This blanket acceptance of Black Americans in
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
Two - 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.
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
After generations of traditional accordion, fiddle, and classical music how could the French resist? Ragtime was already big in
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
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
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
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
I met Janet for the first time in 1990 shortly after my own arrival in
As a filmmaker I wanted to film her in her favorite pose.
That 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
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’.
And I realize now that
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
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.
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