Look Left, Look Wright: Observations from the City of Light

Article excerpt

I.

Richard Wright wrote Black Boy just for me. Of that, I was certain. At least that's what I told myself as a lanky, lumbering seventh grade girl, a mess of wiry hair and thick, nearsighted lenses, ones I kept interred between the pages of a book. Wright's memoir ranked at the summit of the greatest pieces of literature ever to cross my twelve-year-old nose. Twenty years on, Black Boy has yet to be dethroned. There was a reason for his instant catapult to excellence in the halls of my adolescent wonder. To me, Wright wasn't simply a storyteller; he was a clairvoyant, a spiritual medium in reverse, contacting me from the grave as he had gone on to his sojourn with the ancestors nearly twenty years before my birth. Richard Wright knew me better than I knew myself. As I held fast to each word in Black Boy, I pressed the ideas deep down inside for fear that, if I didn't enter into them, around them, through them, and beyond them, they would somehow be lost, and subsequently, so would I. Never before had I seen my own life opened and revealed to me like a treasure map to my immediate future. In detailing his life, Wright grasped so many of my own personal struggles: the black rural childhood; the emotionally distant father; the hunger to read, to learn, to know; the disenchantment with religion, one fraught with the wrath of others' misunderstanding; the insatiable desire to escape, to paint my mark upon the canvas of the world using words as my brush. Richard Wright gave me that gift, a solid gold bullion of possibility, the assuredness of having a model, one who had gone before and tamped down the rough path upon which I now must tread. I always felt obligated to thank him. Of that, I was also certain. The only question was how?

II.

As the RER B (the regional train that services the outskirts of Paris) pulled to a stop at the Charles de Gualle airport terminal, I, along with the rest of the morning herd, pulled my bags onto the train and scanned groggily for a seat. I had caught a red-eye from Philadelphia to Paris, and the jet lag was now trying to make my acquaintance. A clock on the platform told me it was a little past eight; I had just exited a cavernous system of tunnels, human conveyor belts and lines at customs to reach this point, the train that would take me directly to Saint Michel, the metro stop adjacent to the flying buttresses of Notre Dame and a short walk from my hotel in the Marais. I found a seat next to a plexiglass window, one carved with the boredom of youth, and as the train began to push forward, I gazed out on my surroundings. Acres of recently harvested farmland stretched for miles in every direction. I took comfort in its familiarity, having grown up in Sparta next to a soybean field. Rows and rows of houses flew past as the train--now revealing itself as an express--powered through town after town, my eyes physically resisting its speed in order to clutch on to what details they could. Mediterranean roof tiles. Coral stucco. Wood shutters. Old-fashioned lace curtains dangling from the tops of windows. Cars that looked to have been crafted in miniature. A two-second glimpse of a German shepherd racing the train along the perimeter of his backyard.

But there was something else in the distance, dwellings that remained and didn't flash past in an instant. They loomed ominously against the morning sky, their entrance heralded by graffiti tags along the walls. Massive, concrete tower blocks rose from the earth like angry sentinels, and I felt a sense of foreboding stir within me, certain they trapped people in as much as I felt locked out. Even the landscape bowed before them, submitting to their ugly whims. Gone were the bucolic scenes of farm animals and croplands; they had given way to industry, which had thrust upon the surroundings a wasteland. The terrain was a smear of dark brown and gray. Giant chimneys belched sepia smoke into the air about the towers. It sucked the light into the pit of its belly like a black hole endeavoring to eat the sky. …