By Sam Jones. My acceptance to my university’s study abroad program in Lyon, France coincided with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. As I prepared to spend the next five months in Europe, many of my friends and classmates remarked that I was lucky to be escaping to a more reasonable country for the opening stanza of what was expected to be – and what has proved to be thus far – a tumultuous presidency. The first month and a half of my time abroad has shown me that, as the historian Neil Roberts once stated, “freedom is not a place; it is a state of being.” As I write this, Marine Le Pen, the representative of the neo-Nazi Front National political party, seems posed to make it to the second round of presidential elections scheduled to take place in April and May of this year. Protestors have taken to the street across the country to protest the rape of 22-year-old Théo, a Black man from the suburbs of Paris, at the hands of the French police. In brief, any differences between the U.S. and France have been overshadowed by their striking similarities.
Thus far, the large part of my activism, as I see it, has consisted of serving as both a witness and a translator of the ever-evolving American drama. Yet I have doubts about how effective this work is. Author Danny Laferrière once wrote, “The problem with the identity of the foreigner is that we refuse them the right to be anything other than folklore.” What is American folklore, at this moment in time, and where is my place in this folklore? More than ever in my life, I have felt estranged from the United States. One night after dinner, my host mother told me, “You don’t look American. T’es plus mat.” You’re a bit darker.
Last week, she shared with me that the neighborhood storekeeper had been surprised when she told him that I was from the U.S. His response? “American? I thought he was from North Africa or something.” What does my American experience mean to someone who refuses to acknowledge me as such? What does it mean to be a Black person, a Person of Color, engaged in activism outside of the context of the United States, where we may not be read as American? My experiences – which, it must be noted, are affected by my male privilege and my light-skin privilege, amongst others – lead me to conclude that my resistance as an American migrant cannot solely target the actions of the American presidency.
I have little emotional connection to my American citizenship. I do not know if I love the United States or if I ever will. The work I hope to engage in is not contingent on a fierce sense of patriotism. I am working for my family, biological or chosen, and myself. I am working to remake, to improve our nation, not to return it to a mythic baseline of dignity that supposedly existed prior to the current presidency. I have no idea as to where this journey will take me, but I hope to find myself working side by side with many with you along the way. Stay woke, stay warm, stay safe.