April in Paris
African Americans Visit Expatriates' Haunts in the City of Light
By Fern Gillespie, Photos by Meryl Stevens
Ever since I read Langston Hughes' autobiography, The Big Sea, as a 12-year-old, I've been fascinated with the lifestyles of African Americans in Paris. The mere mention of African Americans in Paris still evokes a kaleidoscope of imagery.
There is the vision of writers and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin philosophizing in sidewalk cafes. I can imagine Josephine Baker and a female cabaret owner named Bricktop reigning in the pre-World War II nightlife. There is the political activism of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, and Stokley Carmichael during their visits to speak out on social rights.
Of course, there is "all that jazz" from musical legends such as Sidney Bechet, Bud Powell, and Nina Simone. There is also the artistry of painters Henry O. Tanner, Romare Bearden, Herb Gentry, Ed Clark, and Lois Mailou Jones who were drawn to the boulevards to study art. I cannot forget the sudden deaths of two innovative African American businessmen headquartered in Paris: outrageous fashion designer Patrick Kelly and suave billion dollar financier Reginald Lewis. And, of course, the royal Renaissance woman, Barbara Chase-Riboud, the multi-talented sculptor, poet, and award-winning novelist of Sally Hemmings, who was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by France this spring.
Needless to say, my high octane French fascination went into overdrive when I discovered Harvard University's 1996 conference on "African-American Music in Europe." I stopped procrastinating about planning a trip to Paris. To hit the Parisian boulevards with African Americans who knew the streets was a rare opportunity that I was not going to miss. It was also the chance to meet members of the African-American expatriate community on their Parisian turf and find out if the lifestyles lived up to the legend. What I discovered through my sojourns around the streets of Paris, my conversations with expatriate Buppies, and my talks with former expatriates was an enlightened view of the African diaspora in the City of Light.
Just as I imagined, the city of Paris is breathtaking. Even with its modern subway system, Paris is definitely a walking town. A casual stroll can encompass gardens, palaces, boulevards, cafes, ancient ruins, canals, cathedrals, museums, monuments, narrow streets, and fast tiny cars.
The architecture spans from medieval, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, begun in 1163, to the futuristic, such as the Louvre Pyramid, designed by I.M. Pei. The boulevards boast great restaurants, delicious pastry shops, hot nightclubs, lively cabarets, and fabulous shopping (note: nouveau fashions and French perfume not sold in the United States). The sophisticated Parisians include a strong multicultural populace, a reminder of France's status of a former colonial empire which included nations in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia.
It's a town with an extraordinary sense of style. At night, Paris becomes the City of Light, as a soft glow overtakes the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the boulevards, and even barges on the Seine.
On the Left Bank of Paris is the ancient university, The Sorbonne, where over 400 people, mostly African Americans, convened for the "April in Paris" Conference sponsored by Fletcher Asset Management Inc. and Warner Brothers Records Inc. It was jointly organized by Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, under the direction of Henry Louis Gates, and the Sorbonne's Center for Afro-American Studies. The conference featured more than 100 academic papers on a spectrum of issues pertaining to the historical and contemporary impact of African-American music in Europe.
Conference attendees included scholars, musicians, authors, poets, executives, community leaders, journalists, critics, filmmakers, attorneys, students, and more. Scholars examined a spectrum of issues ranging from the influence of African-American music in Western and Eastern Europe to the European popularity of artists such as Paul Robeson, Claude McKay, and Josephine Baker; and from black literature and music in Europe to the influence of spirituals, gospel, jazz, bebop, swing, Caribbean music, and rap in Europe.
There were poetry readings, jazz and classical performances, film presentations, and a salute to composer and producer Quincy Jones, who was honored by France with the Ordre des Arts et des Letters, grade de Chevalier, and saluted at a special gala featuring a performance of Jon Hendricks.
"There is a sentimental relationship between the French and African Americans, but mostly because of jazz," observed Michel Fabre, director, Center for Afro-American Studies, Universite de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, who was also co-chair of the conference, during a discussion on the courtyard steps.
"Jazz was taken seriously as a form of high art in France, before it was considered as such in the United States," Fabre explained. "I think that's because the aristocracy in France sets the tone and the aristocracy seized upon jazz for different reasons, some of which are not so clear, as an important form of art."
Since the early 1800s, African Americans with artistic talents have fled to Paris to study and create without the limitations imposed by racism in the U.S. This dates back to African-American writers, actors, painters, and musicians who were people of color from New Orleans sent to Paris by their French fathers to study or advance their careers.
Following World War I, there was a marked popularity in African-American culture in Paris due to the influence of African sculpture on modern art (such as Picasso), jazz music introduced by African-American soldiers, and spectacular entertainers like Josephine Baker. Following World War II, the G.I. Bill permitted more African-American artists with funds to study in Paris' leading institutes. By the 1950s and 1960s, while the civil rights movement grew in the U.S., a community of African-American expatriates thrived in Paris; which was comprised of writers, performers, artists, students, and musicians.
"The people who have been here since the late 1950s and early 1960s have really set down roots," said John A. Williams, the award-winning novelist, who has visited Paris' African-American community since the 1960s. Several of his novels such as Click Song!, Night Song, and The Man Who Cried I Am include storylines that take place in Paris.
"It is a very cosmopolitan and beautiful city and it does exude a sense of an entirely different kind of freedom than one finds back in the States," explained Williams, who participated in the conference. "I feel that one should always remember France's colonial history in the New World, in Southeast Asia, in North Africa, West Africa, and East Africa. You have to keep things in perspective."
After living in Paris for 12 years, Patricia Laplante Collins has developed a perspective about her life as an African-American expatriate. "Any place you live stops being glamourous and you're confronted with day to day life," explained Collins, a former Atlanta resident. "It's so hard being in a foreign country."
When she first arrived in Paris, Collins had left corporate communications in the U.S. to enroll in classes at The Sorbonne. "I think we all have this romantic image of Josephine Baker's experience in Paris," she recalled. "That somehow there would be this new liberty and freedom."
Through contacts, Collins obtained both a part-time media consulting position and working papers. Later, she married a French citizen and became a nationale. Today, she is one of the only African-American public relations consultants in the city.
Collins expanded her networking skills to create the organization, Peoples of Color. "The way that France is organized, Africans, Caribbeans, and African Americans see themselves the same way, as having the same set of problems," she explained. "So the idea is to form a network and have social events and get to know each other."
Like Collins, Pamela Grant-Fronval, a former California resident, has championed a network among people of African descent in Paris. Both Collins and Grant-Fronval are part of a new wave of African-American executives moving to Paris. Grant-Fronval, who works at a French company, is married to a French nationale whom she met while they were Peace Corps workers in Dakar, Senegal. She has co-written Black Paris, the unique resource guide to African American, Caribbean, and African businesses and groups in Paris.
In addition, Grant-Fronval is the co-founder of Sisters, an organization that promotes African-American culture in Paris and also serves as a support group. Through Sisters, African-American women have the opportunity to discuss issues affecting their lives in Paris, which range from racism to interracial marriage to adapting to the workforce.
Unlike both Collins and Grant-Fronval, who have remained in the corporate world in Paris, Ammon Moore fled corporate America to launch an entertainment career in Paris. "As a boy I picked cotton in rural Georgia," Moore recalled. "My goal was to work in a suit and tie." After a career in educational publishing at both Simon & Schuster and MacGraw Hill, Moore dropped out and first relocated to the Virgin Islands and then to France. For six years, he has honed a career as a model, actor, playwright, and singer.
Still, Moore is well aware of the peculiar status African Americans have in France. Although they are basically respected in the country, Africans and Caribbeans are given secondary status. "It's not better, but black Americans feel more comfortable and are respected in this society. Black Africans will have a different treatment," Moore observed. "America is still a mystery to the French. It's the land of opportunity. We're a part of the western civilization and that's something they admire."
Fabre, at The Sorbonne, puts the racial situation more succinctly: "In a way, African Americans have been exonerated from French racism, because they are considered as primarily American. And they are supposedly better than Africans and West Indians, because they belong to a more powerful nation. Or they are considered as primarily black Americans and being black, they are exonerated from being American. When French people are anti-American or dislike things in America, they tend to single black Americans out as not so responsible for the state of things because they, themselves, have been victimized for some time."
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