Travel
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Partners:
    Related Items
 
AN AFRICAN AMERICAN IN PARIS

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 19 1997; Page E01

   


I began my latest trip to Paris with a finger in my mouth and brought it to an end with a leg in the air.

The lick signaled my approval of the special (barbecued ribs and black-eyed peas) at Haynes, the Pigalle soul food restaurant where a generation of poets from Harlem and jazzmen from New Orleans have met to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner.

The kick was a salute of another kind, delivered outside the Bobino Theater, the Montparnasse music hall where Josephine Baker retired her banana skirt and bade the world a triumphant farewell.

In between came a stroll down the lane of James Baldwin's memories, from the Left Bank hostel where he first arrived from New York with $40 to the noisy cafes where he scribbled his way to literary fame.

This was a sojourn to the Paris of African Americans.

Ever since the early 1920s, when Baker sallied before Parisians wearing nothing but a few white feathers, blacks from the States have occupied a coveted place on Paris's cultural stage. It was in the French capital that "Native Son" author Richard Wright, escaping the racism of 1940s America, found public acceptance and social stature. And when soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet tired of U.S. jazz clubs, he settled here and forged a major role for jazz on the city's vibrant music scene.

Curious about what had become of that chapter of history, I made a special journey across the Atlantic to find out.

One part of the trip was a tribute to expatriate nostalgia. I used it to revisit the defunct club where Bechet brought Parisians to tears with his rendition of "Song of Songs," the cafe where Baldwin and Wright had the quarrel that ended their friendship and the hotel where Langston Hughes lived among African students.

I also discovered a Paris sparkling with a fresh infusion of black culture. Here were the influences of every new trend from back home, from gangsta rap to the dance called the fade. And there was a new generation of African American writers and musicians taking its place on the city's arts scene.

Even for the short-term visitor, there is world enough to explore here and time. (Investigating the jazz clubs alone could take at least a month's supply of Marlboros and a bottle of Remy Martin.

My own sojourn was, in a sense, a return to long-lost stomping grounds. An African American and a Paris apartment owner since the early 1980s, I have kept one foot in France for almost all my adult life.

This is the city where I learned how to open champagne with a machete, at which occasions it was more appropriate to send carnations than roses, and how to devour a plate of frog's legs without staining my tie. For a while I was engaged to be married to a French diplomat.

My introduction to black Paris came from someone no more black than Dwight Eisenhower. Francis was a French art historian and a student of every culture from the 18th-century Italians to 1960s Californians. But he embraced none more passionately than negritude, that mix of African, Afro-American and Caribbean cultures that has flowered in Paris since the 1950s.

I was living in central Europe at the time, but Francis kept me in touch with black life in Paris. He knew how to snag tickets to sold-out jazz concerts, kept a schedule in his head of upcoming readings by visiting black scholars and poets, and even once tracked down where Diana Ross was staying during a Paris appearance.

The historical bond between African Americans and Parisians, I learned over time, is best illustrated by personal relationships. There was Bud Powell's close link to Francis Paudras, an unusually emotional bond between tenor saxophonist and jazz fan immortalized in the 1986 feature film "Round Midnight." And then there was the remarkable case of Baker. Relatively unknown when she arrived in Paris, she was received with a warm and personal embrace by the whole French nation as entertainer extraordinaire and later as Grand Dame, even as Time magazine dismissed her as a "slightly bucked-tooth young Negro woman."

Sometimes the tales of affection between French and American blacks seem downright apocryphal. In the recently released "Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light," an in-depth look at American blacks in the French capital, author Tyler Stovall tells a post-World War I story of a group of Frenchmen beating a young man to a pulp just for being American. When the light-skinned American convinced the attackers that he was black, according to Stovall, they immediately stopped fighting and apologized. [For a review of "Paris Noir," see today's Book World.]

And yet, many African Americans receive a level of appreciation here they lacked at home. "Black women can come to Paris and feel instantly relieved of all of the burdens that come with their stature in the States," said Patricia Laplante-Collins, a native of Atlanta who now lives in Paris. "Here they can be romanced in the way that they deserve."

The aura and architecture of the French capital have moved artists from every corner to great accomplishments and African Americans are no exception.

Few writers have captured the colorful scenes of the Left Bank's back alleys and cafes or the markets of Les Halles quite like Baldwin's portrayals in "Giovanni's Room."

Few painters have reproduced the courtyards of St. Michel and Montparnasse with the sense of perspective and the light displayed in the works of Lois Mailou Jones.

Few sculptors have managed to grasp the scope of the city and mold it into the brilliant kind of brass works made by Harold Cousins.

After moving back to the States a few years ago, I lost touch with nearly every aspect of Paris. And then sometime later a friend called to report that Francis had been found hanging in his shower.

It is a late November evening at Au Duc des Lombards, but saxophonist Noah Howard is blowing his horn with enough fire to take me back to sometime in summer and somewhere south of Miami. Closing my eyes, I float on the warm notes to a warm lagoon somewhere in the Caribbean. The drums come on slowly, bringing a welcome ripple to the water. The bass follows quickly behind, rounding out my late-night swim with a sonorous rhythm.

This is a white-tablecloth-and-Bordeaux kind of evening. It started with a bowl of soupe a l'oignon, that recipe that only the French seem to get right. Then there was breast of duck, tender as a sonnet, floating in a light, sweet raspberry sauce. Finally, there was a bowl of mousse so rich and chocolatey I easily abandoned my manners and licked the spoon.

Duc's is a place of some elegance. Women wore pearls and dresses cut so low that even my imagination stopped wondering. Men had that new age Left Bank look: white shirts with rounded collars, dark pleatless suits and Armani sun shades so tight they could have been grafted on.

Here was the blending of the culture of down-home soul and French chic at its best. On the one hand there was music born and raised in the back rooms off Bourbon Street. On the other was food straight from trend-setting kitchens along the Rhone.

There are enough jazz clubs like this in Paris to constitute a scene. New Morning, in the shadows of the Gare du Nord, has featured every great from McCoy Tyner to Betty Carter. In bustling St. Michel, the Petit Journal specializes in New Orleans-style music by French and Italian bands. In fashionable St. Germain, there is Latitudes, where brothers and sisters from back home heat up a jam most every night.

Many of the regular musicians on this circuit are expatriate African Americans. Howard is a saxophonist who moved here from New Orleans in the 1960s when the rock seemed to be drowning out the U.S. interests in jazz. Hal Singer, a saxophonist transplanted from Oklahoma, regularly pops up on stage at a number of clubs. Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, from Flint, Mich., uses her deep, made-for-jazz voice and foxy presence to continue the performing tradition forged by Josephine Baker.

This is the house that Sidney Bechet built. The New Orleans saxophonist originally came to Paris in the 1920s but was forced out of town after a gun brawl. He returned in the 1950s and eventually attracted such a following that when a ticket seller announced that a concert was sold out, the crowd picked up his kiosk and marched it away in protest.

The 1990s have brought variations to the traditional jazz scene in Paris. Up in funky Montmartre, a younger generation is grooving alternately to acid jazz and funk, or to poetry welded out of a curious mix of French and black rap. This is the stuff of the artist formerly known as Prince.

But for tonight, I am happy to steep myself in tradition. As the band strikes up a rendition of "Kind of Blue," I close my eyes and prepare to take another plunge into that lagoon.

If it's Monday, it must be cocktails with Willie Brown. The flamboyant black mayor of San Francisco has blown into Paris for a visit, and a group of local politicos are hosting a soiree in his honor.

Yesterday afternoon there was coffee for Diane Watson, a state senator from California. Not long ago Ernest Gaines, author of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," did a reading from his fiction. And in the days to come, there is a gospel sing-along and a party for Kwanzaa.

The social schedule in black Paris fills up quickly.

With a cafe on every street corner and a new line of fashions always waiting to be modeled, Paris is a city with a serious social scene. The resident black American population, estimated at about 1,000, has carved out its own place on that scene.

Some events sponsored by the community are for causes, including fundraisers for black politicians, lectures and political rallies. In 1992, professors Michel Fabre of the Sorbonne and Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard used Paris as the venue for a major conference on African Americans in Europe. They event was hailed as a success on both sides of the Atlantic and the organizers pledged to hold follow-up forums every two years.

Other gatherings are for fellowship. At expatriate Tyler Stovall's Left Bank apartment, a group of black men meets monthly to sip champagne, savor hot pasta and swap reflections. Elsewhere, the members of Sisters, a black women's group, gather regularly to break bread and offer one another professional and moral support.

Paris is one of the few cities where there is a concerted attempt to mix blacks from various regions, including Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. "We try to open the community to as broad a range of backgrounds and views as we can," said Laplante-Collins, who has organized a tribute to Malcolm X and a community-wide celebration of Kwanzaa.

Even short-term visitors can make their way onto this scene. Most of the events are open to the public. Many are advertised in France-USA Contacts, a French-American exchange journal that circulates in the city, on fliers posted in the American Church in Paris and in other public venues.

Much of the communing and networking takes places in cafes and restaurants. Like Chester Himes, Wright and others before them, today's expatriates have staked out their favorite watering holes and use them as places to meet old and new friends. Beat poet Ted Joans, a long-term survivor of the expatriate scene, holds forth every afternoon at the Cafe le Rouquet. On Sundays, blacks from as far off as Dallas and Los Angeles meet at Chesterfield Cafe, a restaurant off the Champs Elysees, for an afternoon of gospel and omelets.

Jake Lamar, author of "Bourgeois Blues," a book about the black American middle class, likes to tell the story of hailing a taxi in Paris a couple of years ago. It was past midnight and for a long while there were no cars on the street, but one driver finally pulled up and asked where he was going. As Lamar yelled out his address, a well-dressed white couple suddenly appeared behind him and told the driver where they were going.

"Here we go again," Lamar said to himself, referring to the tendency for cabbies from Washington to Los Angeles to pass up black passengers for whites.

"Sorry," the driver told the couple, "I'm not going that way." As the taxi pulled away, Lamar peered out the window at the white couple trying to flag another cab.

The moral, according to Lamar, is that unlike Americans, French are not overtly racist or obsessed about race. "I do not think that French are necessarily more enlightened," he explained. "They just take other criteria into consideration than the color of someone's skin. For the taxi driver it was which direction we were going. If the white couple had been headed his way and I had been going elsewhere, he would probably have taken them."

Still, there is far less racial tension in Paris than in U.S. urban areas, said Lamar, who has made his home in Paris for the past three years.

Other black visitors to Paris disagree. Following a weeklong trip there, one black couple from Washington reported being stopped several times in the Paris Metro and questioned by police. Others complain of bad service in restaurants or rude behavior from locals.

The 1990s in particular have a rising anti-immigrant mood, a strong political right and signs of a growing lack of intolerance across Europe, including France. A high-profile 1996 clash between the French government and a group of African asylum seekers illustrated the point. After seeking refuge in a church for several weeks and pleading to remain in France, they were expelled and sent home. "I suffered as much discrimination there as I have anywhere," Gary Younge, a black journalist from London, told me.

My experiences have brought me to another conclusion. In 15 years of traveling back and forth to Paris, I have met lots of snobs and unpleasant characters. But I have never suffered racial slights or discrimination. Consummate sophisticates, Parisians would rather eat fish and chips than be associated with their less racially sensitive countrymen from the provinces.

My walking tour of Paris started at daybreak at No. 14 Rue Monsieur le Prince carried on to 172 Blvd. St. Germain and ended just before dusk at 20 Rue de la Gaite.

I bypassed the impressive art collections at the Louvre, swept past old hangouts of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and even saved lunch at the coveted Tour d'Argent for another day.

Instead, the morning found me retracing the footsteps of Richard Wright, who lived for 11 years at the elegant Monsieur le Prince address. Marked by a plaque hailing the "ecrivain afro americain," this is the house where he wrote "The Long Dream" and "White Man, Listen!" and entertained visiting blacks from Ralph Ellison to Martin Luther King Jr.

My next stops were the Cafe de Flore on Boulevard St. Germain, where Baldwin often met friends for coffee and cognac, and the Grand Hotel du Bac, his first residence on arrival in Paris as an unknown 24-year-old. Around the corner is the Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp, cafes where Arthur Montana, the lead character in Baldwin's "Just Above My Head," hangs about and meets a romantic liaison.

Students of black literary history could have a field day in these parts. At No. 18 Rue Cujas is a small inexpensive hotel where the poet Langston Hughes lived among African students. Next door is the Restaurant de Pekin, where he frequently ate dinner. At the nearby corner of the Rue Gay-Lussac and the Boulevard St. Michel is the Cafe le Depart, where Chester Himes, another well-known black writer, completed the novel "Pinktoes."

Here and there I also discovered landmarks of the music and dance set. At No. 15 Champs Elysees is the performance hall where Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet and a group of Harlem entertainers made their 1925 Paris debut in the musical "La Revue Negre." At 60 Rue de Seine is the Hotel La Louisiane, made famous as the residence of Bud Powell and other jazz greats and later featured in "Round Midnight." At No. 13 Rue St. Benoit is the Club St. Germain, where Charlie Parker had his famous meeting with French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre.

Before long, the soft blue light of evening was beginning to fall over Paris, but I knew that my tour would be incomplete without one last stop. Passing through the Luxembourg Gardens, I made my way to the broad Boulevard Montparnasse and across to the Rue de la Gaite.

At No. 20 is the Bobino, the spot where Baker staged her last concert in 1975. It had been 50 years since her Paris debut, but she nonetheless managed to dazzle Princess Grace of Monaco, Sophia Loren and others in the star-studded crowd until they stood and gave her a 15-minute ovation.

The next day, apparently satisfied with her accomplishment, Baker closed her eyes for the last time and brought a chapter in the life of black Paris to a poignant finale.

WAYS & MEANS

Visitors interested in connecting with the black scene in Paris should peruse France-USA Contacts (FUSAC), a free French American bimonthly journal that frequently advertises readings and other events in the community. Copies are available at FUSAC's office (3 Rue Larochelle) or at various other locations throughout the city.

Events are also promoted at the following bookstores: Shakespeare and Co., 37 Rue de la Bucherie, telephone 011-33-1-43-26-96-50; Tea and Tattered Pages, 24 Rue Mayet, telephone 011-33-1-40-65-94-35; The Village Voice, 6 Rue Princess, telephone 011-33-1-46-33-36-47.

Julia Browne, a resident black Canadian, offers black-oriented walking tours, including one featuring the hangouts of intellectuals and artists and another focusing on the jazz music scene. The cost is about $20. For more information, contact Browne at 011-33-1-42-29-60-12.

GETTING THERE: Delta, USAir and United are among the airlines offering service from Washington to Paris. Air France offers nonstop flights from Washington Dulles and is currently quoting a round-trip fare of $339, with restrictions.

WHERE TO STAY: While there are a number of Paris hotels of historical note among African Americans, none are hands-down favorites in the community.

The Hotel California (32 Rue des Ecoles, telephone 011-33-1-46-34-12-90) has been a stopping point for black writers for years, including Langston Hughes and Ishmael Reed. Doubles are $100 to $140.

The Hotel Delavigne (1 Rue Casimir Delavigne, telephone 011-33-1-43-29-31-50), where Chester Himes and other African Americans lived, has nice cozy rooms. Doubles are $115 to $120.

WHERE TO EAT: At Haynes (4 Rue Clauzel; Metro: Pigalle), the walls are covered with photos of African American celebrities and others who have dined there. The fare, basic soul food, includes fried chicken, ribs, creole chicken, peach cobbler and cornbread. While not quite like Mom's cooking, it compensates with lots of nostalgia and a jazz band on weekends. Dinner for two, with drinks, is about $60.

Chesterfield Cafe (124 Rue la Boetie; Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt) holds a gospel brunch every Sunday. The singing is real down-home and there's always a good crowd. Brunch for two with a mimosa or glass of champagne will run about $45.

La Plantation (5 Rue Jules Cesar; Metro: Bastille) offers a range of Caribbean dishes, from Jamaican jerk chicken to spicy fish with plantains, beans and rice. Dinner for two with drinks will run about $50.

WHERE TO HANG OUT: There is jazz somewhere every night. Some reliable standbys are New Morning (7 Rue des Petites Ecuries), Au Duc Des Lombards (42 Rue des Lombards) and Latitudes (7-11 Rue St. Benoit). A nice dinner with wine and two hours of music can come to $130 for two.

A good house and techno club with dancing is the Rex (5 Blvd. Poissonnoiere). What's Up Bar (15 Rue Duval) plays a mix of acid, jazz, rap and R & B. Keep in mind that Paris clubs don't really start happening before midnight.

RECOMMENDED READING: "Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light," by Tyler Stovall, is a recent and readable history.

INFORMATION: "A Street Guide to African Americans in Paris," by Michael Fabre and John A. Williams, provides all the information needed for a self-guided walking tour. It is available for 60 francs (about $12) from CEAA, 12 Square Montsouris, Paris 75014, France.

"Black Paris" is a handy guide offering tips on everything from where to get your hair braided to how to learn to sing gospels. It has lots of addresses for clubs and restaurants. It can be obtained for 75 francs (about $15) from "Black Paris," c/o E.I.S., 23 Rue des Beurriers, Argenteuil 95100, France.

For more information about Paris in general, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 444 Madison Ave., 16th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10022, 900-990-0040 (95 cents a minute), http://www.franceguide.com.


   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar