PARIS – The great African-American writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright began their feud over Wright’s novel Native Son at Cafe Les Deux Magots. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis held hands with his white girlfriend, French actress Juliette Greco, while strolling along the Seine after hanging out with Picasso. Entertainer Josephine Baker became a megastar at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees.
Some travelers to Paris seek selfies with the Eiffel Tower, go to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or stroll to the Arc de Triomphe. But you can create a different type of itinerary exploring African-American connections to the City of Light. Some of the United States’ greatest black intellectuals and performers sought an escape here from the racism of 20th century America, and with a little homework, you can retrace their footsteps.
“Paris. ... There you can be whatever you want to be. Totally yourself,” poet Langston Hughes wrote, according to Paule Marshall’s memoir Triangular Road.
“I’ve never felt a moment of sorrow,” Wright said about leaving the U.S. for France.
How and why these black expats felt more at home in Paris than in their own country is the theme of Black Paris Tours , founded and led by Ricki Stevenson.
In the U.S., African-Americans contended with segregation, racial terror and little support for their art. But in Paris, they drank wine with surrealists, frequented bars that aided the French Resistance during World War II and enjoyed accolades for their work, Stevenson said. The French showered them with admiration and opportunity – ironic given France’s treatment of its African colonies. And while Paris today is a multiethnic city, immigrants from its former colonies, especially North Africans, often face racism and discrimination.
Yet decades ago, African-Americans felt welcomed here. St. Louis-born Freda Josephine McDonald, for example, came to Paris as a dancer after a life of cleaning houses and babysitting for wealthy white families. In the U.S., she was criticized for being “too dark.” The New York Times once called her a “Negro wench.” But in Paris, she drew immediate fame for her 1925 performance in La Revue Negre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. As Josephine Baker, she became one of the era’s most popular performers.
“The opportunity to live a rich, full life is something that she could have in Paris,” Stevenson said. “She could not have this in the United States.”
When Baker died in 1975, she was buried in a French military uniform with her medals for her role in the French Resistance during World War II.
Today, you can catch a show at the Art Deco-style Theatre des Champs-Elysees, visit Baker’s favorite restaurant La Coupole and take photos at Place Josephine Baker, a square. Her image, rarely seen in the U.S., is widespread in Paris. There’s a swimming pool named for her, too, in a barge floating on the Seine.
And while the Lenox Lounge, a famed Harlem jazz club where Billie Holiday sang, has closed, Paris jazz clubs such as Caveau de la Huchette in the city’s Latin Quarter still serve up energetic evenings of live swing and bebop.
Founded in 1947, Caveau de la Huchette was one of many clubs where African-American performers sought to make a living amid changing music tastes in the U.S. It played host to the likes of Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. Last year, the club got a cameo appearance in the movie “La La Land.” One evening last summer, a trio of saxophonists drew a diverse crowd of swing dancers enjoying 1940s-era jazz.
Around the corner from Caveau de la Huchette, vintage shops sell posters of African-American jazz artists and hard-to-find vinyl albums like “The Hawk in Paris” by Coleman Hawkins.
In Saint Germain des Pres, Cafe de Flore is known as a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway’s. But it’s also where James Baldwin, a son of Harlem who came to Paris with only $40, crafted his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. There’s a small photo of Hemingway upstairs but no image of Baldwin.
At Le Select cafe, a gathering place for intellectuals before World War II, Baldwin finished Giovanni’s Room, a novel about an American in Paris and his affair with an Italian man.
The famed English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company served as a meeting place for African-Americans and other expats throughout the 20th century and still does. On a recent afternoon, the African-American writer Colson Whitehead talked to a crowd outside the store about his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad. He answered questions about slavery in the U.S., police shootings and the state of African-Americans in a post-President Barack Obama nation.
Inside, books on display included They Can’t Kill Us All: The Story of the Struggle for Black Lives and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
Looking back on his time in Paris, Miles Davis once wrote: “I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated.”
Stevenson said visitors can learn about that chapter of the African-American experience today. “All you need to know is the history,” she said. “And know where to visit. It’s all here.”