through African-American Paris
on photo for enlargement
Though regarded as a second-class citizen at home in the United States,
ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass traveled to Paris in
1868 and attended a session of the French Sénat.
Entertainer Josephine Baker came to Paris in 1925, became an overnight
sensation after appearing in “La Revue Nègre”,
and was ultimately laid to rest after a state funeral attended by
20,000 adoring Frenchmen.
In 1948, a decade before the American civil rights movement, James
Baldwin moved to Paris and wrote Go Tell it on the Mountain, his
first and perhaps most powerful novel.
For nearly two centuries, African Americans have helped turn up the
wattage in the City of Light. Their accomplishments, as well as their
habits and old haunts, are chronicled in Paris Reflections: Walks
through African-American Paris (McDonald & Woodward Publishing).
The 134-page book, researched and written by Christiann Anderson
and Monique Wells, contains detailed city maps that take readers
on 6 walking tours of central Paris. The self-guided tours point
out hotels, cafés, museums, monuments and neighborhoods where
African Americans made their marks.
During the “Louvre / Arc de Triomphe” walk, for example,
I learned that African American architect David Harmon helped redesign
the Louvre’s Richelieu wing. Later in the tour, as the Arc
de Triomphe came into view, the book explains how France appreciated
the efforts of African Americans when the United States did not.
“Though the U.S. government did not allow the decorated regiments
of black American soldiers to take their rightful place in the Allied
march … many of the soldiers who passed the [Arc de Triomphe]
after the liberation of Paris during World War II were African American.”
For an African American author like me, the “Saint-Germain-des-Prés
/ Luxembourg” walk is perhaps the most fascinating of the 6
With Paris Reflections as a guide, my walk began at Les Deux Magots,
a restaurant in the fashionable St. Germain des Prés neighborhood.
Today, it’s a trendy eatery where tourists scurry to claim
a table. But in the late 1940s and early 50s, the restaurant was
a hangout for the hip intellectual crowd.
It was here that expatriate novelist Richard Wright (author of Black
Boy and Native Son) met James Baldwin (Another Country and Giovanni’s
Room) when he arrived in Paris in 1948.
Wright was a huge celebrity in Paris. “He was frequently sought
out by the press to speak on the treatment of blacks in the United
States, and was often in the company of the celebrated French existentialists
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.”
Crime novelist Chester Himes (Cotton Comes to Harlem and Blind Man
with a Pistol) also frequented Les Deux Magots. This was his first
meeting point with Yves Malartic, the man who translated his manuscripts
Next door, on the second floor of Café de Flore, Baldwin finished
writing Go Tell it on the Mountain in 1948. The book became a huge
success and catapulted the author to literary stardom. Because of
Baldwin’s literary achievements, the French government presented
him with the prestigious Legion of Honor award.
For more than two hours I walked the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés,
coddled by the ghosts of African Americans who lived, worked and
contributed here. I passed Cinéma L’Arlequin (formerly
La Rose Rouge jazz club), where Billie Holiday performed in the 1950s.
I stopped at No. 7 Saint-Sulpice, former home of Editions Rieder,
where Langston Hughes was published in the 1920s and 1930s. On Rue
Monsieur Prince I stared into the window of the Librairie de l’Escalier,
where Richard Wright held a book signing in 1959.
Wright lived at No. 14 Rue Monsieur Prince from 1948 to 1959. A plaque
above the entrance reads: “L’homme de lettres Noir Americain
Richard Wright.” According to Paris Reflections, “It’s
the only plaque in Paris that pays tribute to an African American.”
After passing through picturesque Luxembourg Garden, the tour led
me to Café le Cercle. The stylish eatery was previously known
as Café au Départ. Here in 1956, Chester Himes wrote
Pinktoes, a hard-boiled detective novel featuring the unforgettable
protagonists Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.
Any walk through Paris can fill me with a sense of wonder. With Paris
Reflections as my guide, however, the City of Light filled me with
a sense of pride.
Paris Tours offers guided tours to African-American Paris.
The tours are led by former TV news anchor Ricki Stevenson.
Her personalized 6 to 7-hour walking-metro-bus tours
run Tuesday through Friday except in late December, January
and August. Among the many stops: the Arc de Triomphe “where
the 369th regiment Harlem Hellfighters received a hero’s
welcome following World War I”; the theater where
Josephine Baker debuted with La Revue Nègre in
1925; the Montmartre neighborhood, the center of black
expatriate life in the 1920s and ‘30s. Price: 90
euros. Half-day tours: 50 euros. For more information
visit www.tomtmusic.com/id155.htm or call 011-331-46-37-03-96