The history of Paris as a haven for African-Americans

Sep 20, 2020

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I was standing in front of my apartment bookshelf, eyes darting between the shelves, trying to decide which two novels to pack in my carry-on. My eyes landed on James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. I had to smile. 

I was heading to Paris on the eve of Valentine’s Day, in the early days of Black History Month. Alongside a handful of outfits, a conversational repertoire of French, and fading European history lessons, I’d packed a deep curiosity about my African-American ancestry in Paris.

It was Paris where, for decades, countless African-American intellectuals and creatives crossed the Atlantic, hopeful and drawn by the possibility of freedom, an escape from American “Blackness.” For many, it is still sought for its history and culture. 

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In the days before my flight, I wondered what to expect of this gorgeous and mysterious place, which had also lured cultural icons such as Miles Davis and James Baldwin. What awaited me?

Sometimes it can feel as if Black history has been scattered, like dust, across the globe. Black footprints are everywhere. I left for the trip wanting to unearth the parts of this history in Paris, to peel back the layers of such a profoundly historic place. 

Related: The best ways to get to Paris using points and miles

In that spirit, I grabbed the Baldwin novel.

Baldwin was 24 when he fled America for Paris with $40 to begin his career. He left searching for a life he could stand to live, one that unclouded his mind and allowed his writing to flourish.

In a spring 1984 interview by The Paris Review, Baldwin said leaving “wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France — it was a matter of getting out of America.”

At some level, I feel I can relate, desiring freedom similar to what my predecessors craved. At 24, in 2020 America, I crave a life that offers more than scraps or racism, and freedom from the day-to-day pandemonium of headlines and newsfeeds. 

Related: 5 challenges facing Black creators in the travel industry

Determined to find something that could explain this connection between African-Americans and Paris, a friend of my fiance recommended one of the Walking The Spirit Tours, which focuses on the Black experience in Paris. It sounded perfect. We booked without hesitation.

For decades the tours have trekked through the city to illuminate a largely untold, abundant Black Parisian history. For me, it illustrated why the city lures African-American ex-pats, even today. It showed a side of Paris classes and books never did. At some level, it seemed the freedom sought is real.

On the Saturday of our tour, we met our tour guide in Montparnasse at a small navy sign with evergreen trim dedicated to beloved musician and ex-pat Josephine Baker. I squinted. My basic French loosely translated the sign’s subhead: “Music-hall artist, sub-lieutenant of the French free forces, philanthropist.” 

Related: Sisters of the Skies: Honoring Black women in aviation

Smells of fresh seafood and sweet bread wafted in the air, and the sun cast down on us as we sat on a bench waiting to start the tour. Our ancestors, I thought, had somehow conspired to ensure a warm winter day. 

We were met shortly after by a stylish, brown-skinned woman with a curly afro and bounce in each step. At the sign, she spoke for nearly fifteen minutes about Baker’s rise and transition from performing at packed halls to passing along secret messages to help the French resistance.

When we arrived at the breathtaking fountain in the center of Luxembourg Gardens, she told a story about Sally Hemings, enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, coming to Paris and living there. Her brother James also came and trained as a chef. Hemings, she told us, was technically free then. 

“As soon as you set foot in France, you were free,” she said.

And so it began to become clear why so many had been in the tradition of searching for freedom on French soil. For some, freedom was real. 

We walked through streets so skinny we stumbled to the middle. She pointed out Black history on almost every block. She talked about Blacks’ swell in Paris before, during, and after the two world wars. She mentioned her background as an afro-Russian woman and how being a Black American in Paris just meant you were American. “Here,” she mused, “It isn’t about your color; it’s about your education and your skill.”

When we reached the window of an apartment once belonging to James Baldwin, I paused, remembering how he eventually became what he sought to become when he originally left for Paris at 24. His writing flourished. Was Paris to thank? 

At Café Tournon, I imagined famous writer Richard Wright inside the window, pecking at his typewriter and sipping at warm liquor. 

It was Wright who once said, “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!” 

By the time our tour concluded at Shakespeare and Company, once a hangout for African-American ex-pats, I was convinced he and all the others were right.

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