Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where Our Expatriates are Buried.

There's no denying the kinship and inspiration that comes when you can touch the door, sit in the café, or gaze up at a Parisian window where one of our African-American expatriates spent significant time. But there's nothing that brings an abrupt pause like coming upon the final resting place.

Three major Paris-based Black writers died during the month of November - Richard Wright, Chester Himes and James Baldwin. If you plan to add a visit to their graveside to your European itinerary, be prepared to travel to cities that evoked in them a deep personal attachment.

For Richard Wright, that was Paris, of course. He died on November 28, 1960 and is cremated and interred at the world's most famous cemetery, Père Lachaise.

Located in Paris' north-end 20th district, from the outside, its high stone wall hides all but the tallest monuments and crosses. But once through the portal, it's hello wonderment of sculpture/grave sites and winding passages, shaded by robust autumn trees. In here, moss grows over angel's wings, stained glass gets broken, and despite a map in hand, you can get lost or distracted in about 3 minutes flat.

On a day too fine to be October, a small group of us went looking for Richard. He was a brilliant star in the firmament of literature and Franco-American politics, but in this cemetery, he lays cheek-to-jowl with the unknowns and the famous (Oscar Wilde, Stephane Grapelli, Jim Morrison, Sarah Bernhardt, Frederic Chopin, Molière, and Proust, to name a few).

The map said the Columbarium was north and west, in section 87. So we headed uphill, thin-soled shoes bending to the humps of cobblestone. And up, and up, trying to follow the various alley names.

And we took shortcuts, hopping down precarious gaps between sepulchers, peeking in broken tombs, and finally, made it.

Then the real work began. The Columbarium forms a u-shape of some hundreds of wall plaques, laid out in a grid on two levels. After fifteen minutes of reading each one, we found out from information services that we should have picked up the other map at the main entrance - the one marking the precise numbered niche where our Richard lay. Nothing to do but keep scanning. "It lies in a corner, under the stairs," are the last words of Madison Lacy's moving documentary 'Black Boy'. And sure enough, someone finally hollered out victory. And there it was:

Must see: see the link* below to view Julia Wright's tribute and reading beside her father's grave site, as featured on the blog of Kaleem Ashraf, PhD student at Sheffield University. It was recorded during the American University of Paris' Richard Wright Centennial this past June.

Chester Himes

Paris brought fame and fortune to Chester Himes, who died November 12, 1984. But he's buried in Spain. Why Spain, after his detective novels won him literary prizes in France? The Michel Fabre/Edward Margolies book, 'Several Lives of Chester Himes' says, for one thing, real estate was far more reasonable than Paris in the 60s, so he and soon-to-be wife, Lesley Packard, could finally afford to own.

And, after his arduous journey to recognition and express his bitterness, Spain felt like a place for him to rest, a place to run from his inner demons. Himes' health deteriorated from 1974, beginning with arthritis, a stroke, and finally, Parkinson's Disease. He is buried in a tiny town a few miles down the coast from his home in Moraira, in Alicante province, in the Ceminteri di Benissa.

If you do get that way, on the Costa del Sol, take a detour to pay tribute. Here's what you'll find:

James Baldwin

And if you're in the south of France, St-Paul-de-Vence to be specific, is where you can follow the last of James Baldwin's spirit. In this medieval town perched high
in the Vence hills, intriguing with its maze of steep streets, Baldwin bought a farmhouse. St.Paul was also called 'village of artists' by those who made it home since the 1920's - Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and Modigliani. According to the tourism office, it's not possible to go inside Baldwin's former home but you can walk around the outside. He died here, just past midnight November 30/December 1st 1987. But he's buried in New York, at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale. Exact location: Hillcrest A, Grave 1203.

*Click here Journal of visit to Wright's gravesite and poetry tribute by Julia Wright:

Photo credits: Angel ; Chester Himes by Claude 46500104 Find a Grave. All others copyright.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Signs of Progress in Black France?

Three weeks ago, I took this photo in Paris. It is scotch-taped to the door of a film production company, located in the 6th district. The 6th, for those unfamiliar, is an upper middle-class district, with the city's highest per square metre price of real estate. Its politics are centre-right leaning. And, to its great pride, it is home to many of the city's great cultural institutions (Institute of France, Faculty of Fine Arts, The Senate, to name a few).

This cut-out felt like a little flag of hope waving (though the French do not wave flags of their own or any other except to mark official buildings or ceremonies).

But one might say, oh it's Paris, they're cosmopolitan; they've got this admirable history of championing Blacks, right back to La Société des Amis des Noirs/Society of Friends of Blacks in Thomas Jefferson's day.

The seal of the Societe des Amis des Noirs c.1788

The support for a Black candidate for the U.S. presidency stretches into the heartland. During a Colesville Travel/Walking The Spirit Tours visit to the Josephine Baker's chateau in the tradition southwest, the castle-owner herself was enthusiastically sure of Obama's win - bolstered, she said, by their media and the recent visit of the American ambassador.

Entering Chateau des Milandes grounds

Cut to the country's Black population who want to believe this is possible, yet they seriously doubt this could ever happen chez eux (at home). A quick look at government representation tells a depressing tale: of 577 member of the National Assembly, there's not one face like theirs, except from the overseas territories.

The most vocal of these, Mme Christiane Taubira, Deputy from Guyana, told the France Noire- Black France conference on June 6 of her fight-to-the-death wish to become president of the French people, to represent all citizens, but her projects, plans and ideas are constantly ignored. She said, all who can must stand up. This France is not faithful to itself and its history, she adds.

Or is it? Let's wind the tape back to Richard Wright's Paris, a time when African intellectuals were being groomed in the top French management school to benefit their independence-seeking countries. Fundamental historical relations to France colored the outlook of Diaspora activists Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor and Wright. None of them agreed on how Blacks and France should and could formulate a working relationship. It was easier, then as now, for the French to support American Blacks because their fight wasn't/isn't taking place on French soil. Would any of the three applaud (progress) in France today?

Perhaps it’s a trickle up method. On an everyday level, to me, having lived in Paris and Provence for many years, and noted the lack of black representation in the common spaces, I have noticed in recent times, more faces of colour where there were absolutely none. On transatlantic Air France - brown flight attendants, in finer cafés where Monsieur le serveur is trained and diploma'd in the art of service - black servers, and…. in Richard Wright's old café near The Senate, Le Tournon, the first Black behind the counter I've ever seen.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Marking Richard Wright's Passage

As the month of Richard's Wright's birth comes to a close, and the celebrations of his centennial ring on, I would like to offer these photos as a piece of the memory that still resides in the streets of Paris.

I took the photographs in February 1992 during the "African-Americans and Europe" conference sponsored by the Centre d'Etudes Afro-Americaines de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Harvard and Columbia Universities and the University of Mississippi.

Here, the plaque that still marks Richard Wright's former home on rue Monsieur Le Prince was erected. It was a momentous moment in African-American history - the first official sign of our passage and cultural influence in Paris.

It was also a marking moment for me. I had only been in Paris 2 years and knew little of the legacy African-American writers, artists, entertainers, and just plain folk had forged in this city. It was during this pilgrimage, that departed from the front entrance of the Sorbonne Nouvelle on the street just behind Monsieur Le Prince, with the late Professor Michel Fabre at the lead, that I decided to create my series of Walking The Spirit Tours and encourage others to come see and feel Black Paris.

Here, as the photos show, our hearts were enthralled to take part in the official ceremony, again commented by Professor Fabre and by Julia Wright, and even her son Malcolm. You might even recognize people, or yourself among the participants.

Getting the plaque through the French bureaucracy took over two years, I understand, and was spearheaded by young lawyer, Ben Davis (in beige slacks).

Today, the building has been royally restored, the front doors draw the hand with their fine etching, and I personally am proud to glance up at it and remember where Richard Wright left his indelible trail.
Left to right: Professor Michel Fabre, Ben Davis, Julia Wright.

(These photos are copyright. If you would like to use one, noncommercially, please email

Thursday, July 24, 2008

What Black and Browns in Paris Think of Obama

During our Walking The Spirit tour through Black Paris in June for the Richard Wright Centennial, folks were asking me for insight into the pleasing but somewhat mystifying 'Obama Effect' in France. His face jumped out at us from every newsstand, from monthly mags to special editions. And though I didn't have time during my trip to actually stop and read the articles, I was more than thrilled to find a consumer magazine on my flight home with a cover headline: The Obama Phenomenon - France Votes for Him.

So I thought I'd share some of it with you.

The source was 'Elle', whose target audience is hip young ladies, so I figured we'd get it, yes, straight from the hip.

Here are some of the comments gathered by journalist Lena Mauger.

  • Obama fans are divided into two camps: a) the new Parisian class known as 'bobo' bohemian bourgeois - Obama fits right into their left-wing/environmentalist/admirer of revolutionaries stance - he is, quite simply, cool. On the less fortunate side of town, Obama fires up a heated passion in the immigrant-majority suburb teaming with mixed-race youngsters distressed by discrimination.
  • One high school student exclaims, 'if he wins, it will be the liberation of all Blacks in the world'.
  • For some, he represents nothing less than the reincarnation of the American Dream. He serves as an example to a France still sketchy on its own immigration.

Obama's avoidance of divisive politics highlights the hurtful actions of their own President, immigrant-born himself, who, they believe, shows contempt for immigrants.

  • Obamamania reaches all generations. The older generation who were brought into France as laborers, when jobs were plentiful, now lament their lost fantasy of a kinder workplace for their well-educated kids being turned down for jobs because of the un-French name on their resume.
  • For the hip-hop generation, whatever their country of origin, they're sick of answering the question: 'do you feel more French or Moroccan, Malian, etc.' They're coming up with their own responses inspired by Obama's ease with his multi-ethnic background. One slammeuse Delphine 2 says that Obama 'de-complexes them because he assumes his African and white origins'.
  • Obama is also a symbol of political accessibility practically non-existent in France, where the only members of the present government of African or Arabic origins were appointed - not elected - by a right wing President.

Mohamed Hamidi, economics professor, and Karim Zeribi, ex-president of Parliament of the Suburbs, were part of a French delegation to Philadelphia recently. They were astonished to find themselves at an Obama meeting, in a room full of blacks, whites, men and women. "You'd be crazy to be an Obama in France,' they said. 'They would say, oh he's the candidate for the Arabs, that one's the candidate for the Muslims, etc. Obama is a hope for those of us who walk with our head down. They had Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Mohammed Ali but in France we haven't yet had the person who will denounce inequalities and who will last.'

I would love to be caught up in the crowd, cheering Obama as he passes through Paris. I think it would be the very first time since moving there in 1990 that I'd witness most Blacks in the city - African, Caribbean, American - actually sway in one united movement, eager to embrace and align with the same cause. And to acknowledge our common origins, and dialogue in real time about our present and linked future. But also, it's been decades since being American (of any stripe) was considered admirable overseas.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Do The Josephine in July

I'm making July Josephine month in Black Paris. Why? Because there's a couple more exciting ways for you to celebrate La Venus Noire.

The Josephine Baker Pool

In her debut, she got a reputation for 'taking it off'. Test your own sense of adventure by stripping off the summer finery, slipping into a swimsuit, and taking a dip in the Josephine Baker pool. Encased in glass, this floating barge of serenity is moored to the Seine River at Quai Francois Mauriac at the foot of new Francois Mitterand Library (Bibliotheque Francois Mitterrand) in the 13th district.

The pool opened in July 2006 but closed unexpectedly because of a fire in the gym section. It re-opens July 21st. It's not exactly for Olympic swimmers - but you can get in a 25 meter (82 ft) lap. Or take it easy and just soak up the rays streaming through the sleek, retractable sun-roof, meditate on the Paris skyline, or watch the kids paddling around the hedgehog fountain in their own pool. And if paintings from bygone days ever had you wishing for a swim in the Seine, this is the closest you'll get - the pool is filled with recycled water from the river.

Though the location may seem off the well-traced tourist path, it's a great introduction to this 13th district, once an obstacle course of industrial buildings now home to branché artists' squats, very hip clubs (some on the boats nearby) and the new library. Until Aug 20, the piscine Joséphine Baker offers a cool dip off if you're lounging on the makeshift but hugely fun Paris Beach Paris Plage set up nearby - after the workout, check out the free newspapers, books on loan, WiFi access, and art classes.

If you go: Metro: Bibliotheque F.Mitterand, line 14. Tel 01 56 61 96 50 Entrance:5E.

'In Search of Josephine' Show at Casino de Paris

If you never got to see Josephine in one of her dazzling shows, you've got until August 17 to check out the spectacular 'In Search of Josephine', now playing at the Casino de Paris in the 9th district, Lower Montmartre area. The revamped Jerome Savary production has pulled out the mesmerizing costumes, her dances, and the New Orleans swing that livened up the 1920s and 30s.

Josephine actually performed at the Casino in 1930 (it's not a gambling casino, in fact, but a luxurious concert hall), shaking up the entertainment world and enraging her rival Mistinguett. Josephine's 'The Show That Shakes' did just that.

Just as important: this place is home to African-American jazz in Paris. It was here in 1917 that drummer Louis Mitchell brought his hand-picked band, The Jazz Kings, to delight throngs of fans of this new music. For five years upstairs at the Perroquet Room, the fans and the venue showed their love with their wallet. Mitchell raked in the dough - making ten times more than a French cabinet minister. The Jazz Kings accompanied the biggest names in Music Hall of the times, including Josephine and her 'Revue Qui Remue - Show That Shakes'.

One our tour participants (Shirellia Moore), kindly took these photos as we visited the Casino during our Walking The Spirit Tours Tour #2 The Entertainers. This is upstairs at the Perroquet Room today, same as in the 1930s.

Official Stamps

Stateside, the US Post Office has just issued a series of stamps commemorating the greats of Black Cinema, including our Josephine. Buy them at your nearest outlet or through the website. France did the same for Josephine in 1994, which I am proud to own, and for Sidney Bechet in 2002.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Black Buzz in Paris in June

There is an intellectual buzz going on in Paris around the Black presence in France in June. It’s a rare occasion and treat. Several conferences and groupings around various aspects of Blacks in France - and that includes our reflections on our own African-American history, Negritude, Immigration and Identification in Black France, and lots more. Plus the screening of hosts the PBS documentary series ‘African American Lives’ hosted by Henry Louis Gates, and to top it off, some insight on the Barack Obama effect in France.

June 2008 in Paris - Black Is Beautiful! And up for some pretty hot discussion.

Here’s a quick look:

June 6 & 7

France Noire - Black France

The Poetics and Politics of Blackness

This colloquium is offering some really high level discussions with leading thinkers and movers. Some inviting sessions include: The Unheard of Voice in Black Paris with Brent Edwards of Columbia U., Reflections on the Future of Black Paris by Rosetta Jules-Rosette, The Black Question in the French media since 2005 by TV journalist Fatimata Wane-Sagna, and much more.

You can read the full schedule and location here:

Novelist Jake Lamar and Artist/Author Barbara Chase-Riboud will also be participating.

Of special note: Opening remarks will be by Tyler Stovall, author of the very informative guide ‘Paris Noire’, and key note speaker is Madame Christiane Taubira of the French Parliament (whose groundbreaking legislation Taubira Law recognizes slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity).

If you are within flying distance of Paris, don’t miss this gathering of great minds and fodder for brilliant discussion.

June 19-21

The American University in Paris is hosting an International Conference on Richard Wright. September 4 of this year would have been the writer’s 100th birthday and the university program is drawing scholars and experts from across the world. Wright left such a rich body of work and his life experience played out to characterize several crucial moments in Black American history - from his childhood in Natchez Mississippi where this intellectually curious young boy found a way to obtain a forbidden library card, to sidestepping a ‘set for life’ job at the post office in Chicago in exchange for the precarity of speaking his mind through his writing, exploring the decidedly non-American option of communism, and finally breaking away to friendlier turf in France.

The conference also honor former Richard Wright scholar, Professor Michel Fabre, who brought many students of all ages and nationalities to the richness of African-American literature. I, for one, remember being quite surprised to find myself the only Black student in one of his Black Lit classes at the Sorbonne.

For the full schedule on the International Richard Wright Conference:

For the conference, Walking The Spirit Tours is the official tour provider of walks through Black history in the Latin Quarter & St.Germain-des-Pres.

June 4

The screening of the unprecedented PBS series ‘African-American Lives’, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B Du Bois professor of the Humanities and chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard U.

The series provides a life-changing journey for 12 highly accomplished African-Americans (such as Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Tina Turner…). It uses genealogy, oral history, family stories and DNA analysis to help trace lineage through African history and back to Africa.

Episode 1 June 4 - The Road Home focuses on stories of the participants’ ancestors from the early 20th century

Episode 2 June 11- A Way Out of No Way continues back through the late 1800s to the Civil War.

Shows at 12 noon and 7 pm.

At the Mona Bismarck Foundation, 34 avenue de New York, Paris 16, Metro: Alma-Marceau or Iena,

Cost 5 E.

Absolutely must RSVP to

June 3rd - Tuesday

The Barack Obama Effect in France

Want to know what the French think of Obama? Here’s your chance to hear it firsthand.

This one-evening conference is organized by the French Committee for the Support of Barack Obama. And will be held and the Political Science campus, and speakers include Constance Borde - super delegate and VP of Democratic Party in France.

If you can get a cheap ticket and get over to Paris, it will be worth the mental stimulation to get this close to the fire - yes Paris will Burning Bright and Black.

And to go out with some special honors -

May in Black history in Paris the month to celebrate the life of Langston Hughes (died May 19), James Reese Europe (brought jazz to France) also died May 19, and the granddaddy of expatriate African-American painters - Henry Ossawa Tanner - died May 25, 1937.