We’re fully immersed in the “Black Expatriate Writers in France” course in the South of France. As I prepared for this course, I read all of the texts I’m teaching , and I also started to dive into other texts in preparation for the trip. Specifically, I reread Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, and I finally read, even though it takes place in Northern France, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I started, as well, to look more into France’s colonialism and specifically its relationship to Algerian and the Algerian war in Alister Horne’s The Savage War of Peace. I also read a few more texts before and during travek, notably Alphonse Daudet’s Tartarin of Tarascon and Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio, both of which take place in Marseille. One of the most informative books has been Nicolas Hewitt’s Wicked City: The Many Cultures of Marseille which brought a lot of things to mind as I prepared for this trip.

Reading Hewitt’s book, which focuses specifically on Marseille from the nineteenth century through the twentieth, I am constantly thinking about the similarities that I see with France’s second largest city and New Orleans, Louisiana. These correlations aren’t one-to-one, but there are numerous correlations that I see between each of these port cities. Both exist at the intersections of culture and both arose, in many ways, from the exploitation of others through enslavement and colonization. Each, as well, conjures up negative connotations within the minds of individuals because each, in different ways, becomes seen through the lens of vice and refuse. Along with all of this, each has a long history of artistic culture and vibrancy, cultures that make each city distinct and unique within their respective nations and the world.

When I travel on my own, I usually do a little research before embarking on a trip; however, I mainly want to be in the moment and explore, letting myself become immersed in the city I am visiting. However, for a study travel trip, where I am leading students, I want to be more prepared and dig further into the history and region we are visiting. This is the reason I picked up Hewitt’s book and started to think about the various connections between Marseille and New Orleans but also the broader connections between the port city and the texts and themes we are discussing in the course. My hope is that students on this trip experience it as Ray talks about himself and others in Claude McKay’s Banjo, as a way to “learn a whole lot of things” because traveling should make us some of “the most tolerant [people] in the world” due to the fact that we see “so much.”

Marseilles exists at the intersections of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. When McKay introduces us to Marseille in his memoir A Long Way from Home, he shows the diasporic aspects of the port city: “It was relief to get to Marseilles, to live in among a great gang of black and brown humanity. Negroids from the United States, the West Indies, North Africa and West Africa, all herded together in a warm group.” Likewise, Hewitt points out that the Saint-Simionians of the early nineteenth century “had global aspirations, centered on the relationship between East and West, in which the Mediterranean was a natural fulcrum.” This vision came to fruition later as Marseille became “the meeting point between Asia, Africa, and Europe.”

McKay highlights Marseille’s position as a Mediterranean and global port in Banjo as the narrator describes the dock workers and the cargo of the ships in the port: “There any day he might meet with picturesque proletarians from far waters whose names were warm with romance: the Caribbean, the Gulf of Guinea, the Persian Gulf, the Bay of Bengal, the China Seas, the Indian Archipelago. And, oh, the earthy mingled smells of the docks! Grain from Canada, rice from India, rubber from the Congo, tea from China, brown sugar from Cuba, bananas from Guinea, lumber from the Soudan, coffee from Brazil, skins from the Argentine, palm-oil from Nigeria, pimento from Jamaica, wool from Australia.” McKay points out, throughout Banjo and other works, Marseille’s global importance and position. However, this cosmopolitan nature leads partly to the cultural imagining of Marseille as a “wicked city.”

Siméon Flaissières, the socialist mayor of Marseille from 1919 to 1931, wrote a letter in October 1923 to the prefect warning against “a redoubtable current of immigration of people from the East, notably Armenians,” who could bring with them diseases such as typhoid and smallpox. He went on to present the immigrants as “deprived of everything, opposed to our Western customs, rebelling against all measure of hygiene, immobolised in their resigned, passive, ancestral Passivity.” Flaissières’ comments run counter to Marseille’s image as ville d’accuiel (town of the welcome). The immigrants arriving become a plague, something to be eradicated and stopped. This is, of course, language that creates an image of Marseille as being overrun by immigrants who do not adhere to “Western customs” and bring violence to the populace.

As well, Flaissières’ comments recall the long history of Marseille and its adherence to orientalism both through its artistic imagination and its cultural programs. We see this in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo with Edmond Dantes’ trip to Asia and through Haydee. We also see this through Marseille’s colonial expositions in the early twentieth century where replicas of villages and towns from France’s colonies were constructed in Marseille for the populace. The history of orientalism plays into the view of Marseille as “exotic” and “othered,” even in relation to France itself. In many ways, it exists at the crossroads of France, as a southern space set apart from the Parisian metropole, and in this way, it continues to remind me of New Orleans, both cities apart from and yet a part of the nations where they exist.

There is more I could say about Marseille and what I am thinking about in preparation for this trip. While I am thinking about all of these things, and more, I don’t want them to necessarily cloud my perceptions of Marseille during the study travel trip. Yet, I want them to inform my experience because as someone visiting Marseille for the first time, I know I will have a certain perception and that perception will be influenced by everything that I know and have experienced. Ultimately, though, I look forward to enjoying Marseille and all it has to offer.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: