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The history of Paris as a haven for African-Americans

Sept. 20, 2020
5 min read
The history of Paris as a haven for African-Americans
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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.

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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.

Featured image by Getty Images

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023