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Claudette Colvin: Redux

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

Today is the anniversary of Claudette Colvin's arrest. On March 2, 1955, the 15-year old refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to accommodate a white woman passenger. In a blog I published two weeks ago, read it here, I noted that although Claudette had been arrested nine months before Rosa Parks, for various reasons, the leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, chose not to launch the boycott with her arrest. Instead, they waited until a person they deemed a more suitable standard-bearer to be the face of the movement against the great injustices perpetrated by the Jim Crow laws. That person was Rosa Parks.

Three years ago, lucky me, I was in Paris. At that time I wrote a blog about Claudette Colvin and here it is again with a few changes.

Walking down a major boulevard, this distinctive poster caught my eye, so I crossed the street to take a closer look. An outsized young girl sits on top of a yellow bus. It looked like a school bus, so it puzzled me to see well-dressed grown-ups boarding the bus. It was an advertisement for a play called NOIRE. I made note of the theater and the dates.

Later that day at the Alliance Française in Paris where I was studying, a class exercise had each student describing persons in pictures projected on a screen, in French, of course. Elle a des cheveux blonde, il port des lunettes, she has blonde hair, he wears glasses, and so on. The pictures were of people with different characteristics that reflect the origins of the French people -- Northern European, African, Asian, and mixed ancestry as well.

A fellow student raised his hand. Based on appearance and his name -- Israel (pron. Is-rah-el) -- my initial assumption was that he was from Latin America, but this middle-aged businessman was from Pakistan and learning French as he had recently gotten a job transfer to Paris.

“How do you describe a person’s skin color?” Israel asked.

The teacher’s face immediately telegraphed disapproval. Her response, in French, “here, in France, it is considered racist (pronounced rah-sist), to refer to someone’s skin color or to talk about someone’s race.”

Before going to France I had read articles and listened to podcasts about this very subject. I raised my hand.

“Mademoiselle, I understand that the word noir is not used with reference to people of African origin. Can you speak about that?”

“Oui, the preferred word is les blacks.”

Click here to listen to the podcast, Rough Translation, We Don’t Say That. addressing this topic.

Our teacher adds that in France it is illegal to ask people about their race or religion. (Let me clarify that it is illegal for the French Government to ask).

NOIRE, Tania de Montaigne's One-Woman Show

After class, I returned to the apartment we had rented and Googled Théâtre du Rond-Point, and was thrilled to learn that Noire was a one-woman show about Claudette Colvin, who was (then and now) little-known in the civil rights movement in the United States. The play is based on the book, NOIIRE, written by Tania de Montaigne, who also wrote and performed NOIRE. She is a distinguished French journalist, writer, and actor whom I had the pleasure of meeting briefly after the performance.

Claudette Colvin, was 15-years old when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. This was several months before Rosa Park was arrested for doing the same. Claudette, was in the back of the bus in one of the seats usually occupied by blacks when a white woman boarded a crowded bus. When Claudette refused to give up her seat for this woman, she was arrested and later became one of several plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, brought the year after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Browder case challenged segregation in public transportation. At the time the case was filed, the famous bus boycott in Montgomery was underway. The lower court and the US Supreme Court held that segregated busing violated the United States Constitution. Requests for reconsideration by the segregating entities were denied and this led to the integration of the buses in Montgomery. Days after the further appeals were denied, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the spokesperson for this coalition of organizations and leaders backing the bus boycott, announced the end of the Montgomery bus boycott. Black residents and their supporters had stayed off the Montgomery buses for more than a year.

NOIRE was a beautifully rendered and moving production with familiar African-American music and projected still photos and video images. My research on Claudette Colvin before seeing the play proved most helpful and I was pleased to learn that my French was good enough to follow Tania de Montaigne's powerful storytelling on stage. Seeing NOIRE was one of the highlights of my five weeks in Paris.

Even if you don’t speak French, have a look at the website promoting this play. Click here. I was lucky enough to meet the author and actor, Tania de Montaigne after the show.

Theater du Rond-Point
Tania de Montaigne

Like the United States, France struggles with the issue of racism and racial discrimination, and I could not begin to tackle this topic so I'm providing references to several articles and some relevant quotes from French scholars.

“Unlike many other West European countries, and very much unlike English-speaking immigrant societies such as the United States, Canada or Australia, France has intentionally avoided implementing “race-conscious” policies. There are no public policies in France that target benefits or confer recognition on groups defined as races. For many French persons, the very term race sends a shiver running down their spines, since it tends to recall the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the complicity of France’s Vichy regime in deporting Jews to concentration camps. Race is such a taboo term that a 1978 law specifically banned the collection and computerized storage of race-based data without the express consent of the interviewees or a waiver by a state committee. France, therefore, collects no census or other data on the race (or ethnicity) of its citizens."

"Political leaders are nonetheless aware that race and ethnicity matter. To counter problems of ethnic disadvantage, they have constructed policies aimed at geographical areas or at social classes that disproportionately contain a large number of minorities.”

You can read the entire Brookings article Race Policy in France (a bit dated since it was published in 2001) here.

I also highly recommend Can The French Talk About Race? an article in The New Yorker, click here.

La condition noire

In a television interview, in English, French historian and Associate Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Pap Ndiaye, discusses the issue of diversity and representation in France. He is the author of ‘La condition noire: essai sur une minorité française’(The Black Condition. An essay of a French minority. Ndiaye, was born in France to a ‘French’ mother and a father who came to France from Senegal.

“The black condition in France is a way to feel French while being considered as not French. If you are black,” says Ndiaye, “most people in Paris ask you all the time, where do you come from. As a way to tell you, you must be from somewhere else. You must be not French.” Blog post and video of his interview (in English) available here.

La Condition Americaine

Like our French brothers and sisters, this is an experience that many of us in this country live every day. When asked where I’m from I say California. I usually add that I’ve lived in California for four-plus decades and I’m originally from Texas.

I’m asked again, where are am I REALLY from, where were my parents born? The answer is still the same, Texas. And, of course, I’ve also been told to go back to where I came from on numerous occasions. I love Texas but have no plans to move back there, California is my home.

One afternoon in Paris, we take an uber (no Lyft in France, at least back then) and get to chatting with the driver, who asks where we are from. His face lights up when we say San Francisco Bay Area.

“I lived in Oakland several years.”

He also shares that he is originally from Senegal and much of his family is there, but he has lived in France for 30+ years. I ask him about his experiences as a black man in both the United States and France.

He pauses for a moment and says, “I feel like the French are a bit more two-faced, more hypocritical in their views about race. In the United States . . . there, you know how people feel about you.”

And it is becoming more and more the case for so many Americans in our own country.

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