“Between the World and Me” came out in French while you were there. How was the reception there different from its reception in the United States?I didn’t want to hustle anybody and pose as this big-time intellectual, which is something I’m uncomfortable with, even here. But the book became an organizing place for talking about their own issues, and I was happy to allow for that. Americans are always saying, “We need to have a national conversation about race!” But we have no idea — France doesn’t even acknowledge race.
… You’re moderating the opening panel, “When Will France Have Its Barack Obama?,” which features Jelani Cobb from The New Yorker, along with three French scholars, including Pap Ndiaye, the author of “La Condition Noire” and a founder of black studies in France. What’s your answer to that question?
I’m going to let the folks on the panel talk. But I’d say that Barack Obama, to an extent that is not fully understood, is really a product of black institutions. It’s not like he ran from Hawaii. He went to the South Side of Chicago, which has a long, long political tradition. There was a community to root himself in. How does that happen in France? There you had the lack of a trenchant Jim Crow system, the lack of slavery on the mainland. The things that made racism so severe here actually gave black institutions much of their vigor. And there is a strong sense of community held together by those institutions. I could be dead wrong about this, but it would be tough to look for a Harlem in Paris. There are black neighborhoods, don’t get me wrong. But that’s not all Harlem is.
You’ve been back for a few months. How did your year in Paris change your view of America?We get into this very simplistic analysis of which country is more racist. But it’s more productive to look at the history of a country. Racism certainly exists in France, but it’s not the same. Is it better? I don’t know. But I like it here. It feels like home.