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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