Documentary explores how a group of black intellectuals found solace in Paris ‘Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light’ screens at the March on Washington Film Festival

For nearly a century, many black Americans have traveled to Paris to find their identity away from the American racism that sought to erase it. Indeed, many decided to make it official and make the City of Light home.

Director Joanne Burke and executive producer Julia Browne explore this expatriation, while also detailing the day-to-day of being black in Paris, in their 2016 documentary Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, which was screened July 18 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts as part of the March on Washington Film Festival.

In his 1951 essay I Choose Exile, author and poet Richard Wright asks, “Why have I decided to live beyond the shores of my native land?” The powerful writer declares defiantly, “It is because I love freedom and I tell you frankly that there is more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States!”

Living in Paris allowed Wright and others to distance themselves from the omnipresent racism they’d experienced in America with its anti-black rhetoric, institutional systems of oppression and physical violence. While living in Paris was not the post-racial Valhalla many dreamed it would be, French society did provide better social and financial opportunities for black artists to practice their art and, from there, change the world.

Besides Wright, cultural icons such as Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Frederick Douglass, Countee Cullen, Louis Armstrong, James Emanuel and Ta-Nehisi Coates have all called Paris home at some time in their lives. And they had different perspectives in the aftermath. Some loved their experience, while others were not overly impressed.

To Burke, it is important to understand the legacy and tradition of black Americans going to Paris because “it has a worldwide influence … jazz changed the way the world looked at black culture. [The success black writers, artists and musicians found in Paris] differentiated black culture from American culture. … It is a question of taking pride of black achievement abroad … Black culture, in Europe and around the world, has a role in giving people a voice and a new way of expressing themselves,” she explained.

Traveling to Paris has been a more or less refreshing experience for icons of black expression and culture. Baker, a singer, dancer and actress active from 1920-75, sang in “J’ai Deux Amours” (“I Have Two Loves”): I have two loves/ My country and Paris/ With them always/ My heart is overjoyed … What is the point of denying/What enchants me?/It’s Paris, Paris entirely.

Coates wrote in “Paris Disappointed Me — and I Am Glad For It,” a correspondence he published for The Atlantic, “I’m realizing Paris has always sort of been an impressionist painting for me — a big, colorful, beautiful blur without much detail. … I found that the dirty detail of the city isn’t as pretty as my faraway impressions. … I’m struck by how many sought an escape from American racism here yet ugly and other forms of racism were stewing here, too.”

In her 2013 autobiography, Davis wrote about the power of exploring different identities even at home: “We would pretend to be foreigners and [speak] French. … At the sight of two young black women speaking a foreign language, the clerks in the store raced to help us. Their delight with the exotic was enough to completely, if temporarily, dispel their normal disdain for black people. … All black people have to do is pretend they come from another country, and [white people] treat us like dignitaries.”

The common denominator for them all was Paris, good or bad. Paris specifically allowed black Americans to be perceived as Davis’ “exotic delight” while still maintaining their identity as individuals. However, there is a discrepancy among scholars over who went first and when it became a rite of passage. Ricki Stevenson, director of Black Paris Tours, said in a 2013 interview with NPR that the tradition began as early as the 19th century.

“Many people mistakenly believe that the first great mass migration of African-Americans to France came with the Harlem Renaissance,” Stevenson said. “It didn’t. The first great mass migration came following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.”

William Wells Brown, who escaped enslavement, taught himself to read and write and became an American diplomat in the mid-1800s, is often seen as one of the great explorers for black people abroad. He published letters documenting his experience in Europe and tried to build support for the American abolitionist movement in Britain and France.

On the other hand, others, such as Burke and Browne, believe the movement truly began in 1917 with America’s involvement in World War I. At the time, black men were recruited not to fight for the cause but mostly to do manual labor. Burke and Browne’s documentary credits Lt. James Reese Europe as the pioneer of the black legacy in Paris. Europe fought in both World War I and World War II, led the Harlem Hellfighters in battle and later played in a notable jazz band in Paris.

After World War I, a cultural movement that author Petrine Archer-Straw refers to as “Negrophilia” became popular among rich white liberals in Paris. In her book Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, she defines the term as a love of black culture, but a love as distancing as the hatred black folks experience in America. For Archer-Straw, rich white liberals saw black Americans as “dynamic, non-conformist, and subversive … blackness played a significant role in avant-garde definitions of [Parisian] modernity … it was the ‘idea’ of black culture and not black culture itself that informed this modernity (180-183).”

When rich white club owners began to see how their patrons preferred black performers, they would often book black jazz groups over white French musicians. It was also important that the music was played for the enjoyment of the rich white audience. As the Paris Noir documentary reveals, “You had to be African-American to play jazz. This meant that [certain] black people, who didn’t happen to be musicians at all — [who] basically had no talent — got jobs in jazz. It was the racial image of the music.”

So while rich white Parisians consumed and financed black culture, it was exclusively to serve their own ideological expectations. Archer-Straw also mentions in her book that black art and culture “was absorbed into a grander aesthetic that represented colonial triumph and French imperialism, while for the avant-garde it was a cruel tool used to ‘épater les bourgeois,’ or to shock middle class sensibilities.”

The Negrophilia fascination did allow black Americans to better fulfill their potential than if they had stayed in America. In Paris, black citizens were free from racial segregation. They were able to better express themselves, pursue more career opportunities and romantically intermingle with white people.

While Paris Noir depicts the romantic mingling as liberating, Archer-Straw finds the power dynamic problematic. White French people controlled economic and social power to the detriment of black Americans. She echoes the philosophy of Frantz Fanon, who in his 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks said he felt “an unfamiliar weight [that] burdened me” when he had to “meet the white man’s eyes.” To Archer-Straw and Fanon, since black individuals in a white space have to conform to the standards of acceptable behavior determined by white people, they assimilate and, in so doing, lose their identity set on their own terms. In these kinds of relationships, with unequal power dynamics, black people can never fully express themselves because it is the economic and social power in the majority-white French society that determines what kind of behavior is acceptable.

Archer-Straw describes the line that black folk had to be aware of as “a walking contradiction, combining the exoticism of Africa with the awareness of what it took to be accepted by whites.”

Regardless of the discrepancy in interpretation, scholars do mostly agree that World War I played a vital part in the black experience abroad. Instead of returning to the Jim Crow era, they preferred the narrow but freeing fascination of Parisian society.

‘Being Mary Jane’ star Richard Brooks is taking on more and starring in new show ‘The Rich and the Ruthless’ The ‘Law & Order’ vet is going beyond acting to writing, producing and directing

Actor and singer Richard Brooks can read over a legal document and break it right on down. He’s not a lawyer, but he played one on television as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette in the first three seasons (1990-93) of NBC’s hit drama Law & Order. And the research that went into preparing for the part gives him some expertise on the matter.

“Sometimes, I think of myself as a jailhouse lawyer now because I help people with their legal issues,” Brooks said as he chuckled. “It makes no sense. I’d read the contract, and people are like, ‘You read my contract?’ ‘Yes, I read the full contract.’ ”

Now, Brooks is in the fourth season of the hit show Being Mary Jane on BET and is a co-star in Victoria Rowell’s new dramedy The Rich and the Ruthless, which premieres July 28 on the Urban Movie Channel.

Alongside Gabrielle Union, Richard Roundtree, Margaret Avery and now Michael Ealy, Brooks plays Patrick Patterson, the older brother of Mary Jane (Union). Patrick is a recovering addict trying to get his life back on the right track while raising a young daughter and advising his older children, who now have children of their own. He plays a grandfather on the show who faces adversity of his own, but he is still helping the Patterson family through their separate personal issues.

In the fictional show The Rich and the Ruthless, Brooks plays self-made businessman and showrunner Augustus Barringer. After finding out his show, the first black soap opera on a big Hollywood network, has been booted, he decides to fight for his rightful place in Hollywood. He does what he has to do to keep the show going and moves the company to Jamaica, but his unpredictable wife, Kitty Barringer (Rowell), is not too happy about these changes.

Brooks said he met Rowell on the set of Diagnosis: Murder in 1994.

“I came in for a special guest star on that, and in the show we were paired off together, we had to break the case together,” Brooks said of his character on the nighttime drama. “I was a former heavyweight boxer who, I believe, was being swindled or something by my promoter, and she’s helping me break the case. We really had a great time just being together. There’s a little romantic spark in the police character. We’ve just been friends ever since then, looking for an opportunity to work together again.”

Brooks founded his own production company, Flat Top Entertainment, through which he released his first solo rhythm and blues album, Smooth Love. In 2013, he appeared on the public TV series The Abolitionists as Frederick Douglass. He spoke to The Undefeated about The Rich and the Ruthless, Being Mary Jane and his journey.


How do you feel that you’re entertaining us on one of the hottest TV shows right now, Being Mary Jane?

I love it. I feel like we helped start the whole trend of there being a lot of black dramas and shows like this, like Empire and Power. It’s great to still be pumping out great episodes and great drama, bringing that to BET. The character I play I really love, because he’s a fully dimensional black man. I feel like I get to portray the struggles I think that a lot of black men are going through, and we’re trying to rebound and rebuild our lives, and have a second chance to be the kind of men that we want to be. It’s a great production, great quality writing and acting, so I just love it. It’s really a joy.

Is it weird playing a grandfather?

I guess not really. I feel like I’m a young grandfather. I guess it’s amazing. I think that throughout my career, I’ve managed to sometimes snag these roles, like it’s just laying there or whatever, where I have a full family dynamic. What’s really challenging and satisfying about the part especially is that I’m a grandfather, I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m a brother, you know? I have to play the dynamics of all of those relationships and those roles all at the same time. It’s just great to have a show where my parents are there, too, and I’m still dealing with my parents. My son also. And then try to be a good father, and I have grandkids who I’m trying to be a good grandfather to, and so it is kind of crazy. It’s crazy to get to that part of your life where that is your possibility because that’s who you are. Your kids can have kids, you know? I don’t think we get to see that that much in characters on television or on the movies who actually have that whole world, that whole experience, happening for them. It’s like I’m the emotional center of the show. I get so emotional, so fragile. It’s funny.

What inspires you to keep pouring into our lives through your craft?

It’s funny because I look back and then I realize I’ve been doing this since I was 10 or 11, when I first saw a school play, I think, in sixth grade, and I think they were doing Hansel and Gretel. I found myself going, ‘Why am I not Hansel?’ I was sitting in the audience, and then I started trying to plot my way into the drama department of my junior high school and found a way into a summer job program. They had a student program at the time. The kids were out there picking up garbage and helping do construction stuff and all that.

I was making money being paid actually to act, as a kid. It’s funny now to just look back and realize this was all I’ve done, all I’ve had to do pretty much my whole life, is to be an actor, and I’ve always wanted to be a great actor and really represent men, and black men. My mother always put it upon me to try to teach black men how to be men, or something like that. So that inspires me, and I am just so happy to have roles that may illuminate something about what we go through as men out here.

What’s been the most meaningful role you’ve ever played?

Well, I like to think of my current role, of course, as Patrick, and now Augustus Barringer on The Rich and the Ruthless, and all the roles that are to come. Of course, Law & Order in Paul Robinette had a more transformative role for me because I had to really grow as a man, as an intellect, as a scholar. I had to become more versed in current affairs, and law, and politics and things like that. Before then, I had been pretty much just an artist kind of mentality and just wanting to act, and that role forced me to learn contracts and laws, and my research for it actually influenced me as a person a lot, so that one was probably the biggest stretch at the time. To grow into that role, I think, has helped me with the rest of my career to take on more challenging parts and things like that.

But I have a theater background. I think that had a big effect on me, too, the work of August Wilson.

If you weren’t an actor and an artist, what do you think you’d be doing?

When I started going to a prep school I was acting, and I went right to another grad school, Circle in the Square. But my mom had wanted to get me a full scholarship to medical school actually in Cleveland. She spoke with someone, and he was like, ‘Wow, this is great. We really need black men as doctors. We could give him a full ride, eight years.’ He’d pay for it, you know? But I was committed to acting, and also, I never really liked dissecting. I didn’t like biology. I didn’t really like dissecting frogs and things like that.

I think that law would have probably been one that I were to find myself more practically thinking of. There’s a certain amount of performance to it, and there’s the intellect. I do like legalese and the complexities of law and stuff.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey?

Probably just surviving the process of the ups and downs of the industry, and dealing with the other people’s expectations, whether they are ahead of me or behind me. You start off and no one really believes you could do anything, they think it’s impossible, and so you have a lot of doubt. Then, as soon as you start to do something, then people are ahead of you, and then they might be like, ‘Well, how come you’re not a major superstar already? How come that movie didn’t … ‘ So it’s always good, just sort of gauging it and trying to keep a level head. You’ve got to keep a balance and continue to think positive.

What do you look forward to most in your future?

I’ve really been into directing a little bit. I was shadowing on Being Mary Jane this season. Right now I’m doing an intensive at New York Film Academy out here in L.A. for the summer. Trying to squeeze that in between acting parts and stuff, and so I really want to expand into writing, producing, directing and creating concepts. Sort of what Victoria [Rowell] is doing, which is why I really want to support her in anything she’s doing. Because I think it’s incredible, the way she’s managed to put this project together and carried it to this point where we’re premiering, and somebody thought of her. That’s what artists have to do sometimes. We can’t just sit around and wait for other people to create opportunities for us; we have to create the opportunities.

We’re the ones who have a lot of the experience. We know what works. We’ve read hundreds and hundreds of scripts, and been on hundreds and hundreds of sets, so it is our time to actually step up and create opportunities for the next generations. So, kind of where my mind is right now.

What would you tell an aspiring actor who came to you for advice?

I do believe in studying and emulating a trained actor. I believe in excellence, I believe in using the art form as a way for personal growth. So whether you succeed at it or not, I think it’s an opportunity to learn more about yourself while you’re exploring other characters. I would definitely tell them to persevere and also innovate, because everything is changing and there’s no right or wrong way to make it these days. Who knows what’s coming in the future? With social media and the new way that stars are coming up the internet now. But definitely, I would tell them to try to be the best, and study with the best, and supplement all their education with books and learning.

Are there any roles that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?

I’ve done so many roles. I definitely want to do some more movies. I wouldn’t mind getting into some new superhero comic book. I think that would be fun. And maybe something on the musical side, too, I wouldn’t mind. I haven’t really done a hit Broadway musical, or I haven’t gotten much singing out as much as I would like to. That would be fun. I think just to get my music out, or to be a part of something musical.

What are your hobbies?

My singing, music. Songwriting is one. Sports. I like basketball and swimming, reading, going out and partying. Still like to party.

For the sake of black fatherhood, stop the war on drugs I get to celebrate Father’s Day with my dad after 27 years thanks to President Obama

“Your father WAS a good man, Nique. He always looked out for folks.”

“Boy, Ralph could run. You run just like him. He WAS a legend.”

“You Ralph son? He HAD a brain on him. Smart. Sorry to see that happened to him.”

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, and playing sports made these common sayings that were spoken to me. My father, Ralph Warren, was a present memory in my life but a very distant one to friends and admirers. Hearing this, you might assume my father was deceased — maybe an accident, a bullet or maybe bad luck happening to a man many had fond memories of. That wasn’t the case at all. My father was alive and well living in Indiana, then Kentucky, then Illinois in a jail cell, sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense. He wasn’t deceased, but his sentence would ensure that he would never see freedom. He would die in jail. DIE IN JAIL.

That had always hung over me with great pain, fear and anger. I would not be able to see my father grow old nor pass away in the comforts of his home because he would be in a federal prison cell. That is why on Jan. 17, 2017 — when President Barack Obama, mere days before his term was up, commuted my father’s sentence for drug trafficking and firearm charges after 27 years — I cried for hours knowing that I would know my father as a free man.


On Feb. 8, my father arrived back at the Greyhound bus station in Toledo, Ohio, where dozens of family members, including my mom and sibling, and a host of friends welcomed him back. I introduced him for the very first time to my daughter, Lois Marie. Since his release, he has edited and re-released his novel Target, begun working at a local auto supplier plant and, most importantly, spoken to recovering drug abusers and young men who have come into contact with the prison system. Together, my father and I are advocating for reduced sentencing and more funding for re-entry programs to local and federal legislators. Our lives have been affected by this “War on Drugs,” and we are on a mission to ensure it won’t reintensify.

Between 1970 and 2005, America’s prison and jail population ballooned from 300,000 to more than 2 million. America’s “War on Drugs” began under former President Richard Nixon in 1971 as a response to the increase in recreational drug use and abuse in the 1960s. Initial appropriations were geared to clinical and drug abuse prevention efforts, increased funding for prisons, directives for harsher sentences and aggressive law enforcement geared at drug cartels. It escalated under President Reagan, with the creation of mandatory minimum prison sentences in 1986 after an influx of crack cocaine in American cities targeted black and brown communities.

The American presidency from 1970 to 2005 focused on “Law and Order” to combat drug trafficking and violence, resulting in 1 in 9 black children currently having an incarcerated parent. Ninety-two percent of parents in prison are fathers, and an overwhelming proportion of these fathers are black.

Children of incarcerated parents are faced with trauma, higher chance of being in poverty, and increased rates of incarceration that create a cycle of destruction in the black community. Mass incarceration of black fathers limits the financial stability of families. Coupled with other racially prejudiced systems, mass incarceration plagues the stability of the black community.

Attorney General Eric Holder established the Smart on Crime initiative in 2014 to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing and push more funding to programs that decrease prison recidivism. Researchers from the Pew Charitable Trust agree that federal mandatory minimums don’t deter crime or reduce the number of people who return to jail. Directing prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimums for low-level and nonviolent offenses, the Obama administration’s commutation and pardon policies allowed thousands to be freed and reunited with families and society. Unfortunately, these policies came to an end with the presidential election of Donald Trump and appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

In May, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest indictments for drug offenses and reinstated mandated federal minimums for all charges, which includes the “three strikes” provision when disclosing to judges all facts pertaining to sentencing. This reversal of policy is not just a setback for best practices in federal prosecutions and has widespread opposition by both political parties, but it is also a setback for black fathers and their children.

Current policies for the Justice Department directed by Sessions empower prosecutors to use the full power of the federal government to enact harsh sentences for low-level and nonviolent crimes and keep the current prison population, the world’s largest, growing. We know that federal sentencing grossly prosecutes a high proportion of black males, leaving their children fatherless, without dual incomes and suffering from extreme trauma. There are no winners in this scenario, only losers. The appearance of being tough on crime from the DOJ will not reduce crime, but it will ensure millions of fatherless children who will be at risk of committing crimes themselves.

If 21st-century federal sentencing policies mirror the past 30 years of “Law and Order” mandates, we will continue to see our prison population rise and spend much-needed funding on housing prisoners instead of investing in communities, families and children. The annual cost of housing a prisoner outstrips the cost of tuition in states such as California, costing more than $75,000. Frederick Douglass in the 19th century said, “It’s easier to build strong children than broken men.” As prison and education costs rise, we as a nation have to make a choice of where our priorities lie. If we believe that families matter and children need fathers, mandatory minimums that target black men must be a policy of the past. We need to reinstate the commutation policy of the last administration so that imprisoned citizens are reinstated back to their communities.

This is the first Father’s Day I will spend with my dad in 27 years. I won’t take it for granted, because I know that many children won’t be able to celebrate it with their fathers.

They were, like me, waiting and waiting for that dream of seeing their fathers on this side of freedom. I am also vigilant for black fathers who will be targeted by the Trump administration’s arcane policies that invoke echoes of the past and have destroyed communities and families of color in the name of “Law and Order.”

On this Father’s Day, celebrate black fatherhood and work to protect it at all costs. I plan to strap my daughter into her stroller, put on my best running shoes and run just like my father, next to my father.

Frederick Douglass coin becomes second release in the 2017 U.S. Mint collection The abolitionist leader joins an elite list of African-Americans to grace the collectors’ item

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., has joined the ranks of national monuments and historic sites as the 37th overall coin to be released in the America the Beautiful Quarters U.S. Mint collection.

The U.S. Mint produces circulating coinage and has featured some of America’s most important national parks and monuments since 2010. When the program ends in 2021, there will be 56 quarter-dollar coins available for collection.

This particular coin is the second 2017 release. It first featured the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, which was made available in February. Three more coins will be released to the public in June, August and November.

The Frederick Douglass coin features the original 1932 quarter obverse of President George Washington on the front, and Douglass —seated and writing at a desk with his Washington, D.C., home in the background — is on the coin’s reverse side.

Douglass remains one of the most influential African-Americans in history. He was an abolitionist, social reformer, activist and author who escaped slavery and went on to become one of the most well-known proponents of the abolitionist movement.

Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 and began working as a body servant in Baltimore at 8 years old. Although slaves were not allowed to formally learn to read and write, and were severely punished if caught trying to learn on their own, Douglass ignored the warnings and taught himself anyway, finding an affinity for debates and speeches by age 12. In 1838, the 20-year-old Douglass had become fed up with oppression and began plotting his escape. With the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman whom Douglass would later marry, he disguised himself as a free black sailor and boarded a train that would take him from Baltimore to New York City.

Douglass and Murray began their new lives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass gained notoriety as an orator who traveled across the North and Midwest to speak out against slavery and the mistreatment of blacks. Douglass would go on to become a top recruiter of black troops in the Civil War, serve as the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia and the U.S. minister to Haiti, and write three autobiographical narratives describing his life experiences in great detail.

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is the only site featuring an African-American in the coin collection to date. The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Tuskegee, Alabama, is set to join Douglass’ in 2021, closing out the 11-year program.