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On Being a Black American in Paris

sitting along the canal in Paris. August 2017

In the summer of 2017 as my mother booked our tickets for an August trip to France, I declared that I would not be returning home with her after those 10 days and would be staying in Europe. Spending a lot of time in Europe in the previous decade, beginning with studying abroad in Milan in 2006, I had managed to scrape together a community and personal life on the old continent. I’m a born and raised New Yorker, and realize the luxury of “going home” meaning going back to NYC, but had developed a sort of ambivalence to that, as though I were resting on my laurels. As I mentioned in previous blog posts, I craved a challenge. As I spoke with my dear friend and confidante Jen about whether NYC was the right place for us, I decided I have to give living in London a shot. I chose London because of the community I had built there, loose family ties (the West Indian diaspora) as well as a romantic interest. My crystal healer has always told me about my intense intuition and as I reflect about how much I thought my life would change from this trip, I realized I didn’t know how right I was. 

bistro scene in Paris along the canal. September 2017

But, I started in France as that happened to be where we were heading in August. I figured, I’d make it to London eventually but what’s more romantic than living in France? Americans have a love affair with the country and it’s very much a two-way street. One of the country’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin was a full on Francophile. BTW, I had no intention of finding a romantic interest while there because rarely had I been on a date with a Frenchman where World War II didn’t get brought up, but I digress. Those four weeks that fall, flew by.

At nearly 60-years-old in 1984, during an interview for the Paris Review James Baldwin was asked why he had chosen to live in France. “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France — it was a matter of getting out of America.”

black man in church in Saint Germaine Paris, September 2017.

Like hundreds of black American artists before me, I imagined days spent working on my blog, with wine and a baguette. The charm of Josephine Baker, the prose and finesse of Baldwin. This is Paris after all, the city where black American creatives escaped and were revered. In the era of Trump, Paris would welcome me. Macron welcomes those shunned by this administration! I had a few introductions of family friends: one woman in Paris who along with her sisters (black Americans) had made a life in France, with husbands and children for decades. 

visible yet invisible in the 6th arrondissement

First and foremost, Paris is a great place to be alone. I can work a room and party like no other but I’m a bookish only child at heart and in Paris, I could go for days without having a real conversation with someone. A woman, alone at a restaurant is part of the city’s fabric. There was a week when I went on 3 Bumble dates, I was so starved for conversation. I also joined Bumble BFF. I devoured the beauty that was Paris, walked along its boulevards, ate, ate and ate some more. Went to a farmer’s market every other day. It was during these walks where I saw the other side of Paris. The Syrian refugees who made their home in the parks and under buildings along the canal, washing up in the fountains in the morning. It was at one of these markets where I realized the strange and precarious place I occupied as a Black American in Paris.

cannéles in Bordeaux

I’ve been on wonderful press trips with the French tourism board — my favorite among those being to the islands of Martinique & Guadeloupe and the city of Bordeaux. On these trips (separate) I really began to piece together and understand the complexities of colonization from all angles, tracing the triangle trade as I munched on my favorite Bordeaux dessert, cannelés. I felt my face flush as an unassuming “French food expert” discussed how the desert’s creation represented 1700s France and Bordeaux’s richness with the new commodities of rum and sugar being introduced into the economy and funding Bordeaux families. No mention of the slave trade. Martinique and Guadeloupe were indeed a wonderful blend of all things French, Caribbean and West African, but you look hard enough you can see the cynicism in a Guadeloupeans eyes as they tell you this — this was the island that rebelled the most between the two. The French West Indies are just another, albeit further, department of France. No different than Nouvelle-Acquitaine or Brittany. In Paris you see it, with many of the young hotspots filled with young people from the French West Indies studying in Paris, or newly living there. They too occupied a strange place in the French racial hierarchy vs. my black American otherness or someone from Sierra Leone say. 

La Rhumerie West Indian inspired bar in Saint Germain des Près dating back to the 1930s
the face of French wine making is rarely black, but here she was in Bordeaux!

With French President François Hollande playing Jay-Z & Kanye West’s Niggas in Paris during his 2012 election campaign, it’s no surprise to note that black American culture is still revered in France, dating from the post war GIs bringing Jazz, food and well, that black American je ne sais quois. And being from New York City put me on a whole other pedestal, but my skin color is indeed my skin color and makes it super difficult for racists! How can they tell?! Back to the market. As I’m standing in line, waiting to ask the farmer how much for the melons in my broken french. I haven’t said anything yet, but I’m repeatedly ignored. Three white French women come and get served before me. Finally, I interrupted and asked “c’est combien…” I lost my nerve. But weirdly, the look of disinterest, maybe even disgust, soon turned into a smile as he corrected my French and asked where I was from. “belle New York!” As he rattled off his dreams of his New York cliche, I walked away. I didn’t need melons from that stall.

French market in Clignancourt, Paris

As I spoke with my mom’s friend’s daughter, the youngest of the sisters, Desiree about her experiences living in France and raising a mixed race son, she wasn’t surprised. I picked Desiree’s brain about her life in Paris, she took me to her favorite haunts from her days as a student. Cool places where she went with her son and we got into real talk about what it’s like being black in Paris. It wasn’t exactly the “relief” I felt in London, being American first, where my skin color wasn’t the overarching part of my identity. Sure, I could capitalize on the exotification of black American culture but this was a strange time in the era of Brexit, Windrush backlash, immigration a hot button and the raise of those figures like Marine Le Pen. Desiree while fluent, doesn’t speak perfectly pronounced French and that has shielding her from that specific colonization racism. Much like what I felt from the fruit vendor. Queen Oprah underwent a similar situation in Hermes in Paris.

man biking near Pompidou, Paris. September 2017

Egalité, Liberté” I jokingly screamed with French friends while watching fireworks in the harbor of Bordeaux, and later, again with a large French crowd while watching the World Cup last summer 2019. As declared by King Louis X in the fourteenth century, “France signifies freedom” and declared that slavery was not authorized on the French mainland and any slaves setting foot on French soil would be free. During the revolution of the 1790s this freedom was extended to the French colonies as well, though in some places, it was ignored. America, too has freedom in its DNA, and yet we have kids in cages. No place is perfect. Did I feel the freedom that Baldwin, Baker, Wright, Kanye West and so many black creatives, American creatives before me felt? Yes. Did I take it with a dash of hypocrisy knowing it was no readily extended to brethren that looked just like me? Absolutely. 

In 1986, a psychiatrist coined the term “Paris syndrome” to describe the stress that some Japanese tourists experience when they discover that Paris isn’t the charming paradise often depicted in films and magazines. While I still love Paris, my rose colored glasses for the city have certainly gotten a little clearer. That fall, I underwent my own Paris syndrome. As I present to you romanticized versions of Paris in future blog posts, please keep this in mind, and the luxury I had in experiencing this.

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