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PARIS NOIR: Black Americans in the City of Light
By Tyler Stovall
Houghton Mifflin. 366 pp. $24.95

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Finding Themselves In France

By Eddy L. Harris

Sunday, January 19, 1997; Page X04

That Black Americans have seen Paris as a haven from the rages of U.S. racism should come as a surprise to no one. By now, a large corner of American mythology is occupied by tales of those expatriates (ex-patriots, we might say) black and white, who chose at the end of the first world war to remain in France or to return to the scene of their most recent triumphs. In the case of those daring young white boys of that lost generation, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and the like, who had gone in large measure to Europe and to war to seek adventure, the call of Paris's exoticism and freedom was, once they had tasted that bohemian life, too great to ignore. When they returned, they came as much to play -- to enjoy themselves and life -- as to expand themselves and their art.

The call to Paris was a call to freedom as well for those black soldiers who had served the Allied cause, but oh what a difference! While black artists, writers and musicians found an atmosphere equally conducive to their creativity, they had found too that for the first time in their history as a people, American black men and women could be treated as fellow human beings by whites. Such had been their experience at the hands of the French, military and civilians, during the war. Black soldiers were seen above all as soldiers who had come to fight for France, and that seemed to be enough for the French. Not so with the white soldiers and with the white America these black soldiers came home to. They received neither honor, appreciation nor acceptance as citizens from the white American world to which they returned. Many of those black soldiers who had tasted the freedom of France chose to return to live, study and work in Paris.

In Paris Noir Tyler Stovall gives us the history of those black ex-patriots. Of course, it is a history that begins long before the first world war, as Stovall reminds us. Contacts between France and American blacks go back to the beginnings of the history of the United States. Thomas Jefferson, for example, took his slave and reputed mistress, Sally Hemings, and her brother James to Paris with him in the 1780s. And before the Civil War many free people of color in New Orleans sent their sons to Paris for the education they were denied at hone.

Victor Sejour enjoyed success as a playwright in Paris in the mid-19th century. Ira Aldridge toured France as a well-received actor and was highly praised for his Othello during the 1860s. Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, W.E.B. Du Bois and others also had positive experiences there.

But not until after World War I was there truly an impact made, and it was felt on both sides of the Atlantic when so many blacks settled in Paris at the same time and formed a community. The story is a fascinating one.

From here on, however, the story is also a familiar one, as many of us already know about the exodus to Paris starting with Josephine Baker, and including Miles Davis, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Richard Wright and so many others. Unfortunately for Stovall there have been shelves of books written on the subject, from Miles Davis's autobiography, to the numerous books about Baker, Baldwin, Wright and the other black writers who spent time in Paris. Stovall adds nothing new except perhaps to gather this black community in Paris under the same roof -- the writers and artists and the jazz musicians, the restaurateurs and the businessmen. This may have proved the author's undoing, for in covering so many over such a long period, what he has written reads very much like a doctoral thesis -- a very good doctoral thesis, it should be noted, but one that lacks the emotional appeal of strong literature, or captivating history. While the information is always absorbing, it lacks insight and reads like a scroll of information and anecdotes and not much more.

Perhaps Stovall should have concentrated on a single period of this black expatriation, for when he reaches the '60s Paris Noir loses all trace of accumulated tedium and becomes gripping. Stovall has a great feel for the period and for Paris during those turbulent years, and the insight he fumbles with in the earlier eras is strikingly apparent, all the more noticeable for its absence elsewhere in the work. He loses his way again, however, when he approaches the Paris of today. Perhaps it was the turmoil of the times that brought Paris Noir to life in the pages it devotes to the '60s; it was an era of paralleled struggles against the oppression of blacks in America and those fighting for freedom from colonialism in Africa and Indochina. All of these conflicts somehow came together in the streets of Paris, and Stovall evokes the world of American blacks with poignancy.

If Stovall had maintained similar energy throughout, his book would be a great addition to the existing body of work about the expatriate black community living in Paris. As it stands, Paris Noir is an interesting read, but more suitable for those few readers who know nothing about the subject.

Eddy L. Harris's most recent book is "Still Life in Harlem."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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