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Volume 5.2 1997
ISSN 1048-3721
This page was last updated on 03/15/99



Tyler Stovall

Throughout the twentieth century a small population of African Americans has chosen to leave the United States and make a new home for itself in the French capital. Although their numbers never exceeded a few thousand, black Americans in Paris came from a wide diversity of backgrounds and interests. Those engaged in the creative arts, especially musicians, generally assumed pride of place in both the reality and representations of African American life in Paris. However, the community has also included students, business men and women, athletes, housewives, fashion models, soldiers, and journalists. Celebrities like Josephine Baker and Richard Wright have captured the public imagination in both France and the United States, but not all black Americans have found fame and fortune in Parisian exile. Some crossed the Atlantic in search of adventure, some in pursuit of job opportunities, and some in refuge from racism in conscious protest against the treatment of blacks in the United States.1

The traditional narrative of the African American experience in Paris portrays the move from America to France as a transition from collective oppression to individual liberation. In Paris, the argument runs, blacks found a place where whites would treat them according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin.2 In contrast, I wish to argue that the experience of community was fundamental to the history of black Americans in the French capital. Blacks did not come to Paris as isolated individuals but generally with the encouragement and assistance of African Americans already there. Once in Paris they were able to participate in a rich community life with its own institutions, traditions, and rituals. Moreover, the creation of an expatriate black community played a vital role in easing the pangs of exile. Many blacks in Paris rejoiced in their escape from the United States but at the same time feared losing touch with African American culture. Informal networks enabled them to recreate a black cultural presence abroad freed from racism.

Perhaps most important, the theme of community highlights the complexity and contradictions of African American life in Paris. One cannot simply transfer a culture overseas without changing it or easily separate the positive aspects of the black American experience from the negative. Black community life in Paris differed in several important respects from that in the United States, so much so as to be almost unrecognizable as a black community from the perspective of Harlem or Mississippi.3 Yet African Americans in the French capital did create important networks that, by establishing a new model of black community, made a novel contribution to black American culture. Arising from the interaction of French and American traditions, the black community in Paris has suggested the possibility of communal practices emphasizing cultural affinities but not based upon racial exclusion.


The search for community, for a sense of interrelatedness and belonging, has endured as a key theme of social and political life in Europe and America since the French Revolution, precisely because of its contrast to some of the most important characteristics of modernity. Visions of small, intimate villages and urban neighborhoods are opposed to large, inchoate cities; societies governed by strict, traditional codes of behavior contrast with those in which the individual enjoys the freedom to do whatever he or she desires, for good or for ill. Historians of the Middle Ages and other pre-modern periods have effectively challenged such rosy images of peaceful rural life, but what counts here is not the accuracy of such visions but rather their mythic significance for industrial and post-industrial culture. The opposition between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, so effectively analyzed by Ferdinand Tönnies a century ago, continues to this day to highlight the anxieties of contemporary societies.4

One powerful contribution to recent debates on the meaning of community has been the group of studies inspired by the new social history that arose in the 1960s. Inspired by several sources, including the community study tradition of American urban sociology,5 the French Annales school,6 and above all the pioneering work of E. P. Thompson,7 historians working in this framework studied the ways in which subaltern social groups created, envisioned, and maintained their own community structures as both a way of life and a potent force for political mobilization. Thompson’s seminal 1971 essay on "moral economy" used that concept to explain how eighteenth-century English villagers applied their own local norms to broader economic and political issues, thereby legitimizing popular protest. The relationship between community networks and sociopolitical movements, spoke powerfully to a postwar generation raised in the seemingly atomized societies of Western Europe and America as they confronted a dramatic upsurge in political activism. This relationship inspired numerous valuable local histories of popular communities, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such studies frequently emphasized the ways in which community solidarities enabled workers, women, and racial and ethnic minority groups to resist bourgeois hegemony.8

More recently, scholars working from a post-modern perspective have challenged this portrait of community life in several ways. Jean-François Lyotard, Jean-Luc Nancy, and other theoreticians have indicated the importance of calls for traditional community in modern authoritarian ideologies like fascism, Stalinism, and essentialist nationalism, therefore concluding that the very concept, at least as it is usually formulated, is inevitably tainted with totalitarianism.9 Desires for community thus constitute another form of reactionary anti-modernism whose tragic political consequences are all too familiar. In addition, post-modern critics have attacked community solidarities as fictive and based on the suppression of difference, observing the ways in which such social entities are riven by conflicts of race, class, and gender. Communities are based not only on inclusion but exclusion as well; in order for a community to function as such, someone must be left out or kept subordinate.10 In this view, therefore, community emerges as another type of master narrative that one must deconstruct in order to understand.

Rather than jettison the idea of community entirely, post-modernists have developed their own version of it. This testifies graphically to the durability of the concept of community. In a recent article on contemporary ideas of diaspora, the anthropologist James Clifford illuminated "quests for nonexclusive practices of community, politics, and cultural difference."11 The post-modern vision of community is a proudly contradictory one, stressing solidarities based on the appreciation of difference, freedom, and individuality. Rather than appealing to coercive nationalist mythologies, such an ideal emphasizes the creative dissonance of multiple identities and perspectives, a community of voluntary associations and affinities. In place of the Marxist view of community as part of the mass mobilization inherent in dialectical struggle, the post-modern version undermines all political orthodoxies by making the very concept of community a site of political conflict. In the collective volume Community at Loose Ends, both an analysis and an example of post-modern community, Linda Singer commented:

Rather than a disciplinary call to mass mobilization, the community at loose ends seduces by its looseness, its willingness to exhibit its differences face to face, in public and in print. This insistence on the conspicuous display of differences works to frustrate and resist any political imaginary founded on mastery, any myth of the common as that which solidifies authority.12


In particular, this post-modern vision of community has inspired many of the proponents of black cultural studies. Dominated by the British scholars who emerged from Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1980s, this school has devoted its attention to exploring the politics of black identity, especially in the medium of black popular culture.13 Stuart Hall, Kobena Mercer, Paul Gilroy, Hazel Carby, and others have studied the ways in which black music, film, and other cultural products have expressed what they term a black diasporic identity.14 This conception of identity rejects black essentialism, especially the kind of exclusivist nationalist discourse promoted by Afrocentrism, in favor of a view of blackness as heterogeneous, multivocal, and politically charged. Perhaps the most comprehensive statement of this idea of community has been Paul Gilroy’s book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, which emphasizes the diasporic, polyglot nature of modern black culture outside Africa. In his study Gilroy characterizes this new model of black community as

a pluralistic position which affirms blackness as an open signifier and seeks to celebrate complex representations of a black particularity that is internally divided: by class, sexuality, gender, age, ethnicity, economics, and political consciousness. There is no unitary idea of black community here, and the authoritarian tendencies of those who would police black cultural expression in the name of their own particular history or priorities are rightly repudiated.15


Similarly, in his 1994 film Black Is ... Black Ain’t, director Marlon Riggs analyzes the ways in which narrow notions of black community have excluded feminists, gays, and others who differ from mainstream norms. In the place of such exclusion Riggs advocates a more diverse, all-embracing idea of community, using the richness of gumbo as a metaphor.

In many ways the history of the black American community in Paris exemplifies the vision of community found in black cultural studies. This vision provides an important theoretical framework for conceptualizing this particular historical experience. Conversely, African American life in the French capital constitutes a significant concrete example of this new model. Product of a dual diaspora, from Africa to America and then from America to France, the black community in Paris was an extremely diverse and at times divergent group of individuals who came together on a voluntary basis through shared affinities. The predominance of artists and intellectuals and the absence of exclusive institutions and networks further emphasize the similarity of this experience to the post-modern model. Throughout the twentieth century the French capital has often served as a center and laboratory for modernity. The history of African Americans in Paris provides an example of innovative social and cultural practices whose significance reaches far beyond the banks of the Seine.


To a large extent, the African American presence in Paris is a product of global war. Some 200,000 blacks from the United States came to France as laborers and soldiers for the U.S. Army during the First World War, representing the first large group of African Americans to set foot on French soil.16 Jazz, a central aspect of black expatriate life, first made its appearance in Paris with a 1917 concert by Louis Mitchell and the Seven Spades.17 After the Armistice a small but steady stream of black Americans settled in the city. It attracted both veterans inspired by wartime memories of French racial tolerance and musicians drawn by the burgeoning French interest in primitivism, jazz, and black culture. By 1925, when Josephine Baker made her spectacular debut in the French capital, a community of several hundred had taken root in the city.

Centered in Montmartre, in particular the streets just south of the place Pigalle, African American life in interwar Paris exemplified jazz and the lure of black night life. In the 1920s Montmartre was one of the most diverse, and certainly most fascinating, sections of the French capital. No longer the capital of Bohemia that the Impressionists celebrated in the late nineteenth century, it was both a polyglot working-class neighborhood and the center of the city’s entertainment and vice industries. As such, it attracted a large tourist population, especially Americans: foreigners seeking the decadent thrills of Gay Paree usually ended up there. Montmartre’s geography, north of the respectable parts of town, and its ties to the city’s entertainment industry suggested strong parallels with New York’s Harlem at that time.18 Music clubs lured African American musicians there in the decade after the Armistice, making the area Paris’s center for black jazz. The great diva Bricktop described it upon her arrival there in 1924 as

a tumbledown little place, with red and yellow one-story buildings lining its narrow, twisting streets, and as many cafes and dance halls and bordellos as on State Street in Chicago.... After the sun went down, Paris did become the City of Light, and Montmartre changed from a sleepy little village to a jumpin’ hot town.19


Nourished by its jazz clubs, black Montmartre thrived during the 1920s and 1930s, until depression and a new world war forced most of its members to return to America.20

The African American community was reborn in Paris after the Liberation, more vigorous and numerous than before. Roughly fifteen hundred blacks from the United States lived in the French capital between 1944 and 1968, renewing old traditions and establishing new ones.21 In the 1950s in particular, the golden age of black American literature in Paris, writers replaced jazz musicians as the prototypical expatriates, and the black American community of Paris was dominated by one man, Richard Wright. The author of Native Son and Black Boy had left New York for Paris in protest against both racism and McCarthyite politics in 1947. He would spend the rest of his life in Parisian exile. The leading black writer of his generation, Wright soon became a symbol of black expatriates and the politics of exile. He used his contacts to persuade several other African American writers, most notably James Baldwin and Chester Himes, to join him in the French capital. Wright and his associates not only pursued an active social life in the cafes and jazz clubs of the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but also founded a political organization, the French American Fellowship, to pursue the fight against racism internationally.22

Yet black American life in Saint-Germain-des-Prés consisted of more than just the circle around Richard Wright. The postwar era also saw the reintroduction of African American jazz to the French capital, and this distinctive musical form enjoyed more popularity there than ever. In particular Sidney Bechet, the New Orleans-born master of the soprano sax, enjoyed almost legendary popularity in the neighborhood’s nightclubs until his death in 1959.23 Both Josephine Baker and Bricktop returned to Paris after the war, followed by other black women performers, including Eartha Kitt, Maya Angelou, Marpessa Dawn, Hazel Scott, and Nancy Holloway. Several visual artists, notably Herbert Gentry, Romare Bearden, Ed Clark, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Beauford Delaney, settled in nearby Montparnasse. Members of these different black groups often interacted; in 1947, for example, Richard Wright introduced Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to a jazz club owned by painter Herbert Gentry and featuring his wife, the singer Honey Johnson.24 Therefore, not only was the black community larger than before, but also more cohesive. At no time during the twentieth century have so many social networks united the African American inhabitants of the French capital.

At the same time, the contradictions surrounding the concept of black community appeared in sharpest relief during the two decades after the Second World War. Far from embracing the idea of an African American community in Paris, several of the leading expatriates denied its very existence. Shortly before his death in 1960 Richard Wright himself commented, "There is no Negro American colony. The Negroes associate with the French to avoid the white American colony."25 James Baldwin, who moved to Paris in 1948 and spent most of the next ten years there, echoed this sentiment when he wrote:

only the Negro entertainers are able to maintain a useful and unquestioning comradeship with other Negroes. Their nonperforming, colored countrymen are, nearly to a man, incomparably more isolated, and it must be conceded that this isolation is deliberate.26


Richard Wright essentially built the postwar black American community in Paris, and James Baldwin was one of its central figures, often borrowing money from fellow black expatriates when his own funds ran low. The disavowal of community ties by both individuals thus goes to the heart of the black expatriate experience in France.

No one expressed this paradox better than Art Simmons, jazz pianist and long-term performer at the Living Room, a nightclub off the Champs-Elysées. Simmons was a warm, gregarious individual who made the Living Room one of the key meeting places for African Americans in Paris. When he performed with the house band friends and associates would cluster around, including down and out individuals known as "Art’s leeches" for their tendency to impose upon his generosity. By the late 1960s Simmons maintained an active address file of all the black expatriates in Paris, so those looking for acquaintances inevitably came to see him. Yet Art Simmons also questioned the idea of an African American community in the French capital. When interviewed in 1968, he stated:

There is no Negro ‘community’ here as such. I don’t know why.... Just because we all know each other doesn’t mean we’re a community. I know many of the white Americans here too. But, at the same time, don’t think we Negroes don’t make it our business to know where we all are. I guess that’s kind of a safety valve to have in case something goes wrong. After all, why do I buy Ebony Magazine over here? Because I want to know what my people are doing, that’s why. I guess we are a community but not a visual community. We need each other—and we call on each other. When we first come here, we’re told to contact each other.... I suppose there is a community! Even though we’re all over town, we all know where to come to meet other Negroes....27


In their very confusion these remarks by Simmons richly evoke the tension between different visions of community. Simmons, like other African Americans in Paris, initially rejects the idea of a black community there, because it does not correspond to his preconceived ideas of what such a community should be. These ideas include geographical and visual unity, homogeneity, and involuntary association. At the same time, however, he notes that black Americans in Paris do keep in touch with each other, out of interest as well as need, "in case something goes wrong." After reflecting on the rather stark incompatibility of these two positions, Simmons concludes that an African American community does exist in Paris after all, but a community with a difference.

In sum, many black Americans remained in contact with other black Americans while in Paris yet denied the existence of a black community there. This striking ambivalence toward the role of community in the lives of Paris’s black expatriates speaks both to differences between African American life in France and the United States and to contrasting conceptions of the very nature of community. In order to explain this paradox I wish first to explore the nature of social ties among African Americans in Paris, then compare them with similar practices in both black America and France.


Key to the development of networks among black Americans in modern Paris has been what one might label the semipublic private sphere.28 In particular, restaurants and nightclubs featuring jazz have served as places for blacks from the United States to meet each other. During the interwar years Montmartre featured several nightclubs owned and operated by African Americans that effectively functioned as community centers. Most notable was Bricktop’s, an establishment run by a redheaded woman from West Virginia who reigned as queen of Montmartre’s night life from 1925 until the end of the 1930s. Bricktop’s, and the other jazz clubs in the neighborhood, exercised multiple functions: for foreign tourists they represented the thrill of a night on the town in the City of Light, whereas to Parisians they gave a glimpse of both primitivism and American pop culture. But for African Americans they were a little taste of home (often literally, since they also served soul food) in a foreign land. When the young Langston Hughes arrived virtually penniless in Paris in 1924, he kept body and soul together by working in Montmartre clubs as a doorman and busboy.29

After 1945, when the center of Parisian jazz shifted to the caves of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, nightclubs like the Tabou Club, the Trois Mailletz, and the Vieux-Colombier played host to African Americans and many others. The new jazz style of be-bop appealed powerfully to the postwar French avant-garde, and became a vital part of the cultural phenomenon known as Existentialism that soon transformed the quiet neighborhood into an international tourist attraction. However, even though Parisian jazz had become much more French, employing many more French performers than in the interwar years, these clubs remained centers for black American residents, visitors, and tourists, in Paris during the 1950s and 1960s.30

Jazz nightclubs brought together not only black American musicians, but also individuals from other walks of life interested in meeting their own kind, or simply enjoying a night on the town. The poet Gwendolyn Bennett described one such evening in 1925:

Then at 4:15 A.M. to dear old ‘Bricktop’s’ ... extremely crowded this night with our folk. Lottie Gee there on her first night in town and sings for ‘Brick’ her hit from ‘Shuffle Along’—‘I’m Just Wild About Harry.’ Her voice is not what it might have been and she had too much champaign [sic] but still there was something very personal and dear about her singing it and we colored folks just applauded like mad.31


For Bennett, Bricktop’s was not just a place to have a good time, but also one where she could enjoy a sense of belonging and cheer on one of her own.

Restaurants and cafes also served as important meeting spots for the black expatriate community in the French capital. Louis Mitchell, the man who introduced jazz to Paris, ran a restaurant in the heart of black Montmartre during the 1920s. The most popular gathering spot for African Americans between the wars was the Flea Pit in the rue Pigalle, uninvitingly named for the blacks who clustered there thick as fleas. As one black American described it, "regardless of who you are if you happen to be in Montmartre you will in due time visit the Flea Pit ... because you are sure to make inquiries about some of your friends who at some time will drop in...."32 After the war the undisputed center of African American community life was Haynes restaurant in the rue Clauzel. Founded in 1949 by Leroy Haynes, a former Atlanta University football star who came to France to pursue doctoral studies in sociology, Haynes claims to be the first American soul food restaurant in Europe. It exists to this day, and the numerous photographs on its walls testify to nearly a half century of black American history in Paris.33

These semiprivate public spaces fulfilled a dual function in Parisian life. They brought together a black American population that came from widely disparate backgrounds, individuals who had little in common beyond their blackness and their American accents. At the same time, they represented African American culture in the French capital. Restaurants and nightclubs offered both a taste of home for black expatriates and a foray into an unusual, exotic culture for French and other residents of Paris. All were open to anyone who could afford their price, and none survived on an exclusively black American clientele. The semipublic nature of the central institutions of African American community life in Paris thus gave that experience a cosmopolitan character rarely encountered in the United States. To a certain extent, it meant that the community was open to many who were neither black nor American.

African Americans in Paris also developed their own rituals and traditions. During the interwar years all the black musicians of Montmartre would gather at Bricktop’s every Christmas to celebrate the holiday with a private dinner. Eugene Bullard, a boxer, nightclub owner, and former pilot with the Lafayette Escadrille, started a practice of giving free concerts at the American Hospital of Paris during the 1930s. During the same years African American writers like Countee Cullen and Alain Locke regularly attended the salon at the home of Paulette Nardal, a young intellectual from Martinique whose interest in trans-Atlantic black culture helped launch the nègritude movement. In the decade after World War II black American writers and others regularly met in the back room of the Latin Quarter’s cafe Tournon, whereas a decade later the American Legion Hall, near the Champs-Elysées, hosted Friday night gatherings for those who wished to meet African Americans in the French capital. In recent years blacks have organized celebrations of Kwanzaa, Juneteenth, and black history month in the French capital.34

These institutions helped compensate for some crucial absences among the black American inhabitants of Paris. The city had no predominantly black schools or universities, and therefore lacked the network of fraternities, sororities, and other organizations based there. The community’s small size made it unable to support the kind of formal groups that frequently shaped black social life in the United States, and its political organizations lacked both size and significance. Perhaps most striking was the almost total absence of the black church or any religious practices in Paris. During the early twentieth century no institution played a greater role in African American life than the church, yet, apart from the few chaplains who accompanied black soldiers to France during the two world wars, it had no representatives among black expatriates.35 If African American life in the U.S. often seemed a delicate balance between Saturday night and Sunday morning, in Paris Saturday night achieved a definitive victory.

The importance of commercial institutions as centers was merely one of many factors differentiating black community in Paris from its equivalent in the United States. Geography and demography provided more obvious indications of this distinction. Concentrations of African Americans in specific Parisian neighborhoods did exist, especially interwar Montmartre and to a lesser extent Saint-Germain-des-Prés after 1945. Yet throughout the twentieth century blacks from the United States have lived in all sections of the French capital. A tiny minority, they never encountered the residential ghettoization that was overwhelmingly their fate in America. Instead, they found Paris to be a city where residential concentration was an option, not a requirement.

The profile of the black American population in Paris also differed noticeably from that across the Atlantic. In both the interwar and postwar years it consisted predominantly of single adults between the ages of twenty and fifty. The community counted relatively few children or elderly individuals, although this changed as the population matured in the 1930s and 1960s. Few black families lived in Parisian exile, and few African Americans there had kinship ties or friendships that went back to childhood. It was entirely urban, in contrast to the large percentage of American blacks who still inhabited the rural South in the first half of the twentieth century. It was also unusually affluent: jazz musicians generally earned a good living in Paris, and many of the other African Americans in the city were intellectuals, students, or business people who generally possessed a high level of formal education.36

More than any other single factor, the shape of gender relations contrasted African American life in Paris and the United States. Gender was crucial in two different respects. First, black Americans in Paris seem to have been predominantly male. Although Josephine Baker and Bricktop symbolized the black American expatriate during the 1920s, most of the musicians in Montmartre’s jazz bands were men. This masculine dominance was far more noticeable in the years from 1944 to 1968. In contrast to black men, very few black women served in the armed forces during the war, and thus were not able to use the benefits offered by the GI Bill of Rights to live in Paris. No African American women writers participated in the literary circle around Richard Wright, nor did many black women work as artists alongside the black men of Montparnasse. African American women did settle in postwar Paris on their own as entertainers, intellectuals, and fashion models, or as the spouses of French men. Nonetheless, in comparison to the United States, they played a reduced role in the life of the black community.37

Far more striking than the absence of black women, however, was the presence of white women. Nothing differentiated black life in Paris from its American roots more than the ubiquitous liaisons between black men and white women, usually non-French European, more rarely French or American. According to testimony from numerous sources, virtually every African American male in the city engaged in interracial romance.38 Chester Himes, novelist and friend of Wright and Baldwin, spoke for himself and many others when he observed:

All of the American blacks whom I knew had white women, sometimes two or three or more. Richard Wright had his white wife, Oliver Harrington was a great favorite of all the foreign white women in the Latin Quarter.... Bertel, a black painter from Gary, Indiana was seen in the company of numerous white girls and was allegedly living with a white Dutch girl and her mother.... Ish Kelley ... had so many white women and babies by them it was said he had a concupiscent eye.... I never met an American black man at that time [the 1950s] in Paris who wasn’t living with one or more white women or married to one.39


The theme of miscegenation, with its echoes of both romantic liberation and racial revenge, runs like a red thread through the history of postwar African American life in Paris. It expressed not only defiance of America’s color line but also a refusal to conform to the sexual practices of most black Americans.

African American social networks in Paris thus deviated in significant ways from traditional forms of black life in the United States. The closest equivalent to this community was to be found in postwar outposts of Bohemia like Greenwich and San Francisco’s North Beach, yet even there the parallels were incomplete.40 In contrast, however, African American life in the French capital adopted local traditions of community in several important respects. In particular, black expatriates tended to imitate the social practices of Parisian-specific groups with whom they came in contact, especially musicians and intellectuals. The geography of the African American community clearly indicates this. Blacks settled in interwar Montmartre because the neighborhood had a long history of night life and welcomed all musicians, French and foreign.41 After 1945 Richard Wright and other African American writers settled on the Left Bank following the example set by the circle around Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Visual artists like Loïs Mailou Jones, Romare Bearden, and Herbert Gentry generally found studios in Montparnasse, in the best tradition of Parisian painters and sculptors. In sharp contrast to the situation in the United States, therefore, the residential patterns of African American life in Paris emphasized integration into the larger community.42

Black expatriates also adopted that key Parisian social institution, the cafe. In a 1953 article entitled "There’s Always Another Café," Richard Wright described not only the role of the cafe in French life, but also his search for his "own" cafe.43 Wright soon selected the Monaco, a working-class bar in the Latin Quarter near the Odéon. Thanks to his influence it soon became the primary center for African Americans in Paris; black Americans of all descriptions, from tourists to GIs on weekend passes to students, soon learned one could go to certain cafes to meet both well-known figures like Wright and Oliver Harrington, or simply each other. The cafe Tournon, in the Left Bank street of the same name, also became very popular during the 1950s, many African Americans oscillating between the two. These two cafes, and others, served to bring together blacks from the United States who wished to meet their fellow expatriates. A self-conscious adoption of a famed Parisian custom, black cafe life also perfectly fit the disparate character of the African American community in the French capital.44

Black American social networks in Paris thus resembled those of their French hosts more than their American relatives in significant respects. In particular, the contrast between black community life in the United States and Paris explains much of the ambivalence expatriates like Richard Wright and Art Simmons expressed toward the idea; differences like the absence of black churches and social organizations, and the importance of cafe life and interracial relationships, sharply distinguished Parisian practices from American traditions. Also important, however, was the very meaning of the word community, and the way that meaning shifted from one side of the Atlantic to the other. For many African Americans, community had significant negative as well as positive connotations, implying not just a supportive associational life but also segregation and discrimination. In the United States blacks lived together not because they wanted to but because they had no choice, so that the words "community" and "ghetto" were often used interchangeably. In observing that American blacks in Paris often deliberately stayed away from one another, James Baldwin succinctly expressed this view when he wrote:

Their isolation from each other is not difficult to understand if one bears in mind the axiom, unquestioned by American landlords, that Negroes are happy only when they are kept together.... It is altogether inevitable that past humiliations should become associated not only with one’s traditional oppressors but also with one’s traditional kinfolk....45


For many black expatriates, especially during the 1950s, Paris represented a liberation from American racism, a liberation that included the freedom not to associate with other blacks but instead to explore a new world of opportunities.

And yet, African Americans in Paris, including James Baldwin, did associate with one another. Blacks frequented the same restaurants, nightclubs, and cafes, helped each other find jobs and apartments, and often socialized together. This very ambivalence makes the concept of community a key one for exploring the black American experience in the French capital. The links formed by black expatriates in Paris were based on mutual affinities and a common culture, not on a lack of alternatives. In Paris, unlike in the United States, no contradiction existed between belonging to a black community and participating in the wider society. This greater level of freedom did not come gratis. Certainly community life in Paris lacked much of the richness of associational traditions back home. At the same time, however, the networks that did exist enabled black expatriates to enjoy some aspects of that tradition in a broader setting that offered many other possibilities as well. While differing sharply from practices in America, the African American colony in Paris also offered the prospect of a new kind of community life possible in a more egalitarian society.

Black social life in the French capital thus closely corresponded to the post-modern vision of community. It was very much a set of voluntary networks: neither other blacks nor the broader society forced all blacks to participate, and many African Americans lived quite happily in isolation from their fellow citizens. It was also heterogeneous, including not only artists and musicians but others from all walks of life. Indeed, the diversity of the community went so far as to include many who were neither black nor American, from spouses and lovers to patrons of jazz clubs and soul food restaurants. People participated in many different ways, but at some level the community was open to all interested in black American culture. Finally, the community was cosmopolitan not just in its internal makeup but also in its broader perspective. Life in Paris enabled Richard Wright to place the oppression of black Americans in a larger international context, and for many other black expatriates life in the French capital brought a greater familiarity with the world, often symbolized by travel to Africa and elsewhere.

Yet Paris was not paradise, and this experience also reveals some limitations of this community model.46 The post-modern community has often been, at least implicitly, a middle class one, dominated by intellectuals. Others may not be formally excluded, but often lack the cultural capital to take part. African Americans in Paris were predominantly educated and/or well-off. While the penniless could find acceptance there, getting to Paris in the first place was not cheap, and living there lay beyond the resources of most. Although the community did not directly exclude anyone, indirectly it owed the tolerance and acceptance of its French hosts to its small size and impact. As the experience of African and Afro-Caribbean migrants in contemporary Paris suggests,47 had black Americans there numbered one million instead of one thousand the reaction of their hosts would probably have been much cooler. The tolerance and freedom of black life in Paris thus depended upon the de facto exclusion of the masses of black people in the United States.

These observations do not detract from the positive character of black life in the French capital but rather underscore the complexity of community in the modern world. African Americans in Paris created a community life with a great deal of cohesion that did not rely, at least deliberately, on the exclusion of others to bring its members together. It included practices, such as jazz and black cuisine, that embraced both tradition and modernity. As such, the black expatriate community held out the intriguing prospect of a community simultaneously specific and universal, at once unified and diverse. Whatever the individual accomplishments of African Americans in twentieth-century Paris, this collective achievement may stand as their most significant legacy.

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1 General accounts of the African American experience in Paris include Tyler Stovall, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1996); Michel Fabre, From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980 (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1991).

2 This helps explain the importance of biography in the historiography on African Americans in Paris. See Michel Fabre, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1993); James Campbell, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin (London: Viking, 1991); Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones (San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994). Among the many biographies of Josephine Baker, see in particular Phyllis Rose, Jazz Cleopatra (New York: Doubleday Press, 1989).

3 On black community in the United States see Eric Arnesen, Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class and Politics (New York: Oxford UP, 1991); James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklore in the City, 1850-1970 (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1980); Kenneth Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1976); Earl Lewis, In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth Century Norfolk, Virginia (Berkeley: U of California P, 1991). In particular, see the special double issue of the Journal of Urban History, "The New African American Urban History," 21.3-4 (Mar.-May 1995).

4 Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).

5 See, for example, Herbert Gans, The Urban Villagers (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1962); Gans, The Levittowners (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967); William F. Whyte, Street Corner Society, 2nd ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955).

6 In particular the works of Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, notably The Peasants of Languedoc, and Montaillou.

7 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class; "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," Past and Present (Feb. 1971); Customs in Common (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993).

8 The work produced by the new social history is of course vast. Important works of particular relevance to the theme of community include: Maurice Agulhon, La république au village (Paris: Seuil, 1979); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974); Joan Scott, The Glassworkers of Carmaux (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974); Herbert Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America (New York: Random House, 1976); Edward Shorter, Work and Community in the West (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

9 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984); Jean-Luc Nancy, La Communauté désoeuvrée (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1986); Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993).

10 For a critique along these lines by an historian, see Suzanne Desan, "Crowds, Community, and Ritual in the Work of E.P. Thompson and Natalie Davis," in Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley: U of California P, 1989).

11 James Clifford, "Diasporas," Cultural Anthropology 9.3 (1994). See also William Safran, "Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return," Diaspora 1.1 (Spring, 1991); Gabriel Sheffer, ed., Modern Diasporas in International Politics (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1986).

12 Linda Singer, "Recalling a Community at Loose Ends," in The Miami Theory Collective, Community at Loose Ends (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991) 130.

13 Houston A. Baker, Jr., Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg, eds., Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996); Michele Wallace and Gina Dent, eds., Black Popular Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992).

14 See, for example, Stuart Hall, "Cultural Identity and Diaspora," in Jonathan Rutherford, ed., Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990); Kobena Mercer, "Diasporic Culture and the Dialogic Imagination," in Mbye Cham and Claire Andrade-Watkins, eds., Blackframes: Critical Perspectives on Black Independent Cinema (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988); Paul Gilroy, "Sounds Authentic: Black Music, Ethnicity, and the Challenge of a Changing Same," Black Music Research Journal 11 (1991); Hazel Carby, "White Woman Listen," in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in Seventies Britain (London: Hutchinson, 1982).

15 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993) 32.

16 On the African American contribution to the war in France see Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri, The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1974); Andre Kaspi, Le Temps des Américains: le concours américain à la France en 1917-1918 (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1976); Emmett Scott, The American Negro in the World War (Chicago: Homewood Press, 1919).

17 The Chicago Defender 11 May 1935.

18 Jervis Anderson, This was Harlem (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Girous, 1981); David L. Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue (New York: Knopf, 1981); Lewis Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981).

19 Bricktop, with James Haskins, Bricktop (New York: Atheneum, 1983) 85.

20 On blacks in interwar Montmartre see in particular Bricktop, with James Haskins, Bricktop (New York: Atheneum, 1983); also Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979); Chris Goddard, Jazz Away from Home (New York and London: Paddington Press, 1979).

21 Precise statistics on this population are impossible to find. Estimates range from Richard Wright’s 1951 figure of five hundred in France to a 1963 Time magazine guess of fifteen hundred in Paris alone.

22 Fabre, Unfinished Quest; James Campbell, Exiled in Paris (New York: Scribner, 1995).

23 John Chilton, Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz (New York: Oxford U, 1987).

24 Myron Schwartzman, Romare Bearden (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1990).

25 Kenneth Kinnamon and Michel Fabre, Conversations with Richard Wright (Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1993) 233.

26 James Baldwin, "Encounter on the Seine," Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955) 118.

27 Art Simmons, cited in Ernest Dunbar, ed., The Black Expatriates: A Study of American Negroes in Exile (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968) 131.

28 I rely here on Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere. See Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989); Christopher H. Johnson, "Lifeworld, System, and Communicative Action: The Habermasian Alternative in Social History," in Lenard Berlanstein, ed., Rethinking Labor History: Essays on Discourse and Class Analysis (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993).

29 Langston Hughes 144-46.

30 Sidney Bechet, Treat it Gentle: An Autobiography (New York: Da Capo Press, 1978); Bill Coleman, Trumpet Story (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989); Boris Vian, Manuel de Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Paris: Chene, 1974); Noel Arnaud, Les vies parallèles de Boris Vian (Paris: C. Bourgois, 1981); Anthony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, Paris after the Liberation (New York: Doubleday, 1994).

31 Diary of Gwendolyn Bennett, entry of 8 Aug. 1925, Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, New York.

32 The Chicago Defender 6 Aug. 1927; Gwendolyn Bennett, "Wedding Day," 1926, reprinted in Marcy Knopf, ed., The Sleeper Wakes: Harlem Renaissance Stories by Women (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993).

33 Oliver W. Harrington, "Look Homeward Baby," in Why I Left America, and other Essays (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1993) 57-58; Paule Marshall, "Chez Tournon: A Homage," New York Times 18 Oct. 1992.

34 P.J. Carisella and James W. Ryan, The Black Swallow of Death (Boston: Marlborough House, 1972); Lilyan Kesteloot, Black Writers in French (Washington D.C.: Howard UP, 1991); Janet Vaillant, Black, French, and African: a Life of Leopold Sedar Senghor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990); Patricia Laplante Collins, ed., AngloFiles, 7 (2 Feb. 1996).

35 Henry Hugh Proctor, Between Black and White: Autobiographical Sketches (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1971).

36 The best source for this kind of sociological and demographic information is the African American press, especially The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburg Courier. See in particular a series of articles written by expatriate journalist William Gardner Smith in The Pittsburg Courier, 1951-52.

37 Maya Angelou, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (New York: Random House, 1976); Eartha Kitt, Thursday’s Child (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1956); Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Vibration Cooking (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992).

38 This seems to have included homosexual black men, although examples are very few. See Gordon Heath, Deep are the Roots (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992).

39 Chester Himes, The Autobiography of Chester Himes: vol. 2, My Life of Absurdity (New York: Paragon House, 1971-2, 1976) 34-35. For an interesting fictional discussion of this issue, see William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face (New York: Farrar, Straus & Co., 1963) 176-77.

40 For example, both Richard Wright and James Baldwin were inspired by racist encounters in Greenwich Village to move to Paris.

41 Louis Chevalier, Montmartre du plaisir et du crime (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1980); Ralph Nevill, Days and Nights in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1927).

42 On urban community practices in France, see Susanna Magri and Christian Topalov, Villes ouvrières (Paris: Harmattan, 1989); Maurice Agulhon et al., Histoire de la France urbaine, vol. 4 (Paris: Seuil, 1983); Françoise Raison-Jourde, La Colonie auvergnate de Paris au XIXe siècle (Paris: Commission de travaux historiques de la Ville de Paris, 1976); Alain Faure, Paris carême-prenant (Paris: Hachette, 1978); Nancy L. Green, The Pletzl of Paris (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986); Philip Nord, Paris Shopkeepers and the Politics of Resentment (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986); Andre Kaspi and Antoine Mares, Le Paris des étrangers (Paris: Impr. nationale, 1989); René Michaud, J’avais vingt ans (Paris: Editions syndicalistes, 1967).

43 Richard Wright, "There’s Always Another Café," Kiosk 10 (1953).

44 Paule Marshall, "Chez Tournon: A Homage," New York Times 18 Oct. 1992.

45 Baldwin, "Encounter" 118.

46 For a critique of the postmodern model of black community, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, "Is the Post in Postmodernism the Post in Postcolonial?" Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter, 1991); Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford UP, 1992). For a more general critique of post- modernism, see Bryan D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990).

47 On French blacks in Paris, see especially Phillippe Dewitte, Les mouvements nègres en France entre les deux guerres (Paris: Harmattan, 1985).

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