Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Monday, November 8, 2010

Paris Benchmark

Toni Morrison in the French Ministry of Culture (AP/Camus)
If it was up to the American media, we would all be raving illiterates, or at least, cultural incompetents, ignorant of the momentous events and waves of history influencing our lives today.

You may have heard that on November 3, Nobel Laureate author, Toni Morrison, received a medal from the French Minister of Culture, Frederic Mitterrand, and was made a member of the French Legion of Honor, which, according to the Associated Press story run in all major U.S. media, was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, to recognize military, cultural, scientific or social contributions to France, including by people who are not French citizens.
What this story did not reveal - and what is of even more interest to The Obsessive Reader in her Cultured Ghetto - is that the U.S.-based Toni Morrison Society held several extraordinary events in Paris, following the Legion of Honor ceremony, that went beyond the ego strokes of awards heaped on an already acclaimed writer.

It's a crying shame that the American media, including African American outlets such as "The Root" website, excluded news of the Society's Sixth Biennial Conference, Toni Morrison and Circuits of the Imagination, held in Paris from November 4 - 7. Or, that the conference programs included "presentations by Morrison scholars from around the world, a Jazz Performance, the announcement of the recipients of the 2010 Toni Morrison Society Book Prize, a Language Matters Secondary Teachers Workshop, (and) a City Tour that focuses on sites important in the African Diaspora." 

The highlight - in this Obsessive Reader's mind - was the first international placement of a "Bench by the Road," the result of a beautiful project that places intricately carved iron benches in sites important in African American history. On Friday, November 5, a Bench by the Road was situated at Rue Louis Delgres in the 
20√®me Arrondissement to commemorate the site of the Abolition of Slavery in French Territories in 1794. As an explanation for the project, Morrison said about her lush, searing, unforgettable novel, Beloved

There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300-foot tower, there's no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn't exist . . . the book had to. (The World, 1989).

The link between American blacks and Paris is strong and lengthy.  The abolitionist history of France began in 1794, when the French National Convention passed the Emancipation Declaration, outlawing slavery in the colonies, as an outcome of the Revolution's The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,   By 1848, the Second Republic passed its final Decree of the abolition of the slavery,  The irony is that the French Revolution was inspired by the American Revolution of 1776 - a revolution that, instead of outlawing slavery, intensified it.  And all of us in the Cultured Ghetto know about the symbiosis between French and African American culture in the 20th Century, from Josephine Baker to Sidney Bechet, to Richard Wright and James Baldwin.  Black exiles in Paris created the Jazz Age; during the Harlem Renaissance, black folks used to call Paris "the white Harlem".

The seal of the Societe des Amis des Noirs c.1788
What Toni Morrison accomplished in Paris last week was more than winning another prize.  With the conference in her name, and the Bench by the Road commemorating the abolition of slavery in French colonies, she showed the power of history and the significance of literature in shaping humanity.  Paris noir, anyone?

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