The Thing About France, S3E2: Thomas Chatterton Williams on Race, Philosophy, and COVID-19


“Being first and foremost understood as American… where the primary identity that I had in society wasn’t a racialized one, it was nationalized actually, was liberating.”

In this week’s episode of The Thing About France, the podcast by and for American Francophiles, guest Thomas Chatterton Williams got into a deep discussion with host Liesl Schillinger about black Francophilia, James Baldwin, and the impact of social media on expat life. Williams is an author and cultural critic whose notable works include the memoirs Losing My Cool : How a father’s love and 15,000 books beat hip-hop culture (2010), and Self-Portrait in Black and White (2019). An alum of Georgetown and NYU, the Newark, NJ native fell in love with France while on a summer study-abroad program in Tour, and now lives with his French wife and children in Paris.

Williams is an expert on the works of James Baldwin, and “thinks about race professionally,” so it’s not surprising that he had some interesting things to say about the American racial imaginary as a black man and an expat in the era of George Floyd.

“It’s interesting to watch these things from France, because France has a very different relation to political correctness, to identitarianism, to identity politics,” he explains, mentioning Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, which has only just been released in France this month. “I’m really interested to see how that is received. Because in many ways it challenges fundamental premises of the Republican ideal, that everyone is the same and that race is not something to be taken into account.”

Regarding Baldwin, he discusses the notion of the expat’s responsibility to his or her home country. Though Baldwin eventually returned to America because of the draw of the Civil Rights movement, Williams feels that social media and online publications make it possible for him to take part in the transatlantic conversation no matter where he is.

But how exactly did a boy from New Jersey end up so far from home? Williams talks about his love of France, and how his father encouraged him to learn French as a child in the hopes of someday being able to experience the country and the culture. “Paris symbolically holds a very special space in the black American imagination. There’s a strong expat tradition of writers like James Baldwin or jazz musicians like Sydney Bichet and others, even Miles Davis.”

And don’t think Coronavirus fatigue hasn’t caught up with him, even in the small village in the Loire Atlantique where he and his family have been quarantining. “This has been just such an extraordinary year full of so much, and on top of that you’ve got an election coming up that’s extraordinarily important, and the whole world is watching, and it feels like we’re just exhausted. So my instinct in those situations is just to try to isolate, bring some good books, read, write as much as I can.”

Sound advice. For those who would maybe prefer to listen than read right now, new episodes of The Thing About France will be available every other Tuesday. Stay tuned on Frenchly and French Morning for more.

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