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.