I'd walked through the town square as I did for the past few days, book in hand, then sat down
and began reading. It was a ritual I had established ever since I came to this town -- a major
medieval urban center at that! I don't remember exactly what book I was reading; somehow,
within the next few minutes, that book would spark an innocent conversation. That conversation
would lead to an act on kindness that would blossom into many friendships.
Of course, the first few days in medieval Paris was not what I expected. Don't get me wrong; I have wonderful memories of 1480s Paris before I met Claude Frollo. Maybe I did it to myself. Ever since I ended that brief and violent relationship with BC Bell, I had put up this wall between myself and the world. Now, I didn't relish having the 20th Century world knock down that wall, but nothing prepared me for a summer excursion to 15th Century France!
Firstly, there was the invitation itself. Fern cautioned me to bring long dresses and comfortable shoes. "Oh yeah, leave the jeans, shorts, and tank tops at home. You may want to bring along some fancy church clothes." I thought nothing of it, and did as she requested. Maybe, I thought that we're going to one of those really fancy resorts where you dress up all the time.
Fancy resort, my foot! Here I am, in medieval Paris! No plumbing, no electricity, no . . . Oh geesh, why couldn't I have just said 'no'?
Then there was that question: How will people treat me?
I was perfectly aware of the conditions facing persons of color during these times. It wasn't color prejudice per se, but I had this feeling, ever since I arrived, that people were assessing me solely on the color of my skin. I also knew that, in some of these folks' eyes, I was subhuman, and I had to prove my humanity every step of the way. Then came Pierre Mannette, Fern's next-door-neighbor who introduced himself and his family. He was instrumental in getting the folks in our immediate area to accept me. I met the most wonderful people, but I could still tell that from the aloof expressions that acceptance would be slow in coming.
Fern decided that in order to get me accepted was for me to attend church. OK, I thought, I can do this. Besides, I seldom miss Sunday services regardless of the location. Then again, if I did decide to forego regular church attendance, I'd get an earful from my mother: "You better have a good reason for skipping church, Danisha."
"Once these guys see you're a sincere Christian, then the going will be a little easier."
"Fern, you know I'm not Catholic – I've been inside a Catholic church only twice in my life! I have no idea what to do."
Fern reassured me and said, "Just follow my lead and the rest will come naturally."
So, on that first bright morning, and dressed in my Sunday finest of a long ivory dress, matching pumps, and veiled picture hat, I found myself kneeling in Notre Dame's sanctuary.
Of course, being Protestant didn't help matters: I was still waiting for them to pass the plate, then
add folks to their prayer list. (Not in this church!)
Then I had to bring along my Bible; Fern thought that was unwise.
"You brought your own? How are you going to explain that? By the way, which translation . . .
"NIV," I replied blankly.
Fern silently chuckled then said, "The Bible has yet to be translated into English; then you come to 1481 France with the Protestant version –– In NIV!"
OK, so that was an oversight...
Aside from all that, I was able to get through Mass not once, but several times. The more
comfortable I became, the more times I attended Mass without Fern. In a way, I liked the ritual
and pageantry, and never once forgot that I was in church for a valid purpose. I especially loved the music – old chants and liturgy that were centuries-old. In time, I went to the cathedral nearly every day; sometimes I'd go more than once a day, just to give myself a little solace in what I perceived as a hostile world.
The people picked up on this and soon warmed to me, albeit slowly.
It's almost like the time when we moved in that Washington Boulevard house . . . Momma was
being her friendly self, and Daddy was being himself . . . But there were always those few who
couldn't buy the niceties. To them, we'd always be just . . . Why couldn't those people see beyond
I'd like to meet one, just one, person here who'd see me and like me for what I am. After all, I'm a nice person. Where is that person? Maybe this was a bad idea . . . Maybe I should tell Fern to take me back to my time . . .
I guess the self-consciousness showed, but botching centuries-old rituals was the least of my
worries. When I walked into Notre Dame the first time, I felt eyes upon me and heard shushed
voices behind my back. What was it? The color of my skin? The clothes?
I could've kicked Fern for bringing me to this hostile world; it was clear I would never fit in.
But Fern, along with Pierre, was a tremendous help. It was Pierre who introduced me to several parishioners and priests.
"This is Madame Fern's friend; she's from the New World."
Some folks warmed; others didn't. I realized that during this time period, Europeans had just
made contact with peoples of color. Oh, there was the Gypsies' presence in and around Paris, but
my interactions with them were more strained than with Parisians. There was that sense of
coldness that I couldn't get over. I began to have the feeling that I was the ultimate outsider.
If I can't get along with the Gypsies, and they can see I'm not one of them. . .
These 15th Century Parisians may not want me near them. . . How will I get through the summer?
I was resigned to the fact that nothing good would come of this trek through time. So, with book in hand, I began to lose myself in the words and pictures...
Now I remember what I was reading! Fern had found an old copy of Girl of the Limberlost; and I, feeling like a kid again, decided to make that one of my weekly reads.
Within minutes, I heard a young voice: "You can read! What's the story about? Will you read it
I shifted my eyes from the printed page to the little boy sitting next to me. He was an adorable of about seven years, with a headful of reddish brown hair, a freckled complexion, and large, round brown eyes. He smiled at me, then began a nonstop streak of questions and comments.
"You're pretty. I like your hat. I saw you at Notre Dame. Are you a Gypsy? You don't look like a Gypsy. Is Madame Fern your friend?"
I returned the smile then asked him his name.
"My name is Paul d'Arques. My father and brother work in the Palais de Justice, in the stables." Paul stopped long enough to stare at the words on the page. I knew he couldn't read; and even if he could, the English – American English at that – would've been completely foreign to him.
Maybe that's it...The Black presence in Europe is, even in the late 15th Century, still a novelty, for there wasn't such premium placed on color and such, but...
"Mademoiselle? Would you read to me?" Paul tugged at my sleeve; his round freckled face beamed up at me when he added, "Your hat is pretty. I like the big silk rose in it." He reached up and touched the silk flowers that adorned my summer straw hat. Then Paul lightly stroked my dress. "I like pink; it's pretty. Is this dress made of silk?"
I think I've made a friend...
"Mlle. Nisha, read to me. I want to hear the story."
In a flash, I found myself reading a 19th Century American novel to a 15th Century French peasant boy; and somehow, I didn't mind. I paused here and there just to gauge Paul's reaction, and his big brown eyes widened as he listened to the tale of a young girl growing up in northern Indiana – a place little Paul would never behold.
"La belle dame d'Ethiopie."
"La belle dame d'Ethiopie. You are Ethiopian, I can tell because your skin is Black."
Now, I couldn't flat out tell Paul that I was from the American Heartland and of African descent, let alone that I was from the future, but I accepted the compliment.
Come to think of it, maybe I was being so paranoid. At that moment, I became increasingly aware that my presence in this medieval European metropolis may be a mere novelty, not a threat. Many Parisians had seldom seen Black people, as the Black presence was concentrated in southern Europe. Black Africans, or 'éthiopens', were few and far between north of the Alps. Also, the negative connotations assigned to Black Africans had yet to manifest themselves. That won't happen until after the Age of Discovery – a blessing on my part – and the image of 'le bon éthiopen' permeated much of European Christendom. Legends of the Black Knight, St. Maurice (a Black Christian martyr revered in Germany), Senapo (who was Charlemange's ally), Solomon and Bathsheba were firmly ensconced in the medieval European Christian psyche. It would be well into the 1500s that racial slavery –– with its color caste system, well-documented cruelty, and profoundly negative images –– would displace all those positive images of Black Africa. In this medieval world, the early 1480s, there was still the romanticized image of 'le bon éthiopen'; therefore, I took comfort in the fact that maybe these good 15th Century folks would apply that image to me. And they did...
'Le bon éthiopen' –– My father told me much about social structures during the Middle Ages. "Danisha, the only peoples assigned to pariah status were Gypsies, Saracens, and Jews, and that was on the sole basis that they weren't Christians – Infidels, as they were termed. No honey, Black Africans were often held in high esteem in European Christendom. Images of Black Madonnas abounded in the Roman Church, and the Church encouraged that veneration of Mary as a dark-skinned woman."
Thanks, Daddy, for that very valuable history lesson. . .I should've remembered that when I first set foot in this bustling medieval town. . .
"Mademoiselle, read some more!" Paul d'Arques tugged at my sleeve again, then beckoned to some other children playing nearby, "Renée! Louis! Over here! This lady's telling the most wonderful story!"
Within seconds, I was surrounded by a horde of young Parisians ranging in age from five to ten. They all gathered around as I continued to read Gene Stratton-Porter's homespun words. The questions and comments came fast and furious:
With a smile, I answered each and every question as best I could, and I knew these kids would never understand everything I told them of 'The New World'. I had to be extra cautious by NOT saying I was from 'America' as the continent, although still the stuff of legends, had yet to be discovered.
It was Renée who had said that she knew "Madame Fern when she first came here. She helped me, and my brother." Of course, I had yet to learn the whole sordid story surrounding Renée de Chateaupers, and her brother Jules. Fern would tell me only so much.
Renée then said to me, "Madame Fern says you are a teacher, and that you know some games. What do New World children play? Can you teach us?"
An innocent request that would lead to the most interesting and unforgettable encounters...
"It was Paul who gave you the lowdown on 'Madame Fern's friend'! Claude, you had all the bases covered, however. . ."
We were currently walking south on Illinois Street to the Artsgarden, a place that Claude has come to love so much. He has told me that he can sit in "our special spot and watch the world go by for hours." So we did just that before embarking on a short shopping spree.
We sat in that 'special spot' and watched eastbound traffic whiz down Washington Street. During that time, Claude began to recount his initial impressions when he saw me in the square with the kids, but not before he expressed his thoughts on my initial fears.
Two little boys tell Claude Frollo everything! Nisha makes a favorable impression, and more friends. . .The Minister of Justice finally sees Danisha in the flesh....
Hop over to The Conclusion of this story!
©Copyright, FrolloFreak FSM #14, 1998.