Spirit of Black History in Paris
From the Eiffel Tower, down the Champs-Elysees and inside the Louvre museum, Black American history is everywhere in Paris. The first African-American resident we know of is Sally Hemings, then slave to Thomas Jefferson’s family in 1785. The ambassador and his entourage resided just off the beautiful main street, the Champs-Elysees. Because Sally was free under French anti-slavery law, she refused to return to the States until Jefferson promised to emancipate her children when they reached 21.
Reaching New Heights
In the mid-1800s two of New Orleans’ only four black physicians, Drs. Alexandre Chaumette and Louis C. Roudanez, received their training at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris in the Latin Quarter. Other Louisiana French-speaking blacks also found Paris advantageous to their status, namely playwright Victor Séjour, who became a celebrity of the effervescent Parisian theatre scene during the same period as Alexandre Dumas. French theatre also embraced the African-born New Yorker, actor Ira Aldridge, feted as the best Shakespearean actor of his times. Aldridge drew aristocratic crowds at Versailles and more common audiences in the French provinces playing an authentically black Othello.
Paris in the 1800s also attracted the genteel and the firebrands of Black America. Mary Church Terrell, who went on to the presidency of the National Association of Colored Women, honed her spirit of independence while studying abroad. Frederick Douglass was thrilled to discover his writing, ‘Narrative’ of his slave days, housed in the French National Library archives. And W.E.B.Dubois made it his mission to educate the French that all American blacks were not poor or downtrodden. His creation of a photographic exhibition on the thriving Black middle class for the 1900 Paris World Fair was voted most popular and awarded a gold medal. Booker T. Washington found himself highly admired by the French not only for his material wealth but for his talent as a speaker and educator. Washington, however, was hardly impressed by the French and preferred to visit expatriate Black Americans who displayed the superiority of the black race, such as self-exiled painter Henry O. Tanner.
The Parisian art world did not hesitate to award the talents of painter Henry O. Tanner. It took some time after settling in the St.Germain-des-Pres district in 1891 for this deeply religious artist to get used to the seeming lack of morals (this was the era of the Moulin Rouge). But in 1897 Tanner walked away with top honors at a prestigious art show for his piece ‘The Raising of Lazarus.’ Many of the visiting African-Americans made it a point of special pride to view the painting while it hung in the world-famous Louvre museum.
Younger artists settled in the same arts district. In the 1920s, the works of Lois Mailou Jones, Palmer Hayden, Hale Woodruff did not yet reflect a distinctive black pride but instead, as they adopted European styles, displayed their perception of France and often, their place in it.
Jazzing Up French Culture
While the brushes were stroking on the Left Bank of the Seine River, jazz was hypnotizing the north end. During World War I, the 369th Harlem Infantry Regiment had marched through northern Europe, amazing villagers and fellow soldiers with a then-unheard of type of music - jazz. In 1918 it was Paris’ turn and the band of soldiers, led by Lt. James Reese Europe, played famous concert halls, and later marched with the Allied troops down the Champs-Elysees at liberation. Several of the members, rebaptized as The Harlem Hellfighters jazz band, settled in Paris.
This was just the beginning of Black America storming French culture. In 1925, a young woman by the name of Josephine Baker shook up not only the entertainment world, but the imagination of Parisian artists, clothing designers, and the everyday ordinary French woman. Josephine’s loyalty to France earned her medals of honor after she spied for the Resistance movement during World War II and her depth of character earned her enduring respect for creating a home for 12 adopted children and a tourist empire in the south of France.
Paris in the 1920s fizzed like a beautiful firecracker. Black entertainers turned Lower Montmartre into Black Montmartre - saxophonist/clarinetist/composer Sidney Bechet led the band, Florence Mills drew admirers, Bricktop’s club encouraged French musicians to sample American jazz, much decorated aviator Gene Bullard managed a club where a young and penniless Langston Hughes created the first jazz poetry.
With World War II, a new wave of black soldiers filled Paris streets and seats at the Sorbonne University, on the GI Bill. The French enthusiastically embraced the newest form of jazz they brought over - BeBop, and Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Max Roach and countless other jazz greats entered clubs by the front door, unlike at home.
Putting The Black Paris Experience into Words
Black writers migrated by the boatloads and infused the French literary and political scene with insights into what was called ‘The Negro Question’ in the late 40s and into the 60s. The universal success of Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’ earned him a first class ticket from New York straight into literary cafes alongside Parisian intellectuals. James Baldwin exorcised his self-avowed demons with his pen. Chester Himes, fresh from prison, found a second chance in writing detective novels that the French gobbled up.
Politics colored everything and France’s war with North and Black Africa provided much fodder for journalist William Gardner Smith. American McCarthyism, however, held the American community in a state of paranoia, but did not quite silence the black voices. Angela Davis was treated as a hero, Carlene Polite shared her woman’s perspective on Paris, and Barbara Chase-Riboud brought us back to our beginnings with a novel on Sally Hemings.
African-American history continues evolve in Paris, ready for anyone to walk in its spirit. The relationship between Black American and France has never been perfect but it does provide a choice, as it always has.
Posted By: Julia BROWNE
Monday, February 25th 2008 at 11:14PM
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