I was sitting on the plane on the way to Paris, and the attendants were handing out customs forms and asking for people’s points of origin. One attendant, a white woman, looked at me contemptuously and said, “You could never be French.”
My apprenticeship as a poet began with 15 years of factory work, and my manumission came in the form of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry and admission to Brown University’s graduate writing program. I left the factory determined to see the world, an experience that the confines of blue-collar life had denied me. Despite a deep fascination with Chinese culture, I chose to go to Europe, following the trail of my languages. I had studied Chinese on weekends in Baltimore for six months, but the greater vats of language reserves were filled with the French I had begun in junior high school. While plying my trade as a poet in the factory, I had read Aimé Césaire and some of the polemic of the Ibadan School against Wole Soyinka, as well as novels by V.S. Naipaul. Having grown up in a very black Baltimore, I thought I would save my pilgrimage to Africa for later. I would second-guess that decision when I called my father from a phone booth in Nice and he said, “You almost home, boy, go on cross that sea.”
In Paris, I set myself up on the Left Bank in the Hôtel d’Alsace Lorraine at 14 rue des Canettes, near Saint-Sulpice, a square adjoining a small church that stood at the end of the block toward the Jardin du Luxembourg. A family of three brothers from Cameroon worked the desk at the hotel, and Jacques, the elder of the group, made a space for me when there was only one room remaining. I had walked into the hotel in frustration, huffing and sweating from carrying too many bags, the mark of an inexperienced traveler. I had also screwed up my hotel reservation: the French for “no vacancies”—nous sommes complets—was a sentence I began to learn all too well that day. When I walked up the stairs to the desk, Jacques took pity on me. He ended up giving me a room that a white woman had reserved. He instructed me to wait upstairs until he called me back because he needed time to tell this woman nous sommes complets.
As he registered me, Jacques explained that he had done it out of a sense of black unity. I stood there feeling grateful for the brotherhood and a little guilty that the white woman had had her room taken away.
“We are brothers,” he said.
It was late May 1985, the time of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, which was all the talk in Paris. It was unimaginable to some folks. “How could they do this to black people?” Jacques asked. But Africans and Arabs had their own troubles in France.
The influx of people from former colonies had become a problem for the French. Slurs sprayed on walls told immigrants to go back home. I was reminded of “Hiccups” (known as “Hoquet” in the original), a poem by the negritude poet Léon-Gontran Damas. I owned a recording of him reading the poem in French and Sterling Brown reading the English translation. The mother in the poem berates her son for not being French, for not speaking the French of French people instead of the patois he plays around with while among lower-class black children. The poem speaks to table manners as a mark of colonialist hegemony, and I was always conscious of how I ate in public. In France, I would be reminded of my challenges.
I understood that the French preferred to keep their hands on the table as opposed to the British with their hands in their laps, appreciating that hidden hands could be up to mischief. However, that was not enough preparation for my first trip to Europe with only high school French. In a restaurant, I mistakenly ordered a seafood entrée intended for at least four people. The only thing that could assuage my humiliation was that I could pay with cash and know that, once I returned to the United States, I would be heading to an Ivy League university, one much farther north than the University of Pennsylvania, one much more a genuine Ivy, and one to which I had been granted admission with a full university fellowship. Still, the waiter stood there looking smug, impervious to my telepathic rejoinder. Table manners are, of course, an aspect of class, but that is not all there is to being French, not then and not now. One has to be white.
I visited Petit Jacques, one of the younger brothers from Cameroon, at his place in the Place de la République and saw firsthand how urban planning in Paris differs radically from urban planning in the United States. Forces are in motion in American cities in the early 21st century to create the configuration found in Paris—the poor moved to the outskirts, especially the black poor. Walking to Petit Jacques’s place, I saw the crowded blackness of urban life that is another current in globalism. There were no bookstores or restaurants, just the business of living in close quarters. Some of the apartments were little more than closets.
Damas’s poem “Hiccups” was one I knew by heart even then. In the poem, the mother admonishes her son to stay away from “les negres.” It has been translated as “the blacks,” but it is also very much “the niggers.” In Paris, I was always happy to see black folk, no matter their native tongue. Back at the hotel, I sometimes lingered in the morning until the Cameroon family and the young black woman who worked along with them showed up for work. The woman invited me to a nightclub where she sang, but I was too shy. Shyness was something I could better handle in museums.
My father had grown up as a sharecropper, and he told me stories of barriers between black and white in his childhood. His mother watched him and his siblings when they played in the yard so she could keep an eye out for white men in cars who looked for able-bodied young boys to ship out into dead-end lives as 20th-century slaves on work farms and in mines. If a car slowed down near the house, my grandmother told the children to pick up tools and pretend to be working until the whites were out of sight. So when my father became a man and found a job in Baltimore where he could raise a family of children no white man could steal, he was happy. He thought I had made the biggest mistake in my life by leaving my job at Procter & Gamble, which was a bit more prestigious than Bethlehem Steel Corporation, where he toiled for 36 years. It was all he had ever known. He therefore thought I had managed to make my own cross, climb up on the thing, and nail myself accordingly, despite the fun I thought I was having.
I knew no one in Paris; it was an experience bigger than any other. I was free of the time clock and the familiarity of the city where I had been born. I walked to the Louvre and looked at art until my eyes could take no more, and then I walked back to the hotel, glancing at the Île de la Cité along the way or easing along the plaza in front of the Bastille. At other times, I searched for the familiar and ended up in fast-food restaurants, or I abandoned French newspapers for something in English. I stopped caring about how French I sounded when I was using the language. I wondered if the years of living inside the cacophony of sound that is the world of machines and factories had dramatically affected my sense of hearing and my ability to replicate sounds perfectly.
The Jardin du Luxembourg was a short walk from my hotel. I sat there one day watching the police; they were guarding the beauty of the place, and something in this simple act formed the central epiphany for me. I realized travel as the interface with self, and in that space, I was able to turn my lyric eye onto myself in a way that I had previously dismissed as bourgeois. I was trying to make my way into the space of being literary from a proletarian base, but as an attempt to blossom rather than deny it. It was my rootedness, black and working-class, black and blue. Five years after returning to the United States, I wrote about that day in the garden. In retrospect, that moment became the time when I felt free of things that wanted to define me. It became a marker for me as I made my way deeper into my own voice as a poet.
I did not realize that I was already entirely literary; I had emerged from factory life with a university book, a national fellowship, and admission into an Ivy League university. It was such a large thing that I did not understand it. Travel was as much about running away from my accomplishment as it was about gazing at things I had never seen before.
Boulevard Saint-Germain was five minutes away in the opposite direction, a bit east of Place Saint-Michel, where I had lunch one day with the niece of Archibald MacLeish. She explained that the poet’s parents had agreed to let him spend a year in Paris to see if he could be a poet. It seemed odd to me: poetry came out of me in the turbulence of my adolescence and was not something to be discovered in the streets of a foreign city. Poetry was a gift cracked open inside, a cauldron of fiery shifts lit by the first emergence of repressed childhood trauma. I have always seen myself as having been born with the gift to write and not someone who had to try to learn to write poetry as one learns a vocation. I do not see my gift as dependent on my childhood trauma, however. That trauma has presented challenges to developing my gift, but the gift is not contingent upon trauma. It is sad to think some poets have hurt themselves and written a good deal of bad poetry by thinking that way.
Recently, I was asked to give a reading for the Harvard African Law Association and a poetry club at Harvard. I found myself in a room full of eager and bright students, many of them immigrants or second-generation youngsters from Africa and the Caribbean. Living in the American academic world as a black man, I have become accustomed to being the only black person or one of a few, and here I was in a situation much like that of my childhood, when I went to an all-black elementary school. This was diasporic blackness, two generations removed from the pan-African conversations I learned about in the 1960s and 1970s, but here was blackness with an apparent kinship. I read a poem of mine, “To Malcolm X on His Second Coming,” one I seldom read because I don’t often have audiences like these, people I think can understand.
Still, I was left with questions of home in a world where hybridity seems unavoidable. Black people navigate between and inside foreign cultures, even when the people in those cultures look like us. As black people, we often forget our own diversity. I read Kamau Brathwaite’s Trench Town Rock, Wole Soyinka’s Idanre, or Derek Walcott’s Omeros, and I know my context is different, an American otherness that is inside the African diaspora and yet outside it in terms of subjectivity. A black poet needs a largeness, a soul strength the size of parallel worlds, to embrace this United States, which is itself both inside “America” and outside it, as Neruda’s Canto General should remind readers.
It is important that black people know that they are in motion, propelled as much by the narratives of their lives as by the need to see what they have not experienced, to be foreign in a foreign place or to be foreign at home.
“We are brothers,” Jacques had said in Paris. Over the years, I have revisited his words and actions as a kind of meditation, a silent chant. And I have heard expressions of the bond of Africanism in different versions and at different times in my life, but tonight—as I write this—it seems that I have come home, not to Africa, Europe, or China, but to the smell of my parents’ house in East Baltimore. I have returned to those evenings long since gone. It is after dinner now, and the language I hear is that vinegar and bourbon of a Virginian English that my father shapes into metaphors while my mother hums gospels, sweet and slow.
In “Hiccups,” the mother seems to win her campaign to make her son understand the exigencies of having to assimilate, but her victory is questionable in the texture of the argument. They are light-skinned, middle-class blacks in the French Caribbean, which is not quite the same as my working-class parents, who moved from the southern ethos of Virginia and the Carolinas to Baltimore. Unlike the parents in Damas’s poem, my parents wanted me to become middle class, and my journey has been to be the poet rooted in the whole embrace of his psychic experience and his language, as any poet should be. To do so I had to travel to China and begin to study a language of intonations and a written system of strokes going this way and that way. But there is only one way poets can go truthfully, and that is along the path of the language that is their own. Poets do not exist on their own but rather in a structure. They become manifest through the myriad powers of history and the Lacanian geographies of language in the unconscious mind, as when I put myself to sleep memorizing characters and let language do its work in my dreams, most of which I do not remember.
In a dream that I imagine, I am still standing near the beach in Nice. It is 1985, and I have just left my factory life behind. I call my father to surprise him with a hello from a place he has never seen. He quickly tells me that he has knowledge of maps and that I need to study more to learn what home means. He lets me know I cannot be a stranger to myself, even as I know the self is real and unreal, a fact as much as an idea is a fact but malleable in the real world.
We journey through the world and inside our lives to the origin of what names us, namely language.
This essay was commissioned as a part of the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute’s Poets in the World series. Originally Published: May 14th, 2013