Monday, June 4, 2007

Banging The Drum in France

The first jazz in Paris was played at the Casino de Paris concert hall.

This blanket acceptance of Black Americans in France - where did that all start anyway? Word of mouth? Family stories of war heroes and adventurous women? Classroom texts?

You just have to read the amazed tales of the likes of intellectual W.E.B Dubois, former slave Frederick Douglass, editor Mary Church Terrell for what they tasted during their short visits about a hundred or so years ago. But it was the ‘doughboys’, the soldiers of World War I who spent months with the French, struck up real friendships, chowed down at their kitchen tables, then brought home the real stories.

The 369th Harlem Infantry Regiment

The troop leader’s name was James Reese Europe. He was black, patriotic to the core, and a brilliant musician. He and his 369th Harlem Infantry Regiment impressed their French combat forces with well-aimed grenades and swift bayonets. But he goes down in history - Black, War, and American history, for two things: One - marching that purely black music - jazz, into the hearts and culture of France and
- its outcome.

Combining the two things they did best, the soldiers paved the way for the French to form their own opinions of Black Americans and not judge them as ‘victims’ as the French surmised Black Americans to be. In turn, they were elevated to the highest respect because the French revered excellence and this new musical expression revealed nothing less.

The all-black 369th regiment set first foot on French soil on New Year’s Day 1918. Members included Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson,

artist Horace Pippin, and Noble Sissle, one of the celebrated comedy musicals director/songwriter duo of Sissle and Blake (Shuffle Along, Josephine Baker's first big show).

Barely stepped off the boat, they treated the French convoy they were to join to a jaunty version of “The Marseillaise”, the French national anthem. Can’t blame the French for not recognizing this particular jazzy rendition but it sure didn’t stop them from tapping their boots to it.

Inspiration In The Trenches

Jim Crow laws within the army kept the black troops from doing their duty alongside their white compatriots at the front. But the French Army was desperate for reinforcements and invited them to join forces. And off they marched, the ‘Trois Cents Soixante-Neuvieme’, as they were called. Jim Europe became the first African-American officer to lead troops into combat in World War I. Yet even with bombs exploding, gas creeping, and rats biting, music was never out of his mind. While recovering from a gas attack he wrote one of the band’s most famous post-war tunes ‘ On Patrol in No Man’s Land’ based on a night’s bombardment.

Speaking of No Man’s Land, marching their rejuvenating music through rural towns all through France could have easily made them the target of small town prejudice and mistrust but not so. What a warm welcome awaited them. If you get a chance to rent or buy Ken Burns’ excellent documentary ‘Jazz’, there’s some priceless footage of these New Yorkers decked in their military gear, instruments blaring, even doing some fancy footwork to the delight of locals - and wandering geese.

After generations of traditional accordion, fiddle, and classical music how could the French resist? Ragtime was already big in France. These black Americans playing live jazz personified the basis of French tolerance - that a person do what they do with excellence, end of judgment (and all the better if it reflects positively on France’s benevolence). But it wasn’t just about the music. These soldiers lived in French homes, lent a hand on the farm, and formed relationships, which brought the French to take their side against the mighty Americans.

Turning The Tables

White American troops had a reputation as arrogant and childish. For those familiar with the French brand of arrogance, we know for one thing that they resent being dictated to. Imagine their reaction when American propaganda was parachuted down over the villages to influence even little shepherd girls in the far reaches of the Alps. Flyers warned them against the ‘Soldat noir - vilain!’ (Stay away from Black soldiers!)

And you just know that was followed up with white army personnel trying to prevent French girls from hanging out with the black soldiers. One story goes when the girls of the town of Granvillars reported such incidents back to their new friends, one black lieutenant got up infront of the neighboring village and denounced his compatriots/enemies as ‘crackers’ and ‘pecks’. As a result the welcome mat was rolled up tight to whites in homes, restaurants and cafés.

Stateside, the soldiers weren’t the only ones spreading the word about the liberty, equality, and just plain decency and stunning friendliness they experienced in France. Others, like W.E.B. Dubois, gathered testimonies and published them.

In an article in Crisis of May 1919, entitled ‘Documents of War’, a letter from a French woman recounted how the initial fear of her small town turned to cooperation: “We see the little children in the arms of the huge Negroes, confidently pressing their cheeks to the cheeks of ebony, with their mothers looking on in approbation…. A deep sympathy is created for these men which yesterday was not even surmised… Now one is honored to have them at his table. One spends hours in long talks with them, with a great supply of dictionaries…

Read more about the 369th Harlem Infantry Regiment and the intellectuals who visited Paris at the turn of the century in Professor Michel Fabre’s thorough book: From Harlem To Paris, Black American Writers in France 1840-1960, University of Indiana Press.

Also Tyler Stovall’s ‘Paris Noir’.

And google it!

Janet's Own Rhythm
A good friend, a woman who lived out her Paris dream, died on April 11th in the city she adored.

Janet McDonald’s march to Paris was a torturous one, marked by social exclusion, rape, and pyromania. As she told in her brutally realistic autobiography, Project Girl (, she had Paris in her sites since her school days, at Vassar and Columbia.

I met Janet for the first time in 1990 shortly after my own arrival in Paris. The dream of this Brooklyn project girl was to be a writer, though at the time she shared a tiny ground-floor flat with her cat, not the mythical sixth-floor garret. She went back to the States, got her law credentials then marched right back here and made her own history. Janet became the first African-American, and one of the very few Americans, accepted to the French bar. Yet she remained more amused than impressed by this means to her success.

As a filmmaker I wanted to film her in her favorite pose.
hat didn’t turn out to be the one of her decked out in her “Miss Thang” suit, high heels up on her big old office desk. Nor throwing out witty comments to her adoring literary public at her many readings of her autobio and several young adults’ books.

(That's her, in full robe,on the stairs of the Palais de Justice)

The footage she loved best was of her belting out “La Marseillaise”, a more recognizable version than the 369th Regiment’s, in the heart of Paris’ most Parisian park - the Luxembourg Gardens. She knew every word of blood, gore and thirst for revenge. And that’s exactly what Janet got from her dream of Paris - sweet revenge on sticking out like a sore thumb as a too smart, Afro-sporting, Projects-born woman in America. In Paris she fit right in.

I, like many, were shocked and shaken to the core to learn of her passing. But underneath the grief, I’m so very pleased she traded in a successful career in law to ‘tell the honest truth about herself’. Mission impossible for most. I would’ve loved for her to write a sequel to her ‘Top 10 of the Year’s Best, (LA Times) memoir . Oh, for sure she would’ve skewered the truth about the Paris experience, but with her protective genuine fondness for the place.

And I realize now that Paris was more a safe haven from which to examine the still tender traumas of her younger years. Without that shelter and distance, her reflections perhaps wouldn’t have found their way out to eventually be able to commiserate with her audience of young people whom she felt more needing. More than we need another book about Paris. Anyway, that her remains rest at the cemetery of the stars, Père Lachaise, physically ensconces her forever in the company of two other African-Americans literary figures buried there, - and both just as French-loving as she - New Orleanean playwright Victor Séjour (1874) and author Richard Wright (1960).

And one more for poetic endings...

Richard Earned His Right

If you’ve read Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy, you’ll remember the profound frustration and indignity of his not being allowed a library card of his own in early 20th century Mississippi. Well, on April 20, the South Hills Library in Jackson, Mississippi was renamed the Richard Wright Library.

You'll find all three of these elements outside Richard Wright's former home in Paris, and when taking Walking The Spirit Tours - Writers, Artists & Intellectuals.

Photo credits: Michael Dickel, National Archives, Janet McDonald.

Hope you had a good read!

Comments? Don't be shy! And pssst - pass this on.

A bientot!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Welcome to the only place on the web where the spirit of black Paris past and present will entertain, enlighten, and inspire you, on a monthly basis.

Have you already taken one of my Walking The Spirit Tours? Strolled the narrow cobblestone streets, peered up at the window where James Baldwin lived or had your picture taken at Place Josephine Baker? Then you’ll get to relive and learn more.

If you're studying Black history for pleasure or academic gain, this blog will paint pictures between the lines of your books.

And for those still daydreaming about Paris, lean yourselves forward and prepare to leave that armchair.

History outside the book

Expect more than a history lesson. It’s going to be a personal journey for you the reader/participant and for me, too.

Since 1994, I've been sharing the amazing and dismaying stories of our predecessors with visitors and Parisians. No surprise that their stories began to filter into my own, and it became impossible not to compare mine with theirs. Many of my African-American friends in Paris lived similar circumstances and came out with a wide range of outcomes. Those of us in contemporary Paris are simply continuing the time line laid down by the likes of artist Henry O. Tanner, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Bricktop, and the rest of the black community of expatriates.

Month by month in this space I’ll put my personal spin on the stories of the most famous expatriates and the lesser known.

In the beginning...

It’s no secret the first visitors came for a taste of the legendary tolerance the French made their motto: liberté, egalité, fraternité. Among the first to visit and form their own opinion were former slave Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, and W.E.B Dubois. Then followed artists, soldiers, entertainers, writers, and more recently, business people. One thing we and they all have in common : a stay in France has a way of cranking open the mind and body to new ways of being and thinking. The bakeries, gorgeous architecture, alluring river were and are all icing on the cake.

Starting Afresh

I like to think of the expatriate Paris experience as a rebirth.

For myself, I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport on February 1, 1990, raring to kick off a new chapter . After two years of floating in a touristy-buzz, hypnotized by the same bakeries, moody strolls across the river bridges, and feeling slightly crushed by splendor of the architecture, my raison d’etre plunked itself in my path. It beckoned through the footsteps of Langston Hughes.

Langston H.

The poet of the people, the creator of jazz poetry was incidentally also born on February 1st, in 1902. The train that brought him to Paris for the first time huffed into the station in February as well. I met him however in my own north Paris 17th arrondissement neighborhood.

After taking a course at the Sorbonne under the European expert on Black history, Professor Michel Fabre (from whose book I quote liberally here), I followed his 'Street Guide To African-Americans in Paris' and found myself at number 15 rue Nollet. Nothing much impressive about this nondescript Parisian building, guarded, bien sur, by a concierge and her mouthy miniature dog. I waited. When lunch inevitably called them away, I slipped in, mounted the six creaky flights up then there it was - his blue door, with a gaping 2-inch gap between the sawed off bottom and the stone floor.

The room was right out of a book and I began to say to myself I guess dreams do come true.” (from his autobiography The Big Sea).

Poor Langston’s toes must’ve frozen in that drafty garret as he worked by day on the piece that was to become his very first paid poem. Then night after night while he washed dishes and emptied champagne bottles down the hill at Le Grand Duc nightclub, his head was buzzing with a revolutionary new type of poetry of his own creation- the jazz poem. Matching words to the rhythms of the fiery singer Bricktop while she entertained Europeans and prohibition-fleeing Americans out front, out danced the beat of 'Me & My Baby'.

Can't say I ever harbored that mythical 'living and writing in a garret' dream. I came simply for a change from my Canadian existence;because I’m naturally a rolling stone; and because I’d always had an inexplicable thing for French culture. Like Langston, and like my fellow expats, I got caught up and worn down pretty quickly in the fighting off the French attitudes and going with the flow.

Will the real Paris please show it's face?

It took all of 3 weeks for Langston’s romantic picture of Paris to wear off. His first letters home to fellow Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen griped something like, “The French are the most franc-loving, sou-clutching, hard-faced, hard-worked, cold and half-starved set of people I’ve ever seen in my life. Heat unknown. Hot water, what is it? You even pay for a smile here.

But he ends that letter with an observation that leads him to his own raison d’etre in Paris - that of spokesperson for his own: But the colored people here are fine, there are lots of us.”

In the ‘20s, the dingy working class neighborhood around Place Clichy housed a jumble of immigrants and working class French. Today it’s still a swirl of donner meat stands, luggage shops, Arabic pastries, discount clothiers and black hair shops.

The Weary Man Blues

Nothing like living the blues to write it right. Langston told black life in America like nobody else and scrounging alongside the working class and black people in the dregs of Montmartre brought painful inspiration. Finding a job was tough, what with the Italian and Polish newcomers willing to work for less than the low-paid French laborers. Langston's outstretched hand was resented, not because he was black but because he was further competition in a tight job market. He turned his new insights into race-conscious poems that later inspired the concept of the Negritude movement headed by Diaspora writers Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor.

When he returned to Paris in 1937 much richer and famous to attend the second International Writers Congress, they cheered him as 'the people's poet'. True to his unwavering black pride, he chose to stay in his old ‘hood at a hotel run by an Ethiopian on rue Fontaine, known as Black Montmartre in the 20s. To him, the area felt more like Harlem than downtown St.Germain-des-Pres, headquarters for later writers.

Some had it better, some had it worse....

Let's move on to a few artists. The French episode left an indelible mark on their lives... for the good and the not so great.

France played a cruel and decisive role in the life of artist Horace Pippin. This native of West Chester, PA was born on February 22, 1888 then moved to Goshen, New York where his deep attachment to rural black American family life formed the basis for his artistic expression. As a kid, Pippin got into lots of trouble drawing on his assignments at school but nothing could stop that pencil of his. Nothing except a bullet in the shoulder during World War I.

Pippin was a squad leader in the famous and celebrated all-volunteer black regiment, the 369th Harlem Infantry (more on them in March). This unit doubled as a jazz band that marched their unheard-of music through the villages of Belgium, France and England. That bullet, however, in 1918 crippled Pippin’s drawing arm and it took eight impoverished years until he rehabilitated himself to burning wood paintings, which landed his work in New York Museum of Modern Art.

Augusta's Revenge

Paris was sweet revenge for another February-born (02.29.1892) artist : sculptor, activist and educator Augusta Christine Savage.

"My brother was good enough to be accepted in one of the regiments that saw service in France during the war, but it seems his sister is not good enough to be a guest of the country for which he fought... How am I going to compete with other American artists if I am not to be given the same opportunity."

Those are the fighting words of the precocious seventh child out of fourteen in the Savage family. Augusta started molding clay animals as a child in Cove Springs and West Palm Beach Florida. Her talent was so impressive that an art critic from the Julius Rosenwald Fund awarded her two $1,800 fellowships. But national outrage hit the fan when a committee of seven white men denied her a scholarship to study at the School of Art in Fontainebleau because of her race. A bevy of fundraising efforts, however, got her to Paris, where she enrolled in the famous Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in 1929.

Not a year later, she was basking in recognition at the prestigious Paris Salon art shows. A medallion from one of her African figures was reproduced for the 1931 French Colonial Exhibition. Back in the States, she opened her own studio in New York and spearheaded a fresh aesthetic in Black art. Her greatest monument, she said, was turning her talent to the teaching of young black people in New York. Her most famous works include: Gamin, The Harp, The Chase, Prima Donna, Black Woman, and Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Black was Beautiful in Paris

Imagine how vibrant Paris was in the 20s and especially for African-Americans. Jazz was the hottest music on the Continent, it's musicians wrote their own tickets, Josephine lit up the night sky, Langston gave us the goods straight up, and the artists showed the only art world that mattered that sure they'd follow the European model but with all the talent they had to spare,
they were rewriting the foundations of black and European art.

Wish I'd been there...

Next month: Tearing it up with the Harlem Hellfighters...

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