Friday, April 20, 2007

On Naps + Notes on Paris I + Poem: Giovanny Gómez

I've studiously avoided writing about the Imus controversy because so many other blogs and commentators (including bloviators) covered it, and my initial responses, to friends, to a cousin, to a fellow sports fan on a listserve, were categorical in their condemnation of his racism, sexism, misogyny, and cruelty, his long history of offensive (including homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist, etc.) dehumanizing statements and commentary (this man and his sideshow were causing an uproar back in 1996!), and the media punditocracy's (or is that punditocrisy?) and politicians' atrocious abetting of his and similar offenders' behavior. BECAUSE HE WAS THEIR MEAL TICKET.

All of the meta-commentary about the offensive discourse in hip hop, the diversionary critiques of Jackson and Sharpton, and Imus's essential "goodness" deserved to be cast into the wind. I strongly supported people boycotting his show and its sponsors, as well as some sort of disciplinary action, but I was surprised that MSNBC dropped his simulcast and then CBS fired him, given the influential audience base he cultivated and attracted. The frightened sponsors, it seems, left them no choice. I also thought that Vivian Stringer, the Rutgers women's basketball coach, and her team of dignified young women, responded in the finest fashion, exacting an apology, and then talking no more about the matter, especially given that he'd been flushed. More power to them, and I congratulate on their considerable success in the NCAA tournament, a fact that got lost in the brouhaha.

The tiny point I want to touch upon--and perhaps others have brought this up, so if they have, my apologies--is one aspect of his comments, the "nappy headed" part. (I'm sure many others have discussed the "hos" and the "j*gaboos" parts.) Like most people in this society, and many Black people around the globe, I grew up having pounded into my nappy head that "nappy hair"--that coarse, kinky, thick, coiled, corkscrewy hair that millions of us are born with--was somehow less beautiful, less desirable, less attractive, just less--than straight hair, or, as folks also (problematically) say, "good hair." (And such terms are as common among folks outside the US as in it.) I grew up hearing "nappy headed" occasionally used as an epithet (though not in my home), and this was after the period when afros and other natural hair styles not only became popular but were valorized as the do of choice. Alongside Ron O'Neal's flowing locks, which were de rigueur for the burgeoning pimp style of the 1970s, Angela Davis, Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Richard Roundtree, Reggie Jackson, the Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, Bootsy Collins, and countless other folks showed the way and beauty of the 'fro, making the nap the basis of an enduring symbol of racial and cultural solidarity and self-affirmation.

0White supremacy and self-hate die hard, though. During the 1980s, a new version of the old-time conk became popular--the curl, as in Jheri curls, S curls, all kinds of curls, some of them (truly) sc[ary]'urls. This hairstyle, which even I sported back in the day, had its brief moment of charm, being yet another mode for self-fashioning, and eventually gave way to fades and flattops and braids--the naps return!--alongside the Jordanesque return of the shaved head, once known as the Quo Vadis--and then to the neo-fros and twists and locks again and the array of styles folks now sport, including megafros, carifros, eurofros and rows, and whatever else people can think of (though unfortunately the liqui-curl still linger). The curl was, you might say, a mass-marketed and temporarily successful attempt to suppress the nap, though few people with them ever ended looking like they came out of the womb with those greasy, glistening tresses--and they certainly left their mark, on countless couches, headrests, seatbacks. Count it the revenge of the nap. With afros, naturals, blowouts, etc., the nap--which is to say, sub-Saharan Africa--flowers in its full glory. Cornrows and dreadlocks don't subdue the nap, they draw on its power. But artificial curls, like conks and permanents, want to force the nap to complete surrender, to subjugate or eliminate it. Yet even with the thickest, heaviest curl juice, of course, or the most perfectly straightened perm, all it takes is a little water, and like a lightning bolt....

All of which is to say, echoing Carolivia Herron, Evette Collins, and numerous others (like the site), I think we ought to work on shedding any lingering shame or inferiority we might have about (our) naps. The nap is as beautiful as any strand of straight, stringy hair, and it should long ago have ceased being a negative attribute, on male or female heads. Nappy is as straight does--embrace the beauty, embrace the nap!


For weeks I've been meaning to write some entries based on my impressions from our recent, too brief trip to Paris, but I keep tripping over false starts, so here are some thoughts in somewhat random fashion, and perhaps if I can find the time and focus, I'll clean them up.

Paris Ramblings, Part 1

I'm going to start with French hip hop, because the French presidential election is tomorrow, and the political implications of the music were as clear to me as the Eiffel Tower on a summer day. During our travels, C and I always flip on the TV to see what the local media have to offer. This time, we happened upon a channel I don't think we'd ever seen before, that showed basically two programs. The first was "'Zik," the French slang for "musique": from early morning to 10 pm on the dot (at which point it switched over to porn so graphic and hardcore that in the US you'd probably only find it after paying a fee on the Internet or going to a videostore), it showed nonstop French rap videos--along with a few clips of dancehall, US hiphop and some European house--that were so scorching they could easily have peeled the paint off the the hotel room's walls.

After watching just a few of these, I thought to myself, the people running for the presidency--right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy, who is on record as having referred to the young Black and Arab protesters as "racaille" (or "scum") in 2005, while also threatening to "kärcheriser" (flush them out with high-powered Kärcher waterhoses); Ségolène Royal, the glamorous but appallingly vapid Socialist candidate, who as of a few days ago appeared not to have realized that the Taliban were no longer in power in Afghanistan!, and who has proposed nothing more concrete than pieties and platitudes to address the country's social and economic problems; François Bayrou, the rural-born, English-speaking, self-described "Clintonian," who actually has repeatedly traveled to the banlieues, but is still running in third place; and Jean-Marie LePen, whose anti-immigrant, racialist commentary is well known--sure better be taking note, or they were going to have to deal with far worse social explosions than anything France witnessed in 2005 or before. From all I can tell, the two front-runners, Sarkozy and Royal, especially, are not, so I will not be surprised if reprises of the sort of public uprising that occurred in the Gare du Nord station (through which we'd passed) just days after we got back begin, particularly after a Sarkozy win. He has made his contempt quite apparent.

Abd al Malik concert poster in the Métro, alongside an ad for Gazoline

This 'Zik show transfixed me. The videos, many of which managed to dynamically combine aspects of gangsta rap (including one rap that literally referenced the "West Coast"), New York hiphop of the early 1990s (especially appeals to racial solidarity), and political and social militancy that would make the Black Panthers proud. Rapper after rapper, either of sub-Saharan African ancestry, French Caribbean ancestry, North African Arab ancestry, or some combo of the above pounded the airwaves with their grievances. We're not talking about MC Solaar, who for a while was the best known French rapper over here. They also were not all male; there were at least two women, both of them out-front aggressives, keeping pace with the men. Unlike MC Solaar's raps, too, these rappers tossed in English words (and Arabic, and I imagine other languages), without hesitation; some of them had American-sounding tags, English-language titles for their songs, and, based on their outfits, their hairstyles (cornrows, afros, fades, etc.), their entire self-presentation, could easily have been mistaken for New Yorkers, Chicagoans or Angelenos. (I even told one brotha in a clothing shop in Les Halles that he could easily pass for a New Yorker, and he took it as a huge compliment.)

Some of the names I wrote down, which may be familiar to hiphop afficionados but were totally unfamiliar to me, included MC Arabic; Les Sales Blancs; Chico Run; Rachid Wallas; DJ BLG; Stress; Griot; Grodash; Konwell (his rap was "Ghetto à la Congolaise"); Sefyu ("Va Avec" and "La vie qui va avec"); Mac Tyer aka Sokrate ("93 tu peux"); Kamelancien ("Grand mechant loup"); Diomay; Ramon; Abass ("Abass Mon F*cka"); Keny Arkana; Despo'Rutti ("Bolide"); CH3/Timony ("Long Time"); Faty; Dontcha ("Le rap criminel"); Abd Al Malik, one of whose rap songs was entitled "September 12, 2001," and Casey, a very butch female rapper from the French Caribbean, who just kept breaking it down--these folks were tired of being shat up, marginalized, ignored, and they showed little identification with the symbols or standard social signs of la belle France, which is to say, la France blanche, and instead with the Maghreb, the Bronx and Compton, with those aspects of current French reality that France's vaunted, anti-multicultural, "egalitarian" system and society refuse to acknowledge. There was one video that had an Arab version of Marianne, the female symbol of France, debating a rapper, but most of the videos were much more confrontational, full of frustration, reverse-disdain, rage. After watching a few in succession, we'd turn them off and hit the streets, but whenever we were back in the room, we'd periodically check them out (and using our camera I even recorded a few, which I've yet to post to YouTube or a similar site).

I also kept wondering if any of these rappers had, like many of the dancehall stars and even some of the reggetonistas, had had any direct contact with major current US hip hop figures, whose styles, poses, forms they had assimilated and reformulated, but whose message of hyperconsumption had only partly taken hold. The language barrier, at least on Americans' part, has probably meant little contact, but I could clearly see a dialogue and continuum going on between their work, even if the emphases were sometimes strikingly different. I almost wished there were more of the political awareness and vehemence--of the Dead Prez or Public Enemy or Mos Def/Black Star kind--especially given our present political and social problems--but I'm sure those who know hip hop a lot better than me can point me in the right direction. In the bookstore I did spot a theoretical book on French hip hop, but was immediately curious about whether someone on these shores was writing on these particular cross-national and cultural connections, because certainly others who've traveled over there and vice versa have taken similar note, I'm sure.


The first time C and I went to Paris, back in 1990, people were able to tell just from our outfits that we were Americans. We were clocked at one point right in front of the Pompidou Center back then, based on C's baseball cap, our jackets (or maybe it was just my jacket), and our sneakers. Very few people we encountered outside the hotels where we stayed spoke any English, and if they did, it was with hesitation (and a little annoyance). On the flipside, they seemed tickled to hear us speak French, however shaky, and I came back thinking, the French are certainly not as bad as so many people had warned me. In fact, they were easily more friendly and polite and welcoming than the people we encountered in Spain (where we had the wonderful experience of being stared at on the subway!) or Portugal (I won't go into those stories again, but I'm sure they're a lot, uh, nicer these days). On that first trip to Paris, while we did see quite a few people of color, I remember thinking (wrongly, I'm sure) that Paris perhaps wasn't as racially and ethnically diverse as New York or Chicago, or London--or Madrid, where we met friendly Egyptians who we thought were Latinos, and I exchanged drawings with them, or Lisbon, where Angolans and Mozambicans, hundreds of them, thronged a downtown square. (I was sure we'd stepped through a portal into Luanda.) After a few more trips, my views on Paris's obvious diversity changed, but this time, I can declare that the Black, Asian, Arab and mixed populations in Paris now appear to have doubled or tripled, and C and I certainly no longer stood out. At all. I wondered, were all these folks infants, little children, the not-yet-born or not-yet-immigrated-from-distant-parts 17 years ago? At times, such as when were in the maze of Les Halles, it was hard to tell if we were in Paris or Brooklyn, which I found quite comforting.

Like the most obvious touriste in the world, posing with a faux Didier Drogba

For the most part, no one was recognizing us immediately as Americans or non-residents, and unless we spoke English first, we were addressed in French and assumed to be...French-speaking, from somewhere, anywhere, but not immediately the US. Even my Chicago-influenced fashion sense did not stick out, as far as I could tell. On the other hand, nearly everyone we encountered spoke English, most fluently. The guy that I said looked like a New Yorker told us, after playing with C as if he didn't speak a word of English, that he'd learned it in school and from TV. His English was practically flawless. In nearly every shop, whenever we'd politely ask, "Parlez-vous anglais?" the response was, "Un peu" or "a leetle," and then the person would proceed to speak English rapidly and without hardly a pause.

At a multilevel men's clothing store

As for speaking the hotel we stayed at, one of the night deskmen, a African Frenchman, snappily corrected my French; I said the equivalent of sixty-ten-and-one, instead of sixty-eleven, which is to say, seventy-one, and he wasn't having it. That put me on guard not to think I could get away with a few mistakes, as in the past. I still spoke French, but found that often times people were ready, almost eager, to speak English, with far less annoyance than on prior visits, and when I did speak French, they did not seem in the slightest impressed either way. That is, except at the airport, where I was searched quite thoroughly and had a security person hold up my rubber exercise rope and ask me, a mocking tone in her voice, if it was a weapon and if I was a terrorist. She even showed it to her superior. When she learned that I spoke French, she wasn't about to speak another word of English, she or any of the other security people nearby. They had a good laugh with the exercise rope, even brandishing it as if it were dangerous, and then, after they'd decided to find another person to torment, sent me packing. These antagonists were, by the way, Black French women.


In terms of fashion, Paris mirrors New York, except the badly dressed people aren't visible. (Of course this is an exaggeration.) But as the Sartorialist has amply documented, Parisians--from the children to the elderly, are some of the most sharply (ac)coutured people running around. The shoes! I've noted this every time we've gone there, and the people I saw this time, like during previous trips, were turning the simplest outfits out. From variations on the BCBG style to versions of hiphop fashion, punk and beyond, these Parisians were setting a casual but very stylish pace. Not even rainy March weather could soak or sink their fashion senses.

On a street in the Marais

At dinner on evening

Men and women well into their 70s and possibly 80s were featuring hats, shoes, coats, ensembles out of magazines. And considering the euro-laden prices of everything (oh, for the days when the dollar was strong and France still used the franc) and the fact that the country has had such a high unemployment and underemployment rate, I kept wondering, how were they able to afford it. (The vast majority of people were also thin or lean, so perhaps they were skipping meals to keep those outfits tight.) Less facetiously, on the other hand, we did see several tangible examples of the economic crisis: in addition to the homeless people we came across both on the Left and Right Banks (though more on the Right Bank--and parts of the Left Bank, along and off St. Germain des Prés, had really gentrified, to the point of glitz, than I recalled), there was a small tent city along an embankment on one of the highways leading into Paris, and a long soup line outside one of the churches (Saint-Eustache?) on the edge of the Les Halles area, just a stone's throw from some of the tony shops. I know la Soupe Saint-Eustache has been around for more than 20 years, but the contrast with the temples of commerce right near it, and below it in the caverns of Les Halles, was an eye-opener....

The soup line outside Saint-Eustache

And I'll end there for now, and post more soon.


And today's poem is by Giovanny Gómez, a 28-year-old Colombian poet who has been gaining considerable acclaim over the last few years. He won Colombia's National Poetry Prize María Mercedes Carranza for his first book, Casa de humo (House of Smoke), which will be published later this year, and has been traveling to poetry festivals in South America to read his work. Here is one of his prayer-like poems, translated by Nicolás Suescún, from Poetry International Web:


Señor dame una palabra
que tenga la forma de un barco
un barco de velas inextinguibles
donde pueda ir a conocer el mar

Dame esta palabra por casa
por vestido por amante
deja que ella sea mi soledad
mi alimento y no pueda sobrevivirla

Aquí estoy tan vacío de formas
y silencio . . .

Toda mi inspiración semeja
el ruido de unas manos atadas
necesito un barco por cuerpo
y el amor por mar

Escúchame por estas alucinaciones
y la vastedad de las cosas que vuelven
a su lugar

Copyright © 2006, Giovanny Gómez, from: Casa de humo


Oh Lord give me a word
that has the form of a ship
a ship of inextinguishable sails
in which I can sail to know the sea

Give me this word for a house
for a garment for a lover
let it be my solitude my sustenance
let me be unable to survive it

Here I am so devoid of forms
and of silence . . .

All of my inspiration resembles
the noise of a pair of tied hands
I need a ship for a body
and a love for the sea

Listen to me through these hallucinations
and the vastness of things that come back
to their place

Copyright © Translation: 2007, Nicolás Suescún


  1. In 1993 I spent a year in Madrid and I was horrified by how little touched Madrid and Barcelona were by immigrants and immigration. As I walked down the street, a bus might pass with every face gawping from every window. I felt like a 6 foot Martian among 5 foot lilliputians. I went to Paris that Christmas break and was astonished by how much more integrated the city was, how many more black and brown faces I saw. But I was staying with friends in one of the further arrondissements, so that may have "colored" my experience.

    Kai in NYC

  2. Kai, I'm told both Barcelona and Madrid have changed substantially in the last 5-7 years. But we did come across a little band of friendly Egyptians in Madrid, though I think they were just visiting. Paris has long been quite diverse, but it felt even more so this time through. Now that Sarkozy looks to win, I just wonder how long before things erupt.

  3. J,

    1. Zik -- What a great treat. I used to watch it some morning with an Italian friend of mine whose office was underneath his flat, so stopping by for coffee and breakfast always included a bit of French hip-hop. If I stopped by in the evening sometimes there would be French porn on, but it was like watching ESPN for 15 minutes to see the score of the game, then off to another channel.

    2. Yeah, Parisians can dress, NYC can't touch it, though Hampton University women are definitely not far off the mark.

    3. The election frightens me. France's failed economy and rigid notions of being 'French' are a real tangible danger regardless of who wins. And this is part and parcel of Europe as a whole.

  4. Bill, you were watching 'Zik in Germany? That French porn was--whew!

    New Yorkers can dress too--but the Parisians *give* fashions. I was continually amazed and impressed.

    You're right about the elections. Sarkozy's past statements and behavior really are disturbing. Did you see the comment, perhaps it was in The New Yorker, perhaps somewhere else, that the most common statement people make about him is, il me fait peur (he scares me)? Yikes! And Royal--she seems about as devoid of ideas as a very light soufflé. I intend to write more about how at least one person responded when he saw I had one of her flyers in my hand....

  5. The cable channels in Europe allow you to buy all kinds of packages. My Italian friend had German, Italian and French Channels. He subscribed to a Canal Plus package so Zik was part of the deal. Germans show nudity through out the day but not pornography. I noticed that Portugal and France have hardcore porn available at night.

    But, I did not own a television, so . . . there you go, I only watched television at my friends’ houses, but many of them did not have televisions either.

    Anyway . . . do tell us more about Royal. I get the feeling that contemporary socio-economic circumstances have outpaced the political establishment of both Germany and France, and as far as I am concerned . . . they are the EU. Their economies are the strongest, and their alignment after Rumsfeld's old Europe/new Europe comment has really cemented their position as the voice of Europe, as well as being the de facto alternative to our current American Empire. The "continent" would fair well if France and Deutschland could overcome their trepidation about being a pluralistic society. But, I am afraid that their awakening from the Gaul of yore and sweet madrigals about Teutonic meanderings through Thüringen Forest will be slow and with great consequences for the North African, Turkish, Antillean and Eastern European populations that reside there.

    To me Europe is and will always be TRIBALISTIC.