Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Show & Tell on the Champs-Elysées

This question comes up often on tours – how are African Americans viewed and treated differently in Paris than Africans?  Would you be surprised if I told you part of the answer reveals itself on the Champs-Elysées? 

In the Holiday season, the Champs-Elysées truly earns its crown of most beautiful street in the world. Thousands of lights are strung like snowflakes in the trees, ground level is dazzling with Christmas Market baubles and Ice Sculptures. The last thing anyone’s thinking about is what a glorious arena this grand avenue has been for displaying Paris’ appreciation of African American culture. And even further from the mind, recalling how it has recently been the ground of contention in France-Africa relations.

Here's the recurring scene: every Bastille Day on the majestic Champs-Elysées, the rain-proof stadium is set up, the tricolor flag flutters, and military bands march in parade in front of the president.

On more occasions that most people realize, an impressive number of African Americans of unrivaled merit have been invited to parade. And fittingly so; the name of this grand avenue originates from the Greek mythological Elysian Fields where heroes and virtuous souls rest after death.

Imagine the unbelievable pride of the 369th Harlem Infantry and other segregated Regiments, decorated with their Croix de Guerre, waving back at the grateful crowds that surged onto the street to greet them. This was 1919;  the soldiers had helped liberate small towns in France, they’d kept their heads and hearts when all around them were losing theirs, they’d proven the inferiority label wrong.

Lighting The Flame
Eugene Bullard
A few years earlier, the US Air Force hadn't considered Eugene Bullard worthy of manning its planes. Georgia-born Bullard up and earned his wings in 1916 through the Foreign Legion flying Fokker Triplanes and a Pfalz D III and became the only African American pilot in WWI. The French showered this trailblazer with honors. One of the most powerful took place at the western-most entry to the Champs-E.  Under the Arch of Triumph in 1954, General de Gaulle asked Bullard to rekindle the Flame to the Unknown Soldier.

Another Legion of Honor inductee, Josephine Baker, made this swanky street her own. Her feisty, sexy debut at the nearby Théatre des Champs Elysées took the collective breath away. Then all frivolity behind her, down this same fashionable street she marched in 1969 alongside De Gaulle supporters. To complete the picture, the site of her thousands-strong funeral was held a block north of the Champs, at the Madeleine Church.

It's pretty well certain that someone like Josephine 'Queen of Parisian Nights' wasn't quite who France's Queen Marie of Medici had in mind in the 17th century when she planned to turn this farmland on the outskirts of the city into The Queen's Court, later known as the Champs-Elysees.

Miss Sally Hemings started her own dynasty in the shadows of this street, in the shadows of society. She arrived in 1787 as a slave to Ambassador Thomas Jefferson’s family at their residence at the corner of Rue Berri. Thanks to French law, though, she was considered just another free servant of color. Less than a year before the Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood creed of the French Revolution was cast in stone, Miss Sally was said to have conceived the first of the contested Hemings-Jefferson clan here, and soon after hammered out her own declaration of independence for her children. 

Meta Vaux Warrick

Le Petit Palais
From revolution in deed to evolution in perception, look no further than a few steps south of the avenue to the Grand and Petit Palais museums, both constructed for the 1900 Universal Exposition. Here, amid all the beau monde, W.E.B. Dubois exhibited highly unusual photos of Black Americans. Streams of ticket-holders came expecting to commiserate with images of downtrodden, poverty-stricken, ragged former slaves but Du Bois’ fine displays of Black America’s prosperous middle and upper class left them with new food for thought. Since then, those same museums have featured a veritable parade of fine, progressive art that was getting little respect back home:  Henry O. Tanner, Meta Vaux Warrick, Daniel Warburg, Annie E. Walker, Elizabeth Prophet, Palmer Hayden, William Edward Scott, Lois Mailou Jones.


More recently, post-modern France chose opera
 singer Jessye Norman to belt out their national anthem "La Marseillaise" during their Champs-Elysées blowout parade for the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. In the same event, William Foster’s Marching 100 from Florida’s A&M was honored as the only band to represent the U.S. during that 1989 Bastille Day parade. This clip of the performance sings like a Hymn To Joy.
 (N.B. Foster passed away Aug 20, 2010).

So when do the Africans enter Champs-Elysées history? Let’s fast forward to the Bastille Day 2010 military parade. This one’s got controversy stamped all over it.

For the first time in the parade’s history, troops from 13 former African colonies were invited to march infront of the presidential gathering (only Ivory Coast refused). Yet the courage and exploits of the Senegalese Regiment has been the stuff of legend for 150 years, so why now? To mark the 50th anniversary of the independence of African nations, and yes, finally to honor the soldiers. 

Veterans attending the 2010 parade
The Amazones of Benin

Malian soldiers

From Gabon
From Republic of Central Africa
While few may have questioned the African American presence over the century, a national debate ignited over the African appearance. Some saw the parading soldiers as inappropriate and outdated nostalgia for paternalistic colonial times. Others were outraged at the presence of what they called criminals among the invited contingent. And here’s where our Diaspora history defines our relationship with the French. There hasn't been a high cost politically, socially or morally for France to welcome and be enriched by African Americans.

And now for something completely different:

Follow up on the Richard Wright 50th Anniversary Commemoration Collage. I'm working on it and plan to have it complete early in the new year. Thank you all for your contributions!

There's more to be done, however!
If you were one of the countless who have searched up the stairs, under the stairs, scanned hundreds of markers to find Wright's, we can put an end to this. To get his name inscribed in the cemetery's guide, the Administration of the Père Lachaise cemetery has to receive a certain quantity of letters requesting his inclusion.
Julia Wright, the author's daughter, is calling on everyone to write a brief letter ( name, address, profession) expressing your wish to see Richard Wright's name added to the list of the personalities in the guide.
Send to:

Madame La Conservatrice
Cimetière du Père Lachaise
16 Rue du Repos
75019 Paris, France

Julia has asked for copies of all letters to be sent to her either by email at or at her address Julia Wright 92 Rue de Lourmel, 75015 Paris France to make sure the integrity and numbers of the file of letters is protected.

Thanks for your continued support.

Care for a French Treat?

Let me offer you a taste of Holidays in Provence. I have parents-in-law there and spent some of my most memorable Christmases circling the ever full table. One of the delectable traditions in the land of the mean Mistral wind is ending the Christmas meal with 13 dessert items! At any given moment I would be nibbling at walnuts, quince cheese, almonds, raisins, teeth-breaker biscuits, Calisson from Aix-en-Provence (candy pebbles with a thick padding of almond and fruit paste sandwiched between a delicious crust of smooth white confectioners sugar), white nougat, black nougat with honey, apple, pear, orange, winter melon and fougasse (Provencal bread).  All is left on the table and eaten over three days.

You'd also be eating this:
Buche de Noel (kind of Christmas cake)
Enjoy! Have a Wonderful Holiday and a Brilliant Start to the New Year!

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bricktop - A Black Woman Takes Paris On Her Terms

Although my Walking The Spirit Tours of Black Paris have been introducing travelers and Parisians to African-American history for 16 years, I still get a thrill discovering new tidbits to share as food for thought.

Lately it's the fire of Bricktop that has me lit up. She was a hostess extraordinaire who ran the best nightclubs in Roaring 20s Paris. If you don't already know of her, let me introduce you to Miss Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Smith, aka Bricktop.

Said this fiery redhead from Virginia: 'I'm not a singer, I'm not a dancer; I'm a performer and a saloon-keeper'. Hearing that, you just know she was destined to drop a bomb on the decadent Paris scene. That is, once she got past the classic Paris trip-up: reality check of expectations vs what Paris feels like offering up.
At Le Grand Duc

How would you react if you had seasoned your act in the swankiest Chicago and New clubs, then Paris beckoned so you set sail only to find yourself gaping at your new place of employment that fit precisely 12 tables and a minuscule bar.

Of small comfort, a 22-year old Langston Hughes offered the entertainer a hanky to dry her tears and some refreshments from the kitchen at  Le Grand Duc where they both now worked. Revitalized, she got up and put her saloon-keeping skills to work with entrepreneur and employer, aviator Eugene Bullard. Together they turned that little dive into the hotspot for jet-setting celebrities in Lower Montmartre.

A year and a half later, the shrewd but oh so classy Bricktop opened her own namesake club directly across the street. As hostess to royalty and writers, to movie stars and homies, she became both the spark and the cultivator of change.

It's well-documented gossip that F.Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter fought over her on that corner of Rue Pigalle and Rue Fontaine in the heart of Black Montmartre; out of their boyish one-upmanship came the classic tune 'Miss Otis Regrets'.

Away from judgmental eyes, she agreed to teach the Prince of Wales to swing his behind to the latest dance 'Black Bottom'. At the bar, Black and white Americans rubbed elbows without friction, taking in the latest records from home. And somewhere in that maddening, jubilant crowd, two fresh-faced local musicians listened with their whole spirit. Then a certain Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli went home and worked their guitar and violin until they formed France's first professional jazz band.

View from Black Montmartre - Rue Fontaine

Beyond the expat-makes-good story, what piques my curiosity is Bricktop's personal politics - the decisions she made as an influential woman. Though kept very private, her love life provokes reflection on the real values of the day and on our assumptions. One might assume that, surrounded as she was by powerful and accomplished men, in freewheeling Paris no less, that she just might slip into the obvious. Well, not for this equally powerful and accomplished Black woman! Her rule number one - never mix business with pleasure.

Then she wondered aloud what a successful African American woman would want with a white man, even if he was her manager. She herself married a Brother saxophonist, Peter Duconge, in 1929 but my question branches from her puzzlement. Lower Montmartre of the 20s attracted an international mix of party-goers so crossing the color line wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

Picasso hung out at Bricktop's.
We've heard much about the male expats who married European women
but rarely, (Josephine excepted), the other way around in that time period - up to the 1950s. Was it because the Black community was so fervent and prosperous that the French offered no tangible benefits for a woman? Did the close knit community effectively satisfy that yearning to belong within the foreign culture? Despite France's reputed racial tolerance, did any of the women really consider staying and integrating? Bricktop was half black, half freckled Irish so it could be simply that she chose sides early on and was sticking to it when it came time for the ultimate commitment.

How Black women's experiences in Paris have branched out since the 60s! The homey inclusion of Black Montmartre of the 20s has never been recreated. Compared to the legions of Black men, the trickle of African American women relocating and staying has slowly grown. But without a visible community to soft land into, it's easy to start making a life among the French and disappear into the fabric of Gallic society. Black women who have lived or live in Paris know more than a handful of us who are navigating our adopted land as mothers, wives or significant others, career builders, cultural interpreters, and passers-on of our Black and American culture. We're carrying on what Bricktop and her colleagues started, on a less flamboyant but just as influential level.

Any thoughts out there?

Jazz and its Homestyle 'Hood

Jazz à La Villette is summer's last hurrah of festivals. Running August 31 through Sept 12, this jazz tribute brings onstage their signature creative mix of jazz, hip hop and soul. Closing night rings out with a shout out to the Black Panthers called 'Tongues on Fire' by The Roots, The Last Poets and David Murray.

Preparing the terrain since the summer, the MK2 movie theater along the quays of the 19th district lined up an exciting selection of iconic Black films all summer.

What's also great about attending this festival is the opportunity to hang out in the cosmopolitan neighborhood that surrounds La Villette and stretches alongside the waterfront. Paris doesn't get much more unselfconsciously diverse than up here in this part of the north east, the 19th district.

For example, you'll find an African restaurant next to a Breton creperie both facing a neighbor-tended garden which is traversed by Jews on their way to the nearby synagogue.

Along the canal on a fine day, young people and families spread blankets and dawdle over picnic or take-out lunch, kids tear up the crushed gravel playgrounds, table-tennis players battle it out....

While planning your next trip to Paris, book one of the architecturally- interesting Holiday Inns that overlook the quais, and plan to get to know this homestyle Paris (between metros Jaurès to Porte de Pantin). One of the lures  - the best Sicilian pizzeria in town is at metro Laumière.

And to butter up that mood, I'm inviting you to tune into the internet broadcast of one of the jazz festival's sponsors - Fip jazz radio. Part of the Radio France family, Fip keeps me and my work humming along to the most surprising mix of music genres - lots of jazz, yes, including live concerts taped in their studios. Also rare and favorite African artists, plus other international talents including American rock, British edge and good old classical.  Tune in anytime by hitting the 'ecouter' arrow - great chance to practice your French by listening to the signature purr of the female djs. There's some vintage Quincy Jones streaming through as I write this...