“It’s a great city, Paris, a beautiful city––and––it was very good for me.”– James Baldwin, Another Country (1962)
One of the most singular and important American authors of the 20th century, James Baldwin spent his formative years as a writer in Paris during the late 1940s and 1950s, renting a small room near St-Germain-des-Prés and toiling over drafts for his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953). The author who would later become celebrated for Notes of a Native Son tackled America’s deep-seated racism from an expatriated perspective: one that would profoundly shape his entire body of work.
James Baldwin during the 1950s. Carl Van Vechten/Wikimedia Commons
As a fledgling and economically struggling young writer in the French capital, Baldwin published essays such as “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949), which lambasted Uncle Tom’s Cabin for being a “very bad novel”, owing, he said, to its “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality”. “The Negro in Paris” (1950), meanwhile, offered an incisive comparative account of racism in America and Europe, drawn from an overseas vantage. Paris was, by both the writer’s own reckoning and those of many literary historians, the place where Baldwin was able to more clearly see, delineate, and condemn the twisted mechanisms of America’s institutionalized racism. He analyzed the extreme racial violence and injustices that was all too visible in the Jim Crow South. But he also addressed the more insidious, subtle varieties operating in the Northern states: ones that Baldwin himself had experienced all too often as a native New Yorker.
It was also in Paris where the young Baldwin became part of a vibrant community of writers, artists, and musicians, including many African-Americans who had settled in Paris following World War II– from acclaimed author Richard Wright and Chester Himes (of the Harlem Detective Series fame) to the marvelous but under-appreciated abstract expressionist painter Beauford Delaney, and legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington. While Baldwin was no naif when it came to France’s own considerable problems with racism, particularly in the context of the nation’s long history of colonial violence, he once remarked “The French, you see, don’t see me…[they] left me alone….I was freed of the crutches of race”.
The problem of invisibility
With Black History Month soon drawing to a close, I’ve been thinking about Baldwin’s comment on how the French simply didn’t see him, which made him feel, for the first time, as if his skin color was suddenly of little, or no, importance. While he reportedly felt a great sense of freedom and agency in this apparent all-but-invisibility, it’s important, I think, to consider the problem of how historical figures of color rarely make it into “mainstream” travel writing and guidebooks– notwithstanding sections dedicated to “niche-interest” topics that frequently smack of tokenism.
Here’s what I mean, in simpler terms: when you read about the Champs-Elysées, the legendary cafés of Saint-Germain, or the Louvre in a typical guide to Paris, you’re unlikely to be told in any depth about the vibrant black and/or African-American intellectual and artistic communities that mark those places. And whether conscious or not, these omissions matter. The city’s most iconic and recognizable places are generally not discussed, in most “traditional” travel guides, in relation to the people of color who contributed to their vibrancy and development. Or perhaps there is some discussion, but it’s often scant or parenthetical at best.
“Entrée to Black Paris”
In a humble attempt to help redress this problem, and to home in on some of the places uninitiated visitors should focus on to learn more about African-American history in the French capital, I caught up with Monique Y. Wells, a Paris-based writer editor, philanthropist in the arts, tour guide and founder of the website Entrée to Black Paris. Wells has worked tirelessly as a writer and arts advocate to unearth the rich black history of Paris– and to make a wider audience, including tourists, more aware of that history (you can follow the Facebook page here).
Browsing the web and attempting to find in-depth information on African-American history in the capital, the vast majority of sources seem to either be written by Wells, or to cite her as an expert on the topic. This is no accident: thanks to her tireless advocacy and considerable knowledge, more online resources now exist, where they were once mostly relegated to scholarly books on cultural history, such as this one.
When I ask Wells to name a few places in Paris that visitors interested in African-American history should focus on, she names big-ticket monuments, including The Luxembourg Gardens, The Louvre, the Champs Elysées, and Notre Dame Cathedral, as places to consider through the lens of black and African-American history. She explains why:
“These are all iconic tourist destinations in Paris and for all intents and purposes, no one associates them with the African Diaspora in Paris. And yet every one of them has multiple stories relevant to African Diaspora history, culture, and contemporary life.”
Without further ado, here are 5 areas that brim with the contributions, conversations, and singular presence of some of the aforementioned figures, in addition to many more.
1. Jardin du Luxembourg and Surrounds
Some years ago, Monique Wells and her husband Tom invited me along on an illuminating tour through their company Discover Paris, whose theme was black history in and around the Jardin du Luxembourg. I learned, first and foremost, what a crucial site this was for African-American history in Paris, and particularly during the second half of the 20th century.
If the Luxembourg is best-known for being the stomping grounds of Franco-Italian Queen Marie de Medicis, and as a preferred place to think and stroll for writers including Alfred de Musset and George Sand, the garden and its surrounds are an important locus for African-American artists and writers of the 20th century. Richard Wright took frequent strolls through the tree-lined lanes here, including with his friend and fellow writer Gertrude Stein.
Just across the street from the gardens is the Café Tournon (18 rue de Tournon, Metro Odéon), where Wright, Baldwin, Chester Himes, the painter Beauford Delaney, and other African-American writers and artists formed a genuine salon; they frequently convened inside or out on the terrace to chat, share ideas, argue and commiserate over the painful process of artistic creation. The café is even mentioned in Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick Modiano’s recent novel, After the Circus, in which the (fictional) protagonist recalls seeing Himes sitting at table outside, vibrantly conversing.
This was also an incredibly important place for Parisian jazz– a purely African-American import, of course. As Ellery Washington notes in this insightful piece in the New York Times,”the Tournon [is] largely considered the place where the St.-Germain neighborhood jazz scene got its start, providing the stage where Duke Ellington made his Parisian debut.”
To learn more about the Café Tournon and its legacy in African-American history, see this page.
2. Saint-Germain-des-Prés– and its trademark cafés
Existentialist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would no doubt be skeptically amused if they had lived to see how much of a theme park has been made, in their memory, of places like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore in the historic St-Germain-des-Prés area. It is the stuff of pure caricature. Sadly, not only does the Disneyland-ifying of St-Germain reduce these writers’ work to cheapened, cartoonish images of heavy cigarette smoke, black turtlenecks and ponderous conversation. It also tends to omit from historical memory the many other important writers and artists who regularly worked and convened here, including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
Wright and Baldwin allegedly had the falling out that would poison their friendship from then on out while hanging out at Les Deux Magots (Metro: St-Germain-des-Prés). As Michel Fabre notes in his book From Harlem to Paris, Wright and his younger protege met at the Magots to discuss Baldwin’s essay in Zéro, “Everybody’s Protest Novel”– and the conversation turned acrimonious when Baldwin suggested that Wright’s Native Son had something in common with the sentimental protest literature he was critiquing in his freshly published essay. After that argument, Fabre claims, the estrangement was permanent. In his later essay collection of 1961, Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin would note of Wright with a tinge of bitterness: “idols are created in order to be destroyed.”
In addition to hanging out and ruining longstanding friendships at the Magots, Baldwin frequently took to the tables at the Café de Flore across the street on Boulevard St-Germain, working on his essays and his first novels. So next time you’re in the area, try to imagine a time well before the area had become a tourist trap, and tap into the intellectual energy that was once palpable here, thanks in part to African-American writers like Baldwin and Wright.
3. Champs-Elysées & The Arc de Triomphe
As props for location-establishment shots in movies, the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe are rivalled only by the Eiffel Tower. These places serve as metonymic stand-ins for the city itself, producing a kind of blank-canvas effect on the mind. This means that we don’t have that many particular associations with them– excepting the traumatic image of Hitler marching under the Arc to mark his successful occupation of Paris in 1940. But then, that’s a story best left to another feature.
Perhaps owing to the highly iconic, but oddly unspecific, status of the “Champs” in many people’s minds, few visitors realize that the area is forever marked by some important African-American figures.
“African-American Eugene Bullard was invited by the French government to rekindle the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysées in 1954,” Wells points out.
Bullard, born in Georgia, fled the Jim Crow South and then the US altogether on a freighter bound for Europe, and remained there for many years to come. He was the first African-American pilot to fly in military combat during World War I. He joined the French foreign legion at the end of the war, in 1914, and settled in Paris during the height of the jazz age. During that period, he owned well-known bars and nightclubs in Paris including L’Escadrille and Le Grand Duc, and developed friendships with the likes of Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker (see below), and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As World War II brewed, Bullard participated in espionage activities for the French, and was an active member of the Resistance against the Nazis and the Occupied French government at Vichy, led by the collaborationist Maréchal Pétain. He ended up enlisting in the 51st Infantry Regiment, and was grievously wounded by an exploding artillery shell. After the Nazi occupation of France, he feared for his life and returned to the US; but in 1953 the French government asked him to rekindling the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and he was subsequently made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor.
Josephine Baker: More Than A Mesmerizing Dancer
The dancer, civil rights advocate, and French Resistance fighter Josephine Baker also had some of her first shows around the Champs-Elysées, in what was (more than a little problematically) dubbed “La Revue Nègre”. And in some of her best-remembered later performances at Les Folies Bergère club, Baker donned her iconic banana skirt. This “nativist” imagery was very much in keeping with the racialized imagination of the time: one that was heavily wrapped up in the French colonial legacy, and that exoticized people of color irrespective of their national origin (Baker was from St.Louis, Missouri– hardly a banana-producing region).
Luckily, even the city of Paris has been working to complicate the rather narrow image of who Josephine Baker was, and to counter the stereotypes that too often get attached to her. As a 2015 open-air exhibit at Paris’ City Hall highlighted, Baker was a woman of tremendous courage and intellect, who, like Bullard, aided the French Resistance against Nazi forces in the run up to and during World War II. She gathered intelligence on German officials for the French government in 1939, before the Occupation began.
During the war, Baker continued to gather intelligence while traveling around Europe and North Africa, sharing it with England and Charles de Gaulle, France’s exiled general and resistance leader. She reportedly wrote notes in invisible ink that she kept hidden in her music sheets. After the war ended, Baker was awarded the French Legion of Honor by then-President de Gaulle. It was an honor she displayed proudly, including during her speech at the 1963 March on Washington, standing beside Martin Luther King, Jr.
4. Montmartre and Pigalle: Offshoots of the Harlem Renaissance
Montmartre, now most easily recalled for the bizarrely lopsided creampuff known as the Sacre Coeur Basilica, and for its tacky landscape cottage industry thriving on Place des Tertres, seems a bit sterile in the corners that most cater to tourists. But it is also holds an important legacy in African-American history, and particularly when it comes to jazz.
Introduced to Paris by African-American soldiers during World War I, the genre grew significant roots in the city in the interwar period. As noted by the historian Tyler Stovall in an extensive interview over at PBS, the emergence of a thriving jazz-club scene in the clubs and speakeasies of Montmartre and Pigalle during the 1920s offered a gathering place for young African-Americans who had left Harlem, hoping to escape the limitations placed on them by an endemically racist society:
“Writers like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay – basically the cream of the crop of the Harlem Renaissance who came during the 1920s were attracted to Paris for several reasons. They were attracted because of its literary prominence, above all. They were attracted by the fact that it was one of the greatest cities in Europe. And increasingly, they were attracted by the fact that so many of their colleagues also seemed to be coming to Paris in the summer.”
And as U.C. Berkeley Emeritus Professor of History William A. Shack notes in his lecture “Harlem in Montmartre” (extracted from his book of the same name):
“Harlem-style nightclub culture rapidly paved the streets of Montmartre. Like missionaries of jazz, black American musicians spread the gospel of hot sounds in tiny cafes and a few sumptuous settings that attracted rich and famous British and American tourists, and French socialites. In the Parisian music idiom, this era of the Roaring Twenties was often called the era of Le Jazz hot.”
Shack goes on to mention venues including Le Grand Duc, Bullard’s aforementioned club, as one of the more important sites for jazz in Montmartre between the wars. Sadly, he notes, the Nazi occupation all but destroyed the African-American jazz scene in Paris, as its enthusiasts and artists fled the scene or went undercover, and Nazis sought to purge its “decadent” influence. It never quite recovered: the only club in the city that can claim truly historic status as a joint where African-American jazz greats like Sidney Bechet once reigned is the Caveau de la Huchette (5 rue de la Huchette), in the Latin Quarter.
5. Louvre Museum
Many people are aware that the now-iconic glass pyramid structure that graces the exterior of the Louvre Museum, and which serves as its public entrance, was created by the Chinese architect I.M. Pei. But, Wells tells me, “few people know that an African-American named David Harmon was part of the architectural team that renovated the Louvre in the 1980s and 90s”.
Harmon, who earned a degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, was part of the team that quite literally gutted the Louvre and made it into the bright, airy, expansive set of underground galleries it presents as today. Working at around the same time as Pei, he contributed to giving the Louvre a bold new guise for the late twentieth century.
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