Franco-Americans have been the recipients of ethnic discrimination for decades. They were marginalized because they were immigrants, largely Roman Catholics and spoke the French language. Discrimination began in ernest during the middle 19th century, when the right wing Know Nothing Party was gaining political power, and rose again during the 1920’s, when Ku Klux Klan rallies were evident in several Maine towns and cities where Franco-Americans lived.
Today, in 2020, I found an interesting point of view about racism against French African-Americans in an on line publication titled “Frenchly.com”. Given the current Black Lives Matter movement in response to the violence against African-Americans and the multiple videotaped tragedies, particularly the recent killing of George Floyd, I contacted the editor to request permission to quote from the article.
What is it like to be Black and French in America?
The editor Catherine Rickman gave permission to reference and publish quotes with credit to Alexis Buisson and Emmanuel Saint-Martin of the French Morning Staff.
When the unbearable video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis surfaced on social networks on Tuesday, May 26, Alice Endamne, a Gabon-born children’s book author married to an African-American, said, “It begins again.” Alice Endamne has been living for 22 years in California. French is the native language of Gabon, a country located on the west coast of Central Africa. Her husband is a scientist, but she worries about his safety everytime he goes to the grocery story.
As a black Frenchwoman in the United States, Chrystelle Kimoto sometimes feels caught in the middle of dynamics that are difficult to reconcile. In the eyes of white people, who are numerous in the French community and in her neighbourhood, she is a Black. But that doesn’t mean she identifies with the challenges of the African-American community. As an immigrant, she says she sees the United States as a land of opportunity, where African-Americans still suffer from many of the socioeconomic ills inherited from slavery, despite the progress of the 1960s. “Relationships with black Americans can sometimes be complex because, as descendants of slaves, some people feel that black Europeans or Africans do not experience the same things they do, and do not understand. I’m black, I’m French, and I’ve lived through racism, but it will never be the same as what they’re experiencing,” she says. “For my part, I have the privilege of arousing curiosity. Of course I am black, but when I open my mouth, people hear my French accent and ask me where I come from, whereas a black American might be subject to more prejudice.”
Although Endamne says, “It has begun again”, the unfortunate fact is that racism and ethnic discrimination, its ugly social sibling, reappear with cyclical frequency.
As a matter of fact, I went into my files to find an essay about the brave move against discrimination by a 1970’s, mayor of Biddeford, Maine, published in “A Franco-American Overview: Volume 4”, and reprinted from a classic article written by Calvin Trillin, published in the December, 10, 1973, edition of The New Yorker titled “Ou se trouve la plage?” (Where is the beach?”).
In the essay, Trillin described how Biddeford’s Mayor Gilbert Boucher claimed land by imminent domain, in Biddeford Pool, for the purpose of providing Franco-American residents and mill workers with public access to the beach. Without access to the beach at Biddeford Pool, the Franco-Americans would walk to Old Orchard Beach, during the summer, on their rare days off. Boucher identified the discrimination voiced by a group called the Pool Beach Association that strongly opposed the imminent domain purchase of the land. Although the Association offered to make some accommodations to allow restricted access to the beach, Boucher said that it was essential for Biddeford to own the access land. “If we are the owners, we control it,”, he is quoted as saying. “You people here use this bathroom. You can’t use this one”. If the city owned the property, everyone uses the same bathroom.”
Driving Mayor Boucher’s determination to buy the land for Biddeford was an incident he experienced when he was walking part of the beach one day and a man ran down to him. The man was very upset and told Mayor Boucher he was trespassing, pointing out that this beach was a private beach for members only. That particular road is now named Gilbert Place.
Franco-Americans have worked hard to overcome ethnic discrimination. In Biddeford, the community rallies to the La Kermesse Festival (cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic) to celebrate the city’s Franco-American heritage. The festival’s logo is a cute frog adopted to generate good will, thereby making a smiling icon out of what can be considered as an ethnic slur.
Unfortunately, the evidence reported in the Frenchly.com article appears to show how a new group of French speaking immigrants are now experiencing discrimination. It is our responsibility to welcome new Mainers and to be especially aware about how to help those who are native French speakers.