Heading to Paris in 2017 was a pivotal moment in my life. I originally wrote about the idea of being Black American in Paris in 2019. It’s still a piece that I get a lot of outreach about. So I decided to re-edit the piece and release it again on the blog in conjuction with a podcast episode I have coming out on Paris for Building Home. I’m interviewing floral designer Ryan Norville on her family’s recent move to Paris.
Paris has been going viral, and it hasn’t been positive.
A Tiktoker has made it a brand offering “hot takes” on why they think Paris is overated and the dregs. Malfoy sites the trash, grafitti and says that Paris smells like “piss, cheese and armpit.” The city’s food “looks grimy as hell.”
Of course, like any city, this isn’t the first time Paris has been critiqued and Paris syndrome is a real. That fall, I underwent my own Paris syndrome. But my time in Paris was one of those catalysts for change in my life. It was lonely and beautiful. Those cafes he complained about? I loved sitting in them, outside table, right after that mid afternoon rain and perfect golden sun came through. I fell in love with the canal saint-Martin neighborhood, a baguette a day and trying different Asian food that I didn’t have in New York (helloooo colonization!)
Paris took care of me when I needed a change from New York. To me, Paris is always a good idea. Here is my experience on living in Paris as a young(ish) Black American woman.
In the summer of 2017 as my mother booked our tickets for an August trip to France, I declared “Just get me a one way. After our 10 days around France, I’m going to stay in Europe.” For the previous 10 years, beginning with studying abroad in Milan in 2006, I spent a lot of time in Europe. I managed to make at least one trip a year. During this time, aided by the powers of Facebook, I managed to scrape together a community and personal life primarily between Italy, France and the UK.
I’m a born and raised New Yorker. While I realized the luxury of “going home” meaning going back to NYC, I had developed a sort of ambivalence to “the city.” I felt as though I were resting on my laurels. I craved a challenge. Late nights at my local in Crown Heights lead to many a conversation with my dear friend and confidante about whether NYC was the right place for us. Maybe I should finally try to live in London. My travel writing career can’t flourish if I’m tethered to NYC rent.
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. Years later as I reflect on how much this trip changed my life that extra squeeze and long hug I gave my mom as I put her in a cab to Charles De Gaulle airport makes sense.
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. The French keep it distant and cool but for a certain part of American culture that love is reciprocated. One of the founding fathers, the US Ambassador to France Benjamin Franklin was a Francophile. His love of the country is well documented. James Hemings, the Black American formerly enslaved by another founding father Thomas Jefferson, introduced America to mac and cheese after his extensive training on French cuisine while in Paris. Yes, there are certain Americans that the French seem to wholeheartedly embrace. Those four weeks that fall, flew by.
In 1984, at nearly 60 years-old, 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.”
Like hundred of Black American artists before me, I imagined days spent creating — for me that meant 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! That’s what I saw in the headlines. 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. Maybe I’ll end up staying too, I thought.
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. In Paris, I could go for days without having a real conversation with someone.
A woman, alone at a restaurant is part of Paris’s fabric. One week when I went on three Bumble dates, a lot at the time; I was so starved for conversation. I devoured the beauty of Paris, walked along its boulevards, ate, ate and ate some more. I went to a farmer’s market every other day. It was during these walks that 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 also at one of these markets where I realized the strange and precarious place I occupied as a Black American in Paris.
I’ve been on wonderful press trips with the French tourism board — my favorite among those being to the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe and the city of Bordeaux. It was during these trips that I really began to piece together the complexities of colonization from all angles, tracing the triangle trade as I munched on my favorite Bordeaux dessert, cannelés. My face flushed as an unassuming “French food expert” discussed how the desert’s creation represented 1700s France and Bordeaux’s richness. 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.
If you look hard enough you can see the cynicism in a Guadeloupeans eyes as they tell you this. Guadeloupe was the island that rebelled the most between the two. The French West Indies are just another, albeit further, department of France they remind you. No different than Nouvelle-Acquitaine or Brittany. In Paris you see it. Young people from the French West Indies studying in Paris, or newly living there fill Paris’s cool hotspots. They too occupied a strange place in the French racial hierarchy vs. my black American otherness or someone from Sierra Leone say.
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. In the recent century you can date this affinity from the post war GIs bringing Jazz, food and well, that Black American je ne sais quois.
Being from New York City, in Paris, that 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.
I was standing in line, waiting to ask the farmer “how much for the melons” in my broken French. I hadn’t said anything yet, but I knew I was being ignored. Three white French women came and were 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 New York, I walked away. I didn’t need melons from that stall.
When I told this story to our family friend, the youngest of the sisters, Desiree, she wasn’t surprised. She shared her experiences living in France and raising a mixed race son. I picked Desiree’s brain about her life in Paris. She took me to her favorite haunts from her days as a student. We got into real talk about what it’s like being Black in Paris. Sure, I could capitalize on the exotification of Black American culture but this was a strange time: the era of Brexit, Windrush backlash, immigration and the raise of those figures like Marine Le Pen. Desiree, while fluent, doesn’t speak perfectly pronounced French and that has shielded her from that specific colonization racism. Much like what I felt from the fruit vendor. This was the Paris where Hermes wouldn’t let Oprah Winfrey buy a handbag.
“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 in London. As declared by King Louis X in the fourteenth century, “France signifies freedom.” He also declared that slavery was not authorized on the French mainland and any slaves setting foot on French soil would be free. Thomas Jefferson worried about this with his favorite enslaved peoples he brought to France. During the French 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. Yet we have kids in cages and are still fighting for systemic equality. 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 not 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, I know it’s not perfect. That fall, I underwent my own Paris syndrome. As I present to you romanticized versions of Paris in writing and photographs, please keep this in mind, and the luxury I had in experiencing this.