Paris Noir: The Rich History of African Americans in Paris
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Josephine Baker, Bricktop, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, W.E.B. Du Bois, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, Henry O. Tanner, Jake Lamar... and the list goes on and on. Although he wasn't African American, writer Alexandre Dumas (one of my all-time favorites) fits into the story as a French hero (buried in the Pantheon) whose father was born in Haiti to a white French nobleman and an enslaved African mother.
Under the expert tutelage of Julia Browne, proprietor of Walking The Spirit Tours and guide extraordinaire since 1994, my wife Cheryl and I joined a dozen fine folks on a Dartmouth Travel trip earlier this month to gain an enlightening perspective on the City of Lights. For seven days, we focused almost entirely on the history of African American expatriates and visitors in Paris: writers, artists, intellectuals, soldiers, musicians, and dancers- starting with World War I through to turn of the 21st century. It was a stark but refreshing reminder about how different history looks depending on your point of view.
We started by watching an excellent documentary called Paris Noir- African Americans in the City of Light and spoke with Joanne Burke, one of the film makers.
The story goes back as far as Sally Hemings in 1787-89 and Frederick Douglas in 1887, but the wave of expatriates started largely when Black Americans came to Europe in uniform in great numbers during The Great War. Most were excluded from the front lines-with a few notable exceptions like the Harlem Hellfighters-and instead were assigned support or service roles. But their experience in France was far different from how they were treated in Jim Crow American in the early 20th century. So some of them decided to stay. Having served as cooks, laborers, porters and musicians, many found work in the Paris clubs, where they built the foundation of the Jazz Age in Paris, at places such as Moulin Rouge.
In the 1920s, Josephine Baker burst onto the scene. It is impossible to overstate how much of a superstar she was in Paris. Her shows were legendary and she lit up the Jazz Age with her creativity and attitude. She paved the way for other musicians and performers who spent time in Paris where they were welcomed and celebrated: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and more.
Julia and her inimitable, irrepressible colleague Olek didn't just show us the sights, they explained the history and culture and passions and prejudices of the day. Some of the buildings were just everyday looking buildings, but through that door walked Langston Hughes. In that cafe, James Baldwin and Richard Wright got into a spat. Julia's knowledge of jazz was impressive and insightful. Olek left us shaking our heads wondering "how does he know all this history, the personalities and connections, and how does it flow out of him so fluently? He barely glances at notes."
We marveled at the usual sights, of course. Steered competently around the city by Catherine Ekima of AHI Travel, we climbed through Montmartre to Sacre Coeur. We craned our necks to inspect the reconstruction of Notre Dame. We ascended the Eiffel Tower. We walked in the rain at Versailles- and found but two or three Black subjects hidden among hundreds of paintings from Louis XIV's reign and beyond. And we learned that Versailles was built with the incredible riches earned indirectly through the slave trade.
We also ate at historic cafes and jazz clubs in the Latin Quarter, tasted fine wines, cheeses, chocolates and charcuterie. It was all part of the Paris experience, but somehow richer and more thought-provoking because we came at it from a different angle. If you are looking for ways to expand your understanding of both American and French culture, and see the world from a new perspective, get in touch with Julia@walkthespirit.com Put on your walking shoes and walkie-talkie headsets. You'll be glad you did.
More photos here.