Wednesday, February 04, 2015

"Paris Noir"

Soul food in Paris, 1949: Leroy Haynes, an expat American Black, founded a restaurant where French people could taste chitlins, cornbread, red beans and rice, fried chicken and black-eyed peas. Located in Montparnasse, the restaurant was convenient to Americans who moved to the Left Bank, and appealing to adventurous French people. It remained a left-bank institution for 60 years (until 2009), run by Haynes’s widow and a “predominantly” African-American staff after his death in 1985.

Also in the Latin Quarter in the 1940s: Chez Inez, run by another expat Inez Cavanaugh, served soul food and featured jazz and blues: “eager Frenchmen who had never tasted the like” could try corn muffins and home fried chicken. In winter mostly Black American students ate there; in summer American and Scandinavian tourists were made to feel that “they owned the place.”

And in the area of Rue Mouffetard – another left-bank neighborhood – was the Rib Joint, owned by African-American expat, Randy Garrett: “a classic soul-food restaurant serving barbecued ribs, fried chicken, corn bread, and coleslaw. ... Its customers included a mixture of African american tourists and residents, other Americans, Parisians, and foreigners.” The Rib Joint was in business from the 1970s until 1994.

Leroy Haynes at his restaurant
from "Haynes" by Jean Segura
The availability of soul food and soul music offers one of many insights into Black American life in Paris in the twentieth century, as documented in Tyler Stovall's comprehensive history Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (1996). The expats established a loosely-connected community that included soul food and meeting places, jazz clubs and restaurants. They were highly fascinating to the French, who particularly loved the music, and evidently were willing to try the food. Since American expats mainly lived in hotels without the ability to cook their own meals, the restaurants were especially important.

Black Americans in Paris early in the century particularly enjoyed an atmosphere of French color-blindness that contrasted to the discrimination they experienced in American cities, North or South. Some of them experienced France first as American soldiers in the World Wars when American military segregation was extreme. Some came as students with limited means, or after World War II on the GI Bill or other stipends. Mature writers, musicians, and artists went to Paris looking for creative freedom; others came as unknowns with aspirations and succeeded, or didn’t. In the early years, these expats lived in Montmartre; later the center of this loosely coherent community moved to the Left Bank.

Stovall describes the lives of the most high-profile and successful American Blacks in Paris such as Josephine Baker, Bricktop, Sidney Bechet, Langston Hughes, Romare Beardon, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and quite a few others. American Blacks in Paris included leaders of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, the most exciting jazz musicians of the Jazz Age, or the best in Black American writing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Paris Noir also chronicles the lives and motives of many less well-known American Blacks who studied art, established studios, played back-up to the big Jazz names, wrote books or essays, performed in cabarets, or ran restaurants. Some lived ordinary lives, married French spouses, and more or less assimilated into French life.

Stovall covers the major time periods and events of the twentieth century – the chaos of the World Wars;  the excitement of the 1920s when Paris was a draw to Blacks as well as to other Americans; and the appeal of Parisian cultural scene and open atmosphere after World War II. Especially in the earlier years of the century, the French in turn were highly interested in the American Blacks who lived in Paris. American Jazz musicians contributed a modern alternative to traditional popular music in the 1920s and 1930s, and again in the 1950s. French musicians learned from Americans. French musicians sat in on jazz performances in cafes and concert halls, developing their own style of jazz in turn – notably Django Reinhardt and St├ęphane Grappelli, and later Boris Vian.

In the 1930s, when economic depression cut off the livelihood of many expatriates, the Black community declined. After World War II -- the racist Nazi era when Blacks had to leave Paris or be deported to camps – Blacks returned. Especially, the GI Bill recognized several art schools and universities in Europe, providing a new type of opportunities. The 1950s also were the time of French colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria and arrival in Paris of many non-white colonials, with heavy implications for American Black expats.

In the sixties, Americans in Paris were highly aware of civil rights struggles in the US; Paris, the author points out, was also a gateway to awareness of and living in emerging African countries, though that didn’t always work out too well as African countries were far from stable. Black expatriates, like everyone in Paris, were heavily affected by the near-revolution of May 1968.

Throughout the century, many expats retained strong ties to American life. Although some virtually turned their backs on America and its racial problems, others such as James Baldwin, moved back and forth between the two countries, committed to civil-rights activism in the US and to the peace that Paris offered.

Paris Noir wraps up with a summary of events in the 1970s until the early 1990s when Stovall, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and later at UC Berkeley, wrote and published the book. Stovall had many sources, including interviews he conducted with various Paris expats. During this time, the color-blind atmosphere of Paris became more and more of a myth, as mistreatment of large immigrant populations from former French colonies increased.

Having spent quite a bit of time in Paris over the years, and having read quite a bit about Americans in Paris, I found this book particularly appealing. The terrorist murders in Paris in January of this year have focused worldwide attention on the current racial tensions there, so the book (which has been on my list for quite a while) seems especially timely despite having been published 20 years ago. Alas, the apparent color-blind atmosphere that attracted American Blacks through much of the twentieth century is only a memory now, as Paris has gigantic racial and ethnic problems that in many ways dwarf even the situation in America.


Vagabonde said...

This is a very good review of this book. I had read it earlier and found it very informative. I don’t live in Paris anymore but from my experience the problem in Paris and other towns in France has more to do with emigrants from North Africa than black Africa. As you say France is not color blind as they were in the 1920s but I still think that blacks are not as prejudiced against as Muslims from North Africa or from parents from North Africa. I have several French black friends here in the US and they have told me that their families in France are better regarded than they are here in the US, and they have good jobs there. It also has to do with status – many French blacks have better education, and they are francophone – they come from Africa to get higher education in French universities, rather than Muslims from North Africa who come to find better jobs. French Muslims born in France have a disadvantage it is true because they are not given the same opportunities and, indeed, French people are prejudiced against them – a lot more than for black people, being French blacks or from other countries. For example, Black people from Martinique and Guadeloupe have many French government jobs compared to French people of North African descent. In any case France is getting more conservative, just like in the US, and, sadly, more prejudiced.

Jeanie said...

How in the world do you do it? You must read like a demon!

This one sounds fascinating and what an excellent review/description of the book and an in-depth look. Very interested in this one, too!

Lisbeth Ekelof said...

Very interesting. It must have been an exciting time in Paris on those days. Open to new influences and other cultures. Imagine if we had had something like this in Sweden! Although I guess Paris has more attraction than Stockholm in general.