “when I saw it was Mr. Obama I was so happy that I started crying.” She was a very young woman, of no identifiable ethnic background, and I couldn’t easily imagine what had moved her to tears. “America elected a black man” she said “and that’s going to change the world.”
Five minutes later we found ourselves in a tiny grocery store. The man behind the counter was serving an elderly woman in a headscarf whose cheeks and forehead were tatooed in blue. His background was Tunisien, he said, and he was very, very happy. Because, he said “Obama will stop the war in Iraq, and maybe even the war in Palestine is going to be resolved, and he also promises to do many other good things. Of course, politicians always make a lot of promises, but I believe he will really keep them. Americans are changing, and maybe America is going to change too.”
Later we bought cheese at an outdoor market, from a cheese seller who looked like he’d come to town straight from the mountain pasture in his broad-brimmed black leather hat. He congratulated me, a stand-in for all of America at that moment, with a hearty “Bien fait!” Good job! In his view “for America to elect a black guy sends a signal to the whole world.”
That night, during a rare taxi ride home from dinner with Lucy and Loïc, the taxi driver had a lot to say, starting with the fact that he felt that he didn’t really know much about Obama. “but just when I heard that America had elected a black man, I really felt something inside, I was very moved. The fact that he’s black means that he’ll better understand the problems of the poor, and of the minorities.” Mentioning that he himself was half Algerian, half Tunisian, just as Obama is half black, half white, he added “the fact that he’s mixed, half black and half white, is really perfect. It will help bring the world together.”
It was an uplifting comment with which to end an evening of celebrating Obama’s victory, and almost more importantly, the victory of America’s pulling itself out of the morass of years of sordid racism. We bought a bottle of very good champagne to toast a day none of us had expected to see, and I’ll let the champagne seller have the last word here. When I asked him for just the right bottle to celebrate our new President he said “You’re not the first one to ask for that. Quite a few people have been in here tonight buying champagne for the same reason. Lots of people are very happy tonight.”