The Exceptional CityPrint
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
October 12, 2016
A couple years ago, while reporting a piece on whether Paris remains a haven for black Americans seeking refuge from the constraints of what Stanley Crouch calls the “All-American Skin Game,” I became, for the first time in my professional life, lasting friends with a few of my subjects. Two men in particular, a 55-year-old writer from the Bronx named Jake Lamar and a 70-year-old photographer and longtime expat from Harlem named Richard Allen, left me convinced that Paris retains its special status. For the better part of the past two years, the three of us have formed a multigenerational crew (something that sadly doesn’t happen nearly often enough, at least not for me), meeting on Saturday afternoons at the kind of cafés Paris excels at—the kind that lets you linger for three hours of round-robin chess, ketchup-smothered asiettes des frites, and pints of beer and Coca-Cola. I’ve realized it has become one of the most important rituals of my life in France. These two men, in distinct and overlapping ways, in their bearings and their laughs—and certainly in their mutual obsession with “the royal game”—transport me back to the thrilling rigors of my father’s study, where I spent thousands of hours as a child and teen hunched over those 64 black-and-white squares trying to lay the perfect trap. These men offer me something I hadn’t known was even missing until I had it back—a feeling of home in the ineffable sense that exists in the gaps between what can and can’t be said. One thing my years abroad have taught me is that this is not at all something that can be delivered by means of pigmentation alone.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
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