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  • On First Ladies and Passing at the Equator:Madame Sarkozy, Madame Michelle, Maman Chantal
  • Marie Lathers (bio)

"Bonjour!" The young man smiled full in my face as I moved toward the water.

"Bonjour." I vaguely grinned back, sunspots bouncing off my retina.

I waved to my daughter, Linden, who romped in the waves with Elvis and Geraldine, our Anglophone driver and cook who formed part of our Cameroonian family. A literature professor in the United States, I was on a Fulbright grant to teach in the French-speaking part of the country. It was October 2008, and we were on vacation at Seme Beach, in the South-West Province, Mile Eleven from the town of Limbe and mere hours from the equator.

He paused; I wondered why. Was he one of the local men who frequented the hotel in search of middle-aged white women to wine, dine, and hand the check to? I had seen a few such couples, and I had seen their mirror images: young, beautiful black women with old white men clinging to them. In the hotel restaurant Geraldine had recognized one of her high school friends hanging onto a large white man: "Look what has become of her, Mum. She was always thinking she was special—but now she is not special at all." I scolded myself for being suspicious of his motive for greeting me, in a country where greetings were routine and where in one month men had treated me with more respect than I garnered in the United States over the course of a year. But he followed up with something that startled me.

"Vous n'êtes pas Madame Sarkozy?"

I hesitated and then giggled like a girl.


As I walked on, my feet kicked up bits of black sand that stuck to the backs of my calves—residue of Mount Cameroon, the active volcano nearby. From behind I looked like a Dalmatian. I squinted at Linden, Elvis, and Geraldine as Elvis called out, "Mum, Mum, come in!" That was me, Mum. Not Madame Sarkozy—Mum. I'd heard of hard of hearing, but was this man hard of seeing? [End Page 53] Admittedly, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and I were both white, but in all other respects I was hardly her separated-at-birth twin. Where could a person be blinded enough, sun in his eyes or not, to take me, fifty-ish Mum, for the French president's main squeeze, the former fashion model, direct from Italy to the Champs-Elysées? Where but in the wake of Mount Cameroon, where equatorial rays intense enough to make anyone's sight falter beat down twelve hours out of every twenty-four.

As it turned out, my moment as Mme. Sarkozy was just one of several moments I experienced during our year in Africa that jarred me into pondering the notion of identity and the possibility of being mistaken for, of "passing" as, another. This vacation anecdote, along with my wide-eyed ten-year-old's insights and my students' comments in the African American women's literature course I taught at the University of Dschang, brought a complexity to my understanding of racial passing, which, until then, had been unnuanced. The novels included on my syllabus, by Toni Morrison, Nella Larsen, and others, provided narrative background and evidence for a reassessment, in part by suggesting that for women race and passing are entwined with gender and its markers, including age, clothing, and hair, as well as skin color. I also began to reconsider the ability of women to "pass" in light of my thoughts about the US presidential election, which took place while we lived in Cameroon. The election brought up the issue of first ladies, a category of women who are often made by the media and the public to pass as other than who they are.

At Seme Beach Linden and I shared a room with Geraldine; Elvis bunked with our good friend Guy, who had helped us navigate through many surprises since our arrival six weeks previously in Yaoundé, the capital city. I was ready to teach, but faculty strikes had delayed the opening of universities. I had...


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pp. 53-62
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