In 2006, FX premiered a show called “Black. White.” It was very serious, and involved generating ratings by having a black family and a white family switch places in the racial hierarchy with the help of very expensive and yet still suspicious-looking special effects makeup.
It was a high-production, small-scale social experiment not unlike the one John Howard Griffin chronicled in “Black Like Me.”
There’s an easier way to do this, says poet and rapper Saul Williams. If you want to know, as a black American, what white privilege feels like, you needn’t endure the laborious process of donning a wig and sitting to have gummy makeup applied to your face by a professional.
No, you only need a passport.
In his latest tome and first-ever commissioned work, Williams, who has spent much of his creative life examining and criticizing America from within, contemplated his home country from afar. The result was the Simon and Schuster-published “US(a.),” out now.
An American passport is a magical piece of paper. It will allow you entry into a country where Nina Simone lyrics are used to teach the national language, where Christmas is synonymous with James Brown, where John Cassavetes and Kristen Stewart are prized as cinematic treasures. That country, of course, is France.
“I joke around a lot with a lot of my Black Lives Matters friends who I find myself sitting in rooms with oftentimes,” Williams said. “And I say, ‘Hey, if you want to experience white privilege, hop on a plane and go anywhere with your American passport and you will experience American privilege and you’ll be able to understand exactly what it’s like to have certain doors opened for you and back rooms opened for you and privileges given to you just as a result of what happens when you open your mouth and people realize where you’re from.'”
Williams, 43, is the acclaimed slam poet and rapper who was the star of the 1998 film “Slam.” He is the latest black creative to find himself enchanted by Paris, and after spending four years there, honed his observations of America and American race relations.
“Paris is interesting because their love affair is particularly with African Americans. That’s their love affair. That’s who they love, what they love. What they get about America has so much to do with our struggle, which is why so many of our artists will go there — I mean the ones that have done extraordinarily well here for a minute, like Ornette Coleman or something, but then can’t sell a ticket anymore here — will fill the most important hall in Paris today. Because they’re like, ‘Wait. Do you realize what this person means. Do you realize who Gil Scott Heron is?'”
France, and Paris in particular, has long fostered a symbiotic relationship with black artists and intellectuals, with James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Simone and, of late, Ta-Nehisi Coates among them. But there are dangers in becoming too intoxicated with the romance of finding yourself so easily celebrated, of having the argument black Americans find themselves continually re-litigating simply accepted as fact (“They’re like, you know where rock and roll came from … you wouldn’t have rock and roll if it wasn’t for the blues! They get those things right,” says Williams). Avoiding those dangers requires periodically plunging your head back into the icy waters of American racism, as the original “trans-Atlantic commuter” Baldwin warned in a 1976 conversation with Essence magazine.
It can be a terrible trap. There are certain American impressions and legends of France, of de Gaulle, French girls, elegance — a pattern of myths. You have to be there to realize that Paris is a part of Europe. All of Europe was involved in the slave trade. Now it is perfectly true that in Paris I, as a Black American, was not treated the same way a man from Senegal or Algeria, former French colonies, was treated.
It seems there’s a renaissance of black ex-patriotism and renewed interest and appreciation for Baldwin. The fervor crested earlier this year with the publication of Coates’s book, “Between the World and Me,” which Coates wrote for his son. Williams said he gave a copy to his own son, who was 14 at the time, and began reading much of Coates’s work at the Atlantic while he was in Paris. “I love his writing,” Williams said. In the course of publicizing his work, Coates revealed that he would be leaving the states for France next year. Still, distinctions between blackness, delineated by country of origin, persist.
“It’s not that it’s necessarily freer,” said Williams, who has frequent discussions about these very distinctions with his Rwandan-born Parisian wife. “I need to be clear on the fact that my experience is not every person’s experience there in that if I were some dude from Ghana, or Mali or Malawi or the Congo or what have you — no. It’s not the same thing. Just like if I was some guy from Afghanistan or Tunisia or Morocco. No, it’s not the same thing. But upon learning that I am African American, there’s this thing there like, ‘Oooooh, come talk with me. Come eat with my family.'”
Williams recounted how his black American friends would come to visit him in Paris. They had questions reflective of decades of personal experiences living in an environment where an undercurrent of hostility toward blackness lurks ever-present. The baggage they brought with them was a special sort of skepticism, fueled by feeling like a lessee of one’s place in your own country,
“They’d be like, ‘So what’s racism like here? Will I be able to get a taxi?'” Williams said. “And I’d be like, ‘Racism exists here. If you really want to see it, you need to see how they treat Arabs. The way they treat Africans is not on the same level as they way they treat Arabs. Like, the lowest rung would not be us. Which is hard for black Americans. They’d be like, ‘You mean I’m not the star of racism?‘”
Williams laughed as he imitated their incredulity. “Nope, it’s the Arabs here. Sorry. … It’s humbling to have that realization, or to see how they treat the Roma and realize no, actually, you’re operating from a point of privilege here. And if you take advantage of it in the wrong way, you’re as guilty as the people you might point fingers at when you’re home.”
Despite the longstanding love affair between the French and African-American people and culture, impressions of America aren’t uniformly positive. Black Americans, even very young ones, can be held responsible for crimes perpetuated by their home country. Williams set the tone for “US(a.)” with a foreword in which he describes an interaction between his daughter and an Afghani classmate in their Paris school.
My daughter had the ominous experience of being in her eighth grade class at College Valmy, with about thirty other recent immigrants, when one of her classmates’ phone rang in the classroom. Typical no-no. The student, a 13-year-old Afghani boy saw the number and, without hesitation, answered. He spoke quickly, was quiet a moment, before he burst into tears and ran out of the room. Another Afghani boy in the class stood and chased after him, stopping first to give the teacher a rushed explanation, while the students looked on in shock and confusion. The teacher looked at my daughter and said, “Your country killed his mother.” Not the response I expected, stashing my hash in its regular hiding place and belting out, “How was school today?” She said she sat with him at lunch and told him, “I’m not that kind of American.”
“I’ll never forget that day, her coming home and telling me about, you know, that Afghani kid in her class,” Williams said. “And it was such a weird experience for this kid from America whose dad dragged her to Paris to have in her first couple of months in Paris. … Our relationship to the outside world is somewhat bizarre. There’s the difference between how we are perceived and how we perceive others when we take the time to perceive them, because we’re so self-consumed and full of these assumptions that the world would operate or look at things how we operate and look at things and if not, they’re backwards.”
“US (a.)” feels deeply, densely personal. Williams clearly had much to communicate; he engulfs and bewitches his readers with a foreword, introduction and prologue, and yet another introductory paragraph before we get to the (a.) of the book, a section that opens with the poem “The Televisions Descended From Above.”
In addition to his thoughts on America, Williams, in his free form manner, has also included two scripts in the book: One is called “Atlantis” and is inspired by Manhattan’s Mahattoe Indians, and the other is a fictive imagining based on his real conversations with Juliette Gréco, the singer, actress and onetime girlfriend of Davis. In addition to the scripts, Williams shared his thoughts on the early closing of his Broadway musical, “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” which was inspired by the lyrics of Tupac Shakur.
Like Harry Belafonte before him, Williams is an artist who supports the work of civil rights groups. It’s why he marched with Black Lives Matter to protest the killing of Eric Garner, and why he has close ties to individuals within the movement. It’s easy, as a revolutionary — though Williams doesn’t necessarily consider himself a revolutionary so much as revolutionary-adjacent — to survey the world’s circumstances and become disillusioned with the slow pace of change. What good is it if the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice if the curve itself is barely perceptible?
Instead of allowing himself to become subsumed by frustration, Williams sought to balance his observations with levity. It’s why he included the poem “I, for One, Am Happy They Keep Casting White Actors to Star in Old Testament Flicks” in his book.
“I don’t think we’re shy when it comes to laughing at ourselves, but when it comes to laughing at ourselves even in the context of what’s going on — of course it’s not only about laughter — it’s just about that broadened perspective that comes with maintaining a sense of humor in the face of all the craziness that’s going on,” Williams said. “Trump and f—ed up grand juries, not indicting police and all this s—. For me, the sense of humor is crucial. Like I said, there’s a huge disappointment that I feel as well in having to talk about this s— so many years later.”
And yet, Williams still feels he has more to say. He hinted that “US(a.)” may be the beginning of a series of musings on America.
“I think that so much of American social politics circles around the question of identity and I always go back to this quote from Hafez, the Sufi poet, who has this one line in a poem where he just says, ‘the other is a lie.’
“When we think in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’ or point that accusatory finger outside of ourselves, often times we’re missing the root — and if not the root, some connecting point — to what we’re talking about, the role within the struggle that we play,” Williams said. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wanted to call the book ‘us’ and to bring out the ‘us’ in that U.S.A. thing because there are many groups in America who identify as us: Christian fundamentalists, blacks, Asian Americans, trans, there’s so many different — like, well, us. Look what they’re doing to us. Look how they treat us. Look at what they have to say about us. Look how they ignore us. And I guess what I was playing with, with that punctuation really, was the idea of inclusiveness. Inclusiveness. But that ‘a’ would be first person. I thought maybe it would take more than one book to talk about America from my perspective, and that maybe there would be a ‘US(a.)’ and a ‘US(b.)’ and a ‘US(c.)’
What I was getting at with us and the parenthical ‘a’ is first I’m going to talk about it from my perspective because I know that means something. When you buy this book, you may look at the picture on the back and say ‘This is by a black American.’ There’s these things, whatever it is we’re placing in front of American — black, cis, male. So I’m like, ‘okay, I’m going to acknowledge that and write from there first. And then I want to see how much deeper I can go.”