What Paris Means to Black AmericansRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, French history
I’ve long been intrigued by the scores of Black Americans throughout history who sought refuge in Paris, where they enjoyed a level of success and respect doggedly denied them at home. Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Loïs Mailou Jones are among the many exiled African American artists whose inspiring tales of triumph in spite of America’s rigid racial caste system continue to draw Black Americans to the City of Light today. But given France’s history of colonialism, the allegations of discrimination by Muslims and African immigrants in its suburbs, and its role in the past and current plight of Haiti, I could be forgiven for dismissing suggestions that Paris is a racial Mecca for African Americans. Had the quest by Black Americans to flee America’s unrelenting racism caused some to romanticize a country with its own share of bias?
However, some two months into a research fellowship in Paris, it was difficult to deny the extent to which the city has embraced African Americans and our culture. There I was accorded a measure of kindness and respect that I am denied in much of America. Whether it was the cheerful “bonjours” in shops and cafes; the emphatic “pardon Madame” after even the slightest incursion into my personal space on sidewalks; or the lack of discernible discomfort by my presence in fashionable restaurants, shops or neighborhoods, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that in Paris my race, remarkably, appears unremarkable.
That is, unless you consider the many public tributes to African Americans in a city where I can board the Metro at a stop named Ella Fitzgerald and disembark at Gare Rosa Parks, a rail station replete with a mosaic that honors the civil rights legend. There’s a park named for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., squares for Baker and Louis Armstrong, and a plaque recognizing Wright outside the Latin Quarter apartment building where he once lived. Baker remains one of the most revered women in France. The St. Louis native, who was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre, the country’s military decoration, for her service during World War II and other contributions over her lifetime , became last year the first woman of color and only the sixth woman inducted in the Pantheon, the country’s mausoleum of revered historical figures.
African American culture is ubiquitous throughout the city: The music of Alicia Keys and other Black singers can be heard in shops, and translated books by African American authors are featured in bookstore windows. The stalls along the Seine are a shrine to African American jazz legends whose images grace vintage books, albums, CDs and posters heralding their appearance in Paris decades before. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday and Sidney Bechet are among the jazz greats who enjoy cult status. For two months, I reveled in this veneration and the unexpected respite from the racial anxiety that shadows the American experience.
But Paris is no panacea, and centuries of evidence demonstrate that despite France’s mantra of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” it is far from bias-free. Walking along the glistening Seine, I am yanked from a dreamlike state as I pass the majestic Palais de Justice, a historic courthouse, and am reminded of Haiti’s reparations to France despite a notoriously brutal enslavement and the hypocrisy the building represents. While visiting the Musée d’Orsay, the sculpture “Les Quatre Parties du monde soutenant la sphère céleste” by the 19th century artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux transfixes me. Four women symbolize the continents, but the lone Black woman, who looks as familiar as a family member, wears shackles on her ankle. For the rest of that day, I pondered the fate of the nameless model, and how she became a subject for Carpeaux.