Monday, November 26, 2007

Des Creoles

Part I: Last October, on our first full day in Valbonne (outside of Nice) visiting Liam's family, we walked this gorgeous, forested walk from their house into the village of Valbonne. We went straightaway to the boulangerie, looking for our first real croissant of the trip. We walked in, looked right down into the case and saw this pastry to the left, in a line of 6 - la negresse. I stopped full on in my tracks, pulled Liam close to me, and pointed wildly.

The next day, we returned with a camera. There was only one left.

Liam did the sleuthing, I began a tirade of revolution within the bakery - how I would start to work there, change them from the inside out, take whatever made this pastry so delicious and turn it into something a little less upsetting, like, say, a potato? We waxed poetic in our theories about what was behind this, we quizzed his family for historical context, but mostly, I was horrified.

Part II: We returned to this patisserie this past Saturday to say hello to our friend held at the mercy of the institutional racism of the patisserie. No camera (out to get butter and cream for the pumpkin pie I was about to make). We step in, look down to the right, and were shocked - there she was, no, not la negresse, but her thinly veiled cousin - Black Beauty. Written in English, same old colonial pastry with her chocolate breasts on her knees, but now Black Beauty didn't have the blackface of white icing or the hair, she was just enrobed in ebony chocolate, you know, like a black beauty.

Part III: My French teacher informs the student who describes what I'm wearing that my earrings, which he describes as round and I would have called hoops have a particular name in France: des Creoles ... because of, well, their history (as she explained it)

I am not one to say that America's own history with race is anything but terrifying, but there's something about race in France that is new to me after 30 years in the US. Something that quickly goes from "hmmm, creoles you say?" to a vision of the map of colonial Africa memorized in AP European history. Race in France is like Oakland, yes, where every police car I see has a black face in the back of it, but also where French grandmothers have the sculptured African faces on their shelves and rich folks spend $500 not just on purses, but also on recycled bottle-cap tables that in Marais boutiques. Helping African people make a living or simply just gobbling up a colonial consumerism? And then today, multiple emails from friends asking me if I'm affected by the riots here.

It's enough to make me alternately reminisce for slow days spent writing about post-colonial thought and the African diaspora and yearn for days when I'll be back to doing something about it - 8 years working to close the achievement gap for students of color in this country and now I'm here fuming over pastries and earrings.

In college, I was reprimanded in Japanese class for asking why the character for 'weak' is also in the character for 'woman,' but I have always been a rebel-rouser, even when it comes to pastries.

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