View from Rue Saint-Georges

Greetings from Paris

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | June 1, 2016
Florent Lamoureux/Flickr
Florent Lamoureux/Flickr


My father must have stirred in me the dream of living in Paris sometime when I was very young. I can understand now much better than before why he used to talk to me about it so often. Like many black Americans born in the first half of the 20th century, for him the idea of Paris represented not so much a geographical space as a symbol of the freedom to exist outside the lazy and inhumane American racial binary—and to do so in a cultural environment of seemingly unrestricted intellect and refinement. Richard Wright’s famous 1946 observation that “there is more freedom in one square block of Paris than in the entire United States of America” sums up this not entirely inaccurate point of view succinctly (at least where black Americans historically were concerned).

Reality is hardly ever as we preconceive it, and things are very different both at home and away in the 21st century. But what seems undeniable to me as a black man who has, for lack of a better word, expatriated to the French capital for the past five years, is that life is freer here. Perhaps that is not even a function of race so much as it is the liberating anonymity of moving through the world as a foreigner, existing more or less in your own imagination and on your own terms—and first and foremost as an American—quite a privilege in its own right, I understand.

Today, I am less an expatriate than a full-fledged immigrant, married into a French family and raising a half-French daughter while following in a long tradition of American writers of all colors who have had the fortune to wash up in Paris, both to enjoy this beautiful town on its own terms and to get, however fleetingly, a sharper glimpse of home. I’ll be writing a weekly dispatch from the City of Light and from elsewhere in Europe, trying to capture aspects of what makes the experience of being an American here so perplexing, invigorating, and difficult to relinquish.

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