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!

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A bientot!