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April and Einstein on Race and Racism in Paris
This April — Fred Jerome and I, authors of Einstein on Race & Racism (2005) went to Paris for the unveiling of the French edition of our book.
The title in French means Einstein - anti-racist - Quite fitting because our book focuses on Albert Einstein's little known anti-racism.
In his lifetime the famous scientist joined organizations like the Civil Rights Congress and the American Crusade to End Lynching and movements like the defense of the Scottsboro Nine and Willie McGee, while working with and befriending great African Americans like W. E. B. DuBois and Paul Robeson.
In regards to Paris, because some of our expenses were covered, Fred brought his wife Jocelyn along and I was accompanied by Deborah, my wife and son Romare. Fred and Jocelyn are Parisian veterans — their daughter lived in Paris for four years and in Germany before that, so they've done Par-eee before. For my family, it was the first time. It was particularly fun to see Deb in Paris because it's a trip my wife has really wanted to make for most of her life. Her nephew, a London resident now, met us in France and remembered a Parisian poster in Deb's room when they were kids.
For Fred and I it was also a working vacation in that we did two presentations on April 20th, one for the press, one for a group at City hall sponsored by The Book in Bed Book Club and one at the Pippa bookstore the following day.
The Book in Bed presentation was by far the largest audience — it seemed a hundred or so people. Half of them appeared to be high school aged.
"Einstein was White. Why should or did he care about racism?" — was a question asked by a French high school student. The question sparked conversation and also framed our presentation the next day.
Some of the responses as to why included:
Because Einstein was smart.
Because he realized that limiting the potential of a significant portion of society limits everyone in that society.
Because he was empathetic — and if he could imagine what is was like to be a beam of light projected into space, he could imagine what it was like to be black in America.
Because he got to know black people on a personal basis — both in the town of Princeton where he lived and beyond and that made a signficiant difference in how he felt about the racism they experienced.
As to why he cared, Einstein said: "There is... a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices, of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious, but they are not important in comparison with the attitude of the "Whites" toward their fellow citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out."
Over the years Fred and I have been invited to make many presentations on our book. These were the first with a French interpreter. One thing that seemed painfully clear in France and is definitely true in America — is that most people don't know who Paul Robeson was. Fred says certainly no one under 40 does.
This fierce fighter for human rights for African Americans, his own people, also became a voice for freedom for people of all colors throughout the world. Regarded as one of the greatest singers of his time (or ever), one of the greatest actors, one of the greatest scholars, perhaps the greatest amateur football player during his college years at Rutgers, at one point the biggest celebrity of his time, Robeson is now forgotten, virtually erased. There may be reasons why, but none of them are good. Robeson's willingness to help people, his willingness to personally sacrifice his career for the right reasons makes him a hero and a role model for everyone in the world.
Getting back to France, being a snobbish New Yorker I typically look down on tourists, but in Paris I didn't care. I played the tourist role to the hilt with no shame. Gaping at the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre — finding Notre Dame particularly impressive — and taking endless pictures of everything.
I was really struck at how beautiful, quaint and old Paris is. The restaurants were fun and interesting — the chocolate and confectionary goods amazing. We stayed in a section called "Le Marais" with ancient narrow winding streets.
In this really great apartment — there was a really nice spacious bathroom with carpeting, a nice glass and metal sink and bathtub that separated the two bedrooms. The toilet was located in a closet isolated away from everything near the front door.
After brushing up on her French for weeks, Deb was fairly conversant even though most folks spoke to us in English — I was able to get by without speaking any French although I did find myself smiling a lot and saying bonjour.
Our visit coincided with the French Presidential election. The first vote was on Sunday April 22. Despite what they described as a frustrating political situation and hard times (very much like us in America — I did see some homeless people in boxes) the folks we met were riveted by the election and what it may portend. Judging from the situation, as François Hollande assumes the presidency in this brutally tough economic and political time, a statement Paul Robeson made more than sixty years ago after Harry Truman got voted into office is still more than relevant.
"The elections are over, but the struggle for equal rights goes on — and must go on harder than ever before."