When Stokely began primary school, his parents signed him up for a workshop in an introductory music course.
They’d always had record albums at home. Samora’s: Otis Redding, John Coltrane, Richard Bona, Miles Davis, Son House, Bonga, IAM, Nèg’ Marrons, all of Gil Scott-Heron, and a few biguine classics. Black men.
Blanche’s albums, women: Miriam Makeba, Barbara, Nina Simone, Khadja Nin, Jeanne Moreau, Billie Holiday, Anne Sylvestre, Cesaria Evora, Cécile Kayirebwa, and cassettes of Rwandan music from the ’80s and ’90s.
Two pairs of ears, two sensibilities. What did it depend on? Each of them listened to his or her music when the other one was absent; it seemed that Congolese rumba from the ’90s—and not always—a few hits from OK Jazz, Cuban son and Scott-Heron were the only tastes they shared, even though on the surface their tastes seemed quite similar.
Samora and Blanche loved to dance. Before Stokely was born, they would go to all the parties their Afro-Caribbean friends—students, the unemployed, or young workers— organized in dorms or little apartments in the Saint-Michel quartier, filled with laughter and rhythm. Even after an exhausting day, even the night before an exam, they could find the desire to go and sway to the music, and in everyone’s opinion they were the most handsome couple, the best dressed, and they could not be beat on any improvised dance floor.
As if to force their respective mothers to lie—both of whom had refused to acknowledge that either child possessed the famous “sense of rhythm” that was supposed to inhabit anyone with black or mixed-race skin—together they learned to master the steps of the salsa, the rumba, the zouk, and the soukous, which they performed with casual mastery for their hosts, who could only admire this eminently well-matched couple.
In the early weeks of their relationship, they had established their own particular ritual. Whenever they went out, they would first spend a long time choosing matching clothing; she would complement her hairstyle of the moment (braids, afro, or smooth hair) with artificial flowers the same color as their outfits, and he began to wear hats (going to the flea market for his Panamas, flat canvas caps, Stetsons, berets, and Borsalinos). Then she would leave the house first, flamboyant. Twenty minutes after she arrived, he would make his entrance, a dandy of the African “Sape” variety, and after he’d given out a few fist bumps to his mates, and kissed Blanche’s girlfriends effusively, he would pretend to see her for the first time, to be subjugated by her well-rounded hips, to discover how well attuned their styles were, and he would go over to her ceremoniously and say, “Madame, would you be so kind as to grant me this dance?” The party could begin.
Then she fell pregnant.
Those first months, she went on dancing as if nothing had happened. When her tummy was plain to see, in all its beauty, she swapped her colorful outfits for a long black dress that was comfortable and elegant and that clung harmoniously to her mother-to-be figure. The flowers she always wore on her head echoed the hues of the father-to-be’s tie or shirt. They were resplendent, closer than ever, they arrived together now, and only got up for the slow dances; they drank fruit juice and went home early, accompanied by the more indulgent but still admiring gazes of their circle. Her girlfriends said, “He’ll be a perfect father, he stopped smoking and drinking when you did, he’s so responsible.” And she thought, confident: “Yes, I found the right one, we’ll be a model family.” They owed it to themselves to succeed where their mothers had failed. She still believed that the fractured framework in which they had grown up was due solely to inconsequential women who hadn’t known how to keep the fathers in the nest.
They had moved into a bigger apartment on the rue du Port, to be ready for their son, Stokely—Samora had already chosen his first name as an obvious tribute to the Black Panthers’ honorary prime minister. She had painted the walls of the nursery yellow, “to tell him the story of all the sunshine in the world”; Samora had one of his women friends from Senegal sew curtains and an entire range of bibs, sleepers, and diaper bags made of pagne. Above the cradle, Blanche hung a mobile fashioned with banana leaves that she’d bought at the craft cooperative in Butare during her trip in 1997, when she did not yet know she was pregnant.
And for the first time, they listened to their respective records together. Their favorite was the Afro-Cuban All Stars he’d given her on their first Christmas, exactly nine months before the birth of their son.
Where other parents might worry over how much religious education they should give the fruit of their loins, and to which God they should dedicate him, Blanche and Samora thought only of controlling the sounds that entered their child’s ears. Where others would be teaching their child to walk, they already wanted to see Stokely dancing, to prove that he, like his parents, had a sense of rhythm. They gave him tambourine cuddly toys, maraca rattles, and harmonica-fish for the bath.
Under this regime, Stokely quickly acquired a good ear for music. Very young, he began to beat time on the coffee table with wooden spoons; he would start to wiggle the minute a note of music could be heard. His parents were delighted, and while they’d stopped going to their friends’ smoke-infested parties, they never missed open-air concerts in the park, or festivals where they could hear African and West Indian groups, jazz, or salsa, at times that were compatible with the baby’s sleep. They even started going to the traditional Bastille Day ball, where they gently mocked “those Whites who don’t know how to dance” and their disjointed hopping around to soulless, corny pop music.
They would gaze at the Conservatoire de musique, a large, imposing building a stone’s throw away from the rue du Port, with all the wariness and circumspection of the poor in the presence of the cultural institutions of the elite. It was therefore with a certain trepidation that they agreed for their son to take part in the “first steps in music” program, the fruit of a partnership between their boy’s school and that institution, and offered to all the children in kindergarten without discrimination.
Neither one of them had ever had the opportunity to learn to play an instrument or been taught to read music. It was an unknown world, which they looked upon with the rather hostile respect of the illiterate for a dictionary. They had never thought of music as something that can be learned sitting down, that can be written on a piece of paper, or that can exclude instead of bringing together.
When her son came home and began to tell her, his voice vibrant with emotion, about the bassoon, the French horn, the violin, the flute, and the oboe, Blanche told herself that her worries had only just begun.
“And the bass drum, Maman, oh, it was so huge, the bass drum!” he said, over and over, all evening long.
“We know how to write French flawlessly, how to speak without an accent, we’ve read a ton of books, many more than most native French of our condition; we’ve had some higher education and we can prepare recipes du terroir. But that music, that language—we know nothing about it, it has never spoken to our souls, it is a cold and distant continent that leaves us stiff; how can I go there with my little boy, without utterly failing?” Blanche wondered.
They went together to the multimedia library to borrow the records the conservatoire had recommended.
Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Saint-Saëns came into their home. Little Stokely didn’t dance anymore, he listened and hummed, keeping the tempo with one finger raised, to imitate the orchestra conductor he must have had a chance to admire during a concert for children with their teacher. One evening, while listening for the fourth time to Peter and the Wolf, his parents could not help but indulge a reluctant fit of laughter, and they had to face facts: “Stokely likes white people’s music.”
Raising our own children makes us view our own parents’ erratic work with greater understanding. Struggling with her ignorance when her son asked her questions, Blanche recalled how angry Immaculata used to get whenever she’d asked her for help with her math or English homework in Butare. “You ought to pay closer attention in class, little numbskull! I’ve been keeping you clothed and fed all this time. You think I have the leisure to take evening classes or go to university while you sit there yawning with boredom instead of writing everything down and asking questions to people who know?” In her anger there was all the resentment she’d never voiced against a system that would not allow a young Tutsi girl, however brilliant, to attend university, all the shame absorbed when she used to listen to her French husband talking with his ex-pat friends, and she’d recognize the words but was unable to grasp the humor or the innuendo, all the resentment against her condition, fueled by thousands of tiny humiliations accumulated since childhood—because she was a girl, because she was poor, because she was a Tutsi.
She had done her best, just as, no doubt, Blanche wanted to do her best now, to go as far as she could with her son into a world she’d never had access to. It had taken only three generations for the transmission of the keys to life, which up to now, had justified the authority of the elders over their descendants, to become obsolete. Immaculata had left the hillside, and the skills in cultivation and husbandry she had learned from her parents, who in turn had learned them from theirs, and so on, all the way back, were no longer of any use to her. To Blanche, from the vantage point first of her French school, then of university, her mother’s secondary school education seemed ridiculous. Every time, the field of what was possible had grown wider, deeper, casting the older generations to one side, while earlier and earlier the child called into question the significance of the labor of those who had come before, their culture, their values.
To guard against a breach that risked widening between her and her son, Blanche decided to learn his new language, to share his passion. Too many walls of silence had gone up already between the members of her family. When Stokely began playing the clarinet in first grade, she signed up for an adult class and began learning at the same time.
On weekends they began talking about tessitura, reeds, Mozart, and Brahms. Samora felt left out and adopted the role of the complainer, saying over and over that he didn’t like the sound of that language, where one white was equal to two blacks, and he went so far as to question the origin of the ebony wood with which their clarinets were made. Their son paid no attention; his mother, her mind always on the alert to ward off the slightest rift, suggested a compromise, “When we get good enough, we’ll be able to play your favorite jazz standards.”
He replied, in bad faith, “Trumpet, saxophone, piano— those are the instruments Black jazzmen play. The clarinet is a white man’s thing. Besides, you can’t dance to it.”
“That’s not true, there have been Black clarinetists right from the beginning, they’re just not as well known, and anyway, stop always looking at things through a lens of melanin!”
Their first clashes:
“You cater to his every whim, don’t let him start thinking he’ll be able to join some major classical orchestra, they’ll always remind him he’s not the real deal, he’d do better to devote his time to his studies.”
“He’s in grade school, it’s important for him to have something to be passionate about. When I was that age, no one believed in my dreams.”
“And what were your dreams? Go to Europe and find your white father who never gave a damn about you? Sometimes it’s better to warn children what the outside world is really like, that way you spare them a heap of disappointment.”
“Don’t you go ruining my son’s childhood with your resentment. Times have changed, Stokely is French, this is a new generation, more mixed-race, more open, less rigid.”
“And I was born French, too! And that didn’t protect me, young people are racist nowadays, too, stop being so naïve! Even if he becomes the best clarinetist in France, even if he becomes famous, the journalists will always introduce him as ‘a secondgeneration immigrant.’ Always. They’ll try to turn him into an Uncle Tom, a collaborator, their token Negro, like Satchmo.”
“Not a chance, with the name you gave him, they’re more likely to stick a threatening feline on the posters next to his name.”
“Or else they’ll tell him to change his name, or change his life.”
And for the umpteenth time he would tell her the story about the great South African singer Miriam Makeba who, at the height of her fame, saw all her scheduled concerts canceled in the United States because she had married Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party.
More often than not he would calm down, but there were times when they would pointedly turn their backs on each other and fall asleep without another word.
But there were still a thousand and one moments of shared joy, in the morning when they woke up, when they put on their record and all three of them danced with their arms around each other to the sound of the piano, trumpet, maracas, and suave, elderly Cuban voices, before it was time to go out to confront what the father called the hard realities of the world.
After Blanche had been learning the clarinet for three years, Samora found himself unemployed, in the wake of a redundancy plan several major private companies implemented, while new buzzwords in the newspapers—pensions schemes, stock options, golden parachutes—masked a faceless crisis, and Blanche had to stop her classes and put in additional hours at the hospital. In the tram, after a long day, she would listen to the pieces her son was learning to play, and she’d let herself be lulled by the rhythms that still sounded strange to her ears, while she was inhabited by a beauty she finally admitted could be universal. Father and mother no longer went dancing, even on Bastille Day. They watched with pride as their son became more confident, his fingers fluttering along the black ebony and the white nickel silver with an elegant dexterity that reminded them of the mambo steps they used to dance. At the end-of-year concerts at the conservatoire, they would look around for other dark-skinned people, whom they acknowledged with a complicity the other spectators would not have understood: “We are not the only ones who dare,” was what their exchange of smiles said. When Stokely turned ten, they took him to the Opéra, to see the first Black conductor the venerable Bordeaux institution had ever had—a Canadian originally from the same island as Stokely Carmichael, Trinidad—directing a sonata by Bach for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, and a Gershwin concerto. They had dressed in matching colors, she wore flowers in her Afro, he had a new hat on his head. Stokely, who didn’t feel concerned by these matters of skin, simply informed his parents that they were way cool.
From All Your Children, Scattered by Beata Umybyeyi Mairesse, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Used with permission of the publisher, Europa Editions. Copyright 2022 by Beata Umybyeyi Mairesse. Translation copyright 2022 by Alison Anderson.