Monday, February 14, 2011

Love Letters for Paris & France

For 200 years Paris has held a special home in the heart of African Americans.  Long before the sheer beauty of the place takes hold, there are expectations. Black history is chock full of alluring, mythical stories from Paris and France - longstanding acceptance and deep appreciation of Black culture, to start. Then what comes after the first coup de foudre? Some of us know the love affair never ends. At some point though, for those who linger, eventually new understanding sets in. 

I've gathered here a few reflections from writers, artists, abolitionists, poets and intellectuals. Their eye-opening moments transformed a sojourn into an important point of evolution. Whether folks looked to Paris as a place to soothe old hurts, to delight a grumbly heart, or simply to learn something about oneself, it seems that it came down / comes down to looking for love of some kind.                   Paris, on vous aime!

Lois Mailou Jones
Lois (Mailou) Jones, artist, future long-time teacher at Howard University :
“France gave me my stability, and it gave me the assurance that I was talented in that I should have a successful career. [Also] I remember that I had the most wonderful studio. The American University found it for me… it looked out over the city towards the Tour Eiffel. It had a loft and it had a roof garden. It was really paradise working in that studio of my dreams."
From an interview with Charles H. Rowell for Callaloo.

William Wells Brown, visiting in 1849 as a fugitive slave, a militant abolitionist, and as delegate to the Peace Congress:
"All Paris appeared to be on the Boulevards and looking as if the great end to life was enjoyment.
From Sketches.
James Weldon Johnson, 1905:
"From the day I set foot in France I became aware of the working of a miracle within me. I was free from special scorn, special tolerance, special condescension... free to be merely a man."

Frederick Douglass, 1859:
“To think that I, once a slave on the Eastern shore of Maryland was experiencing all this… Now I was enjoying what the wisest and best of the world have bestowed for the wisest and the best to enjoy.”
From The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Henry O.Tanner

Painter Henry O.Tanner, arrived in 1891. A former Sunday School superintendent and advocate for temperance, he was constantly surprised by cultural differences and wary of being seduced by French customs:
“But primarily, I was really afraid… I might grow to like it, that there might be lurkng somewhere within me an appetite which, once awakened, I could not control.”
From The Story of an Artist’s Life, H.O.Tanner.

Langston Hughes, romanticized his rooms near Place Clichy where he landed in 1924:
“The room was right out of a book and I began to say to myself I guess dreams do come true … Because here I am, living in a Paris garret, writing poems and having champagne for breakfast (because champagne is what we had with our breakfast at the Grand Duc from the half-empty bottles left by unsuspecting guests.
From The Big Sea, 1940.
This particular apartment was the upside of Hughes' first years in Paris; the downside being his financial hardships and the xenophobia he experienced while competing for scarce jobs.
Jessie Fauset, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar and graduate of Cornell, former teacher of Latin and French, literary editor for Crisis:
 “[It’s] lovely just to be oneself and not bothering about color or prejudice,” but noted that her writing might be suffering from such freedom, “I think strangely that’s why my book progresses so slowly, because I am away from the pressure."
From Noblesse Oblige.

Countee Cullen, poet, champion of all things French. More than other expatriate during the Harlem Renaissance, he explored Diaspora Paris and came up against surprising results:

“As an American Negro we are somewhat startled to find that our dark complexion avails us nought among these kindredly tinted people. Language must be the open sesame here, and it must be French.”
From Opportunity, September 1928.

Horace Cayton, psychologist and sociologist, wrote in his 1960s autobiography ‘Long Old Road’ of his trip in spring 1936:
“I walked down rue de la Paix to the Madeleine and then down into the magnificent Place de la Concorde where I turned up the Champs-Elysées. It was early evening and the air was soft and balmy. Crowds of people were sitting in the numerous cafés on either side of the wide street. I was just one of a crowd. I felt free and happy as I had never remembered feeling in the United States. 
Ralph Ellison first heard stories of France brought back from WWI by his favorite cousin. Later he read French literature, and visited French battlefields after D Day. Writing to Richard Wright:
“I saw the bombed buildings… even the negative symbols contain enough of their lost vitality to make one regret he failed to get there sooner. Certainly, it provided me a new perspective through which to look upon the U.S. and brother, the view is frightful.” 

Chester Himes was ambivalent about his stay in France but acknowledged its contribution to his success:
"In Paris, I found many ways to feed myself without disastrous effects. I gathered throwaway scraps in the markets, old bread, stale wine, and hotel proprietors let me live in rooms until I could afford to pay. France did not support me; it let me live and grow strong enough to concentrate on my work, which was writing … I became famous.” 
As told to author Michel Fabre, 1978.

Hazel Scott, the famed pianist arrived at the end of the 50s for a 3-week vacation and stretched it into a 3-year stay:
“I’m not going to say that France is paradise, but I will say this: you can live anywhere if you’ve got the money to live. You can go anywhere if you’ve got the money to go and whomever you marry or date is your business.”  
What Paris Means To Me,  Negro Digest 1961.

Surrealist poet Ted Joans wrote this tribute to his idol poet André Breton:  

“How can I thank you for the exquisite encounter
On rue Bonaparte in Paris (June 1960)
Of a giant in grey and an Afro American sunbeam.

From Spetrophilia, 1966.
Richard Wright:
How calm I've felt here in Paris! No more of that tension that grips so hard ... I walk down a street and feel my legs swinging free."
From his journal, 1947.

James Baldwin, through a fictional character in This Morning, This Evening, So Soon:
"But I could not hate the French, because they left me alone. I will always love [Paris]; it is the city that saved my life ... by allowing me to find out who I am."

So what about you? 
What's your love story with Paris? 

During my first trips to Paris (I was a flight attendant) I was less than impressed. The city tried to charm me but I finally swooned at my first crossing of the Pont Neuf. It was a foggy November morning, best spent in the Louvre, where I was headed. I just stopped dead, peered through the haze, felt - rather than saw - the Conciergerie and the lamp posts reaching out to me; I heaved a sigh and that was that. That was 1982. Like a marriage worth its salt, we've had our falling-outs, but as you can see, I just can't leave it alone.