A Taste of France in Fort Greene
Langston Hughes wrote of the darker brother unwelcome at the table as a metaphor for the lack of inclusion of people of African descent in American society. Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Duboise, Richard Wright and James Baldwin among many other African Americans enjoyed an acceptance in France theyd never experienced in the United States. I followed them and their legacy as a student of Pratt Institute in the late 1970s when I traveled to the south of France. As my first extended trip outside of the United States it provided lasting memories of excellent mountain vistas and a beautiful seacoasts and a love of French culture in its many expressions. In the years to come I continued to study French and to visit France periodically.
During the course of a visit to Paris in the 1980s a friend, Yvonne and I experienced the other France, the one comedians and tourists describe a place where irrational rude and prejudicial behavior is expressed towards English speakers especially Americans.
The visit started out pleasantly. For our first nights dinner we chose a bistro near the apartment in the Marais, at the time, a newly gentrified neighborhood that surrounds the Bastille monument. The waiter who served us spoke of his recent trip to the US and his preference for New York over California. He asked us to come again. We returned on our last night, anticipating another pleasant evening. We entered, seated ourselves, and waited. Though the small restaurant was nearly full, the waiter was not busy and made a point of ignoring us. We were more than aware that an incident was unfolding when another pair of diners entered and the waiter rushed past our table to hand them menus. As young women from New York neither of us had experienced Jim Crow, only its more subtle northern variation. We had no trouble recognizing what was going and determined that it was best to leave, there was no recourse, no NAACP or the like and we were leaving the next day anyway. We contented ourselves with cheese and bread in the apartment where we were staying.
Upon our return to the states I told the story to a friend, Annette, who is American though raised in France because her black mother and white father thought their children would be better treated in France than the US in the 1960s. She suggested that it was because they thought we were French. True wed bought new clothes during our stay and were wearing them that night. My traveling companion is Haitian American and as a light skinned African American I am often mistaken for other ethnicities. Annette said we should have spoken English as to make them aware of our identity (an ironic twist on the fate of other Americans in France). In other words we couldve received special treated not afforded black citizens of the land of Libertė, Fraternitė, Egalitė. For me this was not an option. The historic friendship and admiration of the French people for the likes of Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, World War 1 soldiers and whomever else became a myth by then. A few years would pass before I returned to France.
The confluence of issues concerning race and identity are often challenging but perhaps not as disturbing as the following incident. On the 12th of September 2001, the weather was sadly and ironically beautiful as the day before had been. The streets were full as stunned Brooklyn residents wandered around trying to be as considerate and kind to each other as possible to make up of the visceral pain we were experiencing. Several friends began to converge on Lafayette Ave. and decided to sit down and have a drink. We chose A Table, which in French means to being seated at the table to eat. It is a restaurant with rustic charm and good southern French food, reminiscent of my first trip to France. Id eaten there recently with a friend from Malaysia. He and I liked the food and had planned to return. My friend Solange, ironically Yvonnes cousin. was reluctant to sit there because she had had an unpleasant experience there some weeks with the restaurants owner when ordering a drink from the bar, which she considered to be racially motivated. Another Haitian friend Colette was the third in our small group. We chose a table outside and called to the waiter, a young Frenchman. When we asked for the drink menu he remained where hed been standing three tables away and shouted the selections to us. The service he provided was uniformly rude, though we spoke to him in French. There was a marked difference between the way he spoke to us and a table of three blondes with whom he had previously flirted and joked. We had our drink and left vowing never to return. The kindness and consideration the rest of the city seemed to recognize was vital to our collective recovery was sadly lacking at A Table.
October 2002, a year and a month later Michael, another friend was visited by his mother from Westchester. They planned to see a movie at BAM and have lunch in the neighborhood. You guessed it. At A Table, Michael was unaware of the stories that had begun to accumulate among our friends and unknowingly chose to dine at this restaurant.
As Michael tells it, his nearly octogenarian mother was reprimanded by one of the owners for knocking on the restroom door to verify if it was occupied, when clearly a closed door signals occupancy she was told by the owner a red haired woman in her 50s. Regardless if this is an unwritten rule, older people are known to have less keen hearing and sight. Besides who could be less than pleasant to a petite gray haired lady nearing eighty!!!
The ultimate irony for me in all of this is my nearly thirty years in and around Fort Greene: in the 70s as my college neighborhood, considered to be too much of a ghetto for the comfort of my white classmates. Black and Latino students were frequently called upon to walk with a white classmate to the subway to insure their safety. The films of Spike Lee made the rest of the world aware of Fort Greene in the 1980s as the hip center of black film and visual arts culture. The sweat equity of black artists and entrepreneurs created the neighborhood that attracted real estate interests in the 90s, since then the struggle continues for equality amidst this rabid gentrification. Have we arrived in 2002 where people of color are not welcomed á table in Fort Greene?