James Baldwin wrote that although William Faulkner might not accurately be called a racist, the novelist “could see Negroes only as they related to him, not as they related to each other.” For Baldwin, Faulkner’s depictions of blacks had far less to do with them as people than with “the torment of their creator” who was “seeking to exorcise a history that is also a curse.”
In these nightmarish days in Paris since the astonishing massacre of cartoonists, black and Arab police officers, and random hostages in a Jewish épicerie, it is Baldwin whose words echo loudest in my mind—more than Voltaire or Rushdie or Christopher Hitchens or any other exemplar of satire and blasphemy to be repeatedly quoted (and misquoted) in the press and on social media. In the above lines, taken from No Name in the Street, Baldwin is writing not only about Faulkner, but about France and his growing understanding of the country’s vexed relationship to its homegrown underclass.
Like Baldwin, I was almost totally unaware of the details of “the French-Algerian complexity” prior to arriving in Paris. But as a black American who—like Baldwin—was delighted to have escaped my own American pigeonholes in France, I couldn’t help but feel compelled to rectify my ignorance. As a 22-year-old barely out of college, I read Baldwin’s essay “Equal in Paris” over and over again in my cramped mezzanine in Lille. At the time, I was commuting several days a week to the drab slum of Roubaix, where I taught introductory English to whites of modest means and Muslim fourth graders. Looking back at that essay, I see I starred and underlined this:
“I considered the French an ancient, intelligent, and cultured race, which indeed they are. I did not know, however, that ancient glories imply . . . present fatigue and, quite probably, paranoia: that there is a limit to the role of intelligence in human affairs; and that no people come into the possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it. This price, they cannot, of course, assess, but it is revealed in their personalities and in their institutions.”
The satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is one such thoroughly French institution. That is what you hear again and again if you criticize the content this paper trafficked in. “But you cannot understand Charlie Hebdo if you are not French”; “Charlie Hebdo has been a pillar of the French popular culture that shaped us; It is our tradition!” dozens of friends have insisted, as if somehow all traditions are noble and worthy of upholding. One of my oldest and kindest friends from Paris, a man with a beautifully aristocratic last name, made a point the other day that seems to have become one of the default rationales: “But Charlie Hebdo offended everyone the same. My grandmother, who is a practicing Catholic, will tell you they are harsher with the Pope than with anyone else.” While this may even be true, Anatole France had the right of it when he said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
In this era of facile hashtag activism, it is no wonder that a music journalist at a free weekly magazine was able to launch the now globally ubiquitous #jesuischarlie campaign. What is surprising is that no one seems quite able to define what these three words are supposed to mean. On the most anodyne level, they express a justified sense of grief over the senseless loss of life we all share. Beyond that, some people maintain that the slogan is itself a defense of free speech and a defiant stance against any tyrannical power that would silence it. This seems to be what the French government wishes to convey by projecting the phrase Paris est CHARLIE across the top of the Arc de Triomphe and on the face of the Hotel de Ville. But this same government, which only recently silenced the popular anti-Semitic comic Dieudonné by preemptively banning some of his shows (and is currently seeking to silence him again) is hardly intellectually consistent on the issue. Nor, for that matter, is Charlie Hebdo itself—the publication notably forced the departure of the cartoonist Siné for a column that was deemed offensively anti-Semitic in 2009.1
On another level, #jesuischarlie seems to inevitably carry the implication that one tacitly agrees with—or at the very least doesn’t actively object to—the nature of the magazine’s content. On this last point, I have been amazed by the sheer tenacity with which so many French people I know insist on clinging to their belief in the validity and innocuousness of these cartoons. It is one thing to say that we mourn the people killed at Charlie—which I certainly do—and quite another thing to allow oneself to be identified with the publication’s mission, which was frequently an ugly one. What gets lost in all the sudden reflexive sentimentality is the degree to which #jesuischarlie creates a false binary between legally permissible bigotry and murderous terror—a virtually impossible political bind for many of the already marginalized targets of the publication’s relentless ire.
In the five years that I have lived in France, I have more than once been welcomed into well-furnished rooms where I have been left to silently puzzle over colonial detritus—Sambo-like dolls and figurines, thick-lipped, bug-eyed, disembodied brown porcelain heads—cavalierly displayed on illuminated shelves and marble tabletops. The first few times I saw these mementos I was jarred, though it is also possible for me to talk and laugh and drink in such spaces, because I am with friends, and I am comfortable in my status as an American who has made his home in Paris but is always free to leave. And yet, I would be lying if I denied that there is some small part of my consciousness still tender with ancestral ache, which cannot ever allow me to lose sight of these outlandish trophies and souvenirs. They seem to somehow comfort or amuse my hosts, reminding them of nothing at all or of some far less complicated and stressful past, and fit smartly in the décor alongside equestrian prints, layered “oriental” rugs, and grandfather’s antelope heads from Africa mounted on the wall.
To my mind, in addition to the French tradition of anti-authoritarian satiric wit, this is also very much a part of the context of our current crisis, whether we want to talk about it now or not: France has a violent, racist, and unexorcised past. There is no self-respecting way for me to identify with these objects that I sometimes see, just as there is no self-respecting way for me to hear the still-in-use French word for ghostwriter—nègre (literally an unacknowledged, unpaid laborer: a nigger)—without flinching; and there is no self-respecting way for me to gaze on that hideous Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting France’s first black Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, as a monkey.
Considering the incontestably great cultural monuments of the former colonial powers—whether Descartes or Chartres —Baldwin maintained that the Algerian blue-collar worker in Paris has no reason to genuflect before them (let alone before the infinitely lesser cultural achievements, such as satirical cartooning). Instead, Baldwin says, he has, “once these monuments intrude on [his] attention, no honorable access to them. . . . To bow down before that history is to accept that history’s arrogant and unjust judgment” of him.
This is an issue and a debate that has already transcended the nation of France. Much of the mainstream opinion in the US more or less seems to mirror what Philip Gourevitch wrote on the New Yorker website in the immediate aftermath, when he likened Charlie Hebdo’s offense-giving mission to the heroic, self-sacrificing strategies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Or when the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy that lionized the caricaturists as “war reporters of a sort” on the front lines of a global contest between radical Islam and the West. There can be absolutely no excuse for acts of terrorism, but these are examples, respectively, of rhetorical and political hagiography and blackmail and should be rejected as such. As Susan Sontag put it, “by all means let us mourn together; but let’s not be stupid together.” To that, we might add, let us not be callous, reckless, or oblivious together, either.
Last Friday, Albert Uderzo, the 87-year-old cartoonist behind the beloved French Asterix comics came out of retirement to publish an illustration declaring Moi aussi je suis CHARLIE. The image, which has been widely circulated online, depicts the Gallic mascot rushing forward to deliver a vicious uppercut to a figure that has been knocked almost entirely out of the frame. The only means the viewer has for discerning who exactly was on the receiving end of such a blow are the shoes that remain behind. They are pointy-toed slippers of the variety one might be forgiven for associating with traditional Arab dress, but which certainly were not what either the Kouachi brothers or Amedy Coulibaly had been wearing.
A crucial component of any joke or narrative can be found in who exactly is doing the telling. Until the underlying conditions depriving so many from being able to laugh together are addressed, a very sizable portion of the population will continue to have no honorable means of ever being Charlie.