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.