I have lived in Paris half my life. Fresh from university, not a Francophile, and with no knowledge of the language, I came to Paris from London for a weekend.
I never did catch my plane out, and in time found myself with a husband, children, and a French family so enormous that if two generations held a reunion at the same time, we ran into the hundreds. Not only did I have to come to grips quickly with the French on a sentimental level, but I also had to take a crash course in the French method of dealing with everything.
Paris can be unpredictable and infuriating one minute, and irresistible, serene, liberating and generous the next. She can be the height of civilized living and the depth of gratuitous rudeness. She is full of beauty and perfect places to live. Paris offers the best reason to spend a day doing nothing if you feel like it, without ever feeling alone. Every quartier of Paris is a little village. Old, young, rich, poor, Left Bank intellectual to River Bank yuppie, everyone meets at the baker’s for their daily baguette. Fashions may change in Paris, but never Paris, its splendor eternal and unparalleled. It is a city whose magic is bestowed on both visitor and native.
Here, we can still recall the lives of all those who have come from other countries. From my house, I love to cross the Luxembourg Gardens, with its palace built by a homesick Italian queen, go past a replica of the Statue of Liberty and down the rue Tournon, where there is a plaque on the house where John Paul Jones lived and another on the house where Casanova lived. I can walk past a bookstore filled with the white-jacketed books with only a title and no illustration that Countee Cullen loved so much, or an outdoor cafE where Richard Wright wrote.
France, perhaps more than any other country in Europe, has valued its black citizens and welcomed black Americans. More than a hundred years ago, Paris recognized the genius of its great historical novelist, the immensely popular black French writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), famous for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. For more than a century, black Americans have expatriated to Paris for political, economic, artistic, and racial reasons. The African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, son of a Philadelphia pastor and member of the black bourgeoisie, lived and exhibited in Paris between 1891 and 1900, and was acclaimed and richly rewarded by the Parisians. But it was during the First World War, when more than two hundred thousand black soldiers fought on European soil, that the first real immigration of blacks occurred. Although they found themselves segregated in the American army, they were welcomed and were even considered “American” rather than “black” by the French.
Not only did the French appear to be color blind, but they were also intrigued by a new American art form: jazz. They loved the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hell Fighters Band, which captivated French audiences everywhere with its ragtime, its military tunes, its blues, and all that jazz. After the war, a jazz band was formed by members of the Hell Fighters who, along with thousands of other black veterans, remained in Paris. This was the beginning of the love affair between the French people and American jazz that survives to this day.
This passion reached fever pitch when musician Sidney Bechet and dancer-singer Josephine Baker came to Paris with La Revue NEgre in 1925. Although it was Sidney Bechet who was the genius, it was Baker who the French took to their hearts. She became the symbol of all the beauty, verve, and energy of the Americans, and between the two world wars she became a legend. Baker strode up the Champs ElysEes with a pair of leopards and sang of her two loves: “my country and Paris.” During World War II she fought simultaneously for the Free French and against racism in the United States. For her courage and her humanity, the French decorated her with the medal of the Legion of Honor, which was buried with her in a state funeral when she died in 1975. Americans, however, ostracized her for her extravagant, flamboyant style for years, and she never really worked in the American theater again.
Between the two wars, all the great names of the Harlem Renaissance passed through Paris, some of them remaining for years, like the poets Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, both of whom lived here in the 1920s. Literary talents as diverse as Richard Wright, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, William Gardner Smith, and John A. Williams, as well as dozens of theatrical people, including the actor Gordon Heath and the singer Jimmy “Lover Man” Davis, established themselves on the Left Bank of Paris.
These black Americans fled the United States to escape racial tension, discrimination and lynching, and a wave of conservatism brought on by Prohibition that was very similar to today’s atmosphere in America. Their purpose in coming to Paris was to define and consolidate their own Americanness outside of racial stereotypes and to have it changed by a European point of view. But, in truth, most of these Americans returned home as steadfastly American in outlook and culture as when they left.
African Americans have held a special place in their hearts for Paris. When the great African American poet Langston Hughes decided to make his home in Paris, his friend Arna Bontemps wrote to him, saying that someone who had reached the stage in his career that Hughes had when he could contemplate his past and read the biographies being written about him had earned the right to live in Paris before living in paradise.
The eighties brought high-powered black corporate executives and lawyers, state department officials and stunning photographers’ models to the Paris scene. Black Broadway musicals such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Dreamgirls, Porgy and Bess, and Black and Blue have all had long runs in Parisian theaters. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is always sold out on its annual tour here. The Jeffersons, the television sitcom, is one of the most popular shows in France. Singer-dancer Vivian Reed, star of Bubbling Brown Sugar, is regarded as the reincarnation of Josephine Baker.
My novel Sally Hemings (translated under the title La Virginianne), about the liaison between Thomas Jefferson and his slave wife, was a best-seller in France, with over a million copies sold. Books about the life of black expatriates, Harlem, Left Bank, by the French writer Michel Fabre, and Paris Noir by Tyler Stovall, are similarly successful. The opera divas Barbara Hendricks and Jessye Norman are regulars on the Parisian social scene. Predominantly black jazz festivals are held year-round all over the country, but especially during the summer months on the Riviera; they have been a French tradition since the early fifties. Here, the all-American voice of Whitney Houston is heard almost as often on the airwaves in Paris (where she is number one) as it is in the Big Apple.
And the reciprocal love affair between the French and those they see not only as Americans but also as victims of a racist American society goes on.