America's melting pot mythology has never been better served than by the rise of Barack Obama. His oft told tale of having mixed race parents, living an odd, exotic childhood, and ultimately emerging as this nation's first true 21st-century leader has re-ignited our faith in national narrative. People around the world seem genuinely moved by his election to the presidency.
But, following in our footsteps? That's another matter. My many friends in the United Kingdom and France, places with complicated histories with their former colonies and the peoples they once dominated, see Obama as a symbol of how far they have to go. My French friends in particular seem especially conflicted, since "race" is damn near a forbidden topic in France's public discourse. Census numbers and statistics based on race are not officially kept in France, since once you are a "citizen," you are French. Which begs the question, what if you are not treated like a citizen?
La Haine, the mid-'90s film about three poor kids from the Paris suburbs, nailed that challenge with hip hop potency and anticipated the riots in the Paris suburbs this decade. But the most nuanced artistic look at the limits to ethnic mobility in France is Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy, three hard-boiled crime novels with Mediterranean soul. In Total Chaos, Chourmo, and Solea, Izzo uses a world-weary, sea-loving, hard-drinking, and always melancholy ex-cop named Fabio Montale to outline the despair of France's Arabs, Africans, and gypsies.
I've been reading Izzo since Obama's election, both moved by his vigorous rendering of Marseilles and the teeming life in that coastal city, and saddened by the fatalism that drives the narratives. These books, published by the late author just before the turn of the century, are film noir with sun. Kinda of like Raymond Chandler meets Walter Moseley with better wine and fish. Izzo's mastery of despair reflects the underlying emotion of my French African friends about the future. One pal, a journalist, has seen his sister move to London and brother to Los Angeles in search of opportunities they feel are impossible to even dream about in France.
I don't write this to blast the French — though they do deserve to be called out on their racism — but to point out how remarkable Obama's tale is (it is very much an epic novel in progress) and to marvel at how a skillful novelist can do the work of a sociologist and a politician using the intensity of art as his tool.