Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Painting of Richard Wright Hangs in Normandy Town Hall

 Taking You Outside Black Paris

How do we keep alive the vitality and relevance of Richard Wright and his time in France - outside the classroom? We follow his footsteps back to where he wrote, we meet the people he enjoyed, we walk the ground he did. Then we give back something to keep the flame alive.

In celebrating his birthday September 4 (1908), I’d like to share with you a trip that sought to do just that.  

In April 2012, I expanded the annual African Americans in Paris study trip of University of Lausanne to include Richard Wright's Normandy. The international students of Professor Agnieszka Soltysik had pored over Wright's work, now they could physically revisit the farmhouse grounds he once owned, and drink in the calm setting at the nearby writers colony where many of his haiku were penned. 

University of Lausanne students at the Town Hall of Ailly with our hosts on the left.

Our 1-day visit had several other goals. First, to present to the town hall of Ailly a painting that would remind all who passed there of the great American writer who lived among them in the late 1950s.  The painting, made by a young Paris-born artist, Shannon Figuereo, portrays Wright as well as an interpretation of his family’s home.    

Julia Browne presenting painting of Wright to Ailly Municipal Councillor Evelyne JUHEL

It was an emotional ceremony on all sides. Mme Juhel was very touched to receive our gift and promised the painting would be displayed in the new wing of the town hall under renovation. The town administration gave to us a beautiful book on the history of their town, along with a written presentation by its author, local historian Eric Portier. 

"You are welcomed and in fact we are proud to meet you, who came in a kind of literary pilgrimage. I hope that the visit will engrave in your heart the gratitude to that man who fought for a better respect of human beings."  Eric Portier

We, in turn, were really delighted by the unexpected reception they so kindly prepared for us. There was not a drop of the local cider nor a crumb of the regional sablé biscuits (butter biscuits)  left!   

Next, we visited the grounds of La Folie Muse, the farmhouse where Wright enjoyed playing ‘gentleman farmer’ with his family. It was wonderful to revisit this residence after having seen it first when working as a production assistant on Madison Lacy’s PBS documentary Black Boy in 1993. 

At Wright's farmhouse - our guide and  Mr. Hesloin (r) who knew Wright.

Back on the bus, we followed Wright’s next move -  about 15 minutes down the road to the Moulin D’Andé. At the time, this 12th century mill turned artists retreat allowed writers, artists and musicians to develop their craft in a bucolic, friendly atmosphere. Today, the cultural centre still carries that mission. And it is still run by the woman who invited Richard Wright after the Sorbonne’s 1956 Negro Writers Conference. 

Moulin d'Andé Cultural Centre
After a sumptuous buffet lunch, the students, professors and I hung onto every word of Maurice Pons, a French writer also residing at the Moulin d’Andé and friend of Wright. Oh, the stories he told, the pictures he showed!

Author Maurice Pons opening the Moulin d'Andé Book of Memories

Wright relaxing at the Moulin d'Andé

View from a writers cottage

Put This On Your Itinerary

Ailly lies about an hour east of Paris. It's a community of 1052 souls - about the same number at Richard Wright's time. The Aillytiens, as they're called, take great effort to maintain their 'home sweet home' feel of old time French country living. But visitors are warmly welcome! There's even a soft spot for Americans. On the 24th August 1944, American troops liberated the village, as they did many others in Normandy.

A trip down Richard Wright's lane can be arranged for individual travelers and for groups. And, if you've got a novel you'd love to write in this peace and calm, or a musical score to finish, it doesn't get much more idyllic than here (and the food's great).


Anna Eklund-Cheong said...

Thank you for this post, Julia! I am currently interested in Richard Wright's haiku (I have the book his daughter published in 1998) and because I live in France myself, I want to visit his farm in Normandy, if I can. Are you still running tours in the Paris area?

Anna Eklund-Cheong said...

Thank you for this post, Julia. I have recently become interested in Richard Wright's haiku and would like to visit his farmhouse in Normandy one day.