I came to Paris on a mission: I wanted to compile an anthology of contemporary African-American expatriate writers living in the city of light. But in some ways, the voyage felt more like a rite of passage. As an African American writer myself, this was my way of following in the footsteps of my literary ancestors. What I found was a longer, and more complicated, history than I had been prepared for, as well as an uncertain future.
African Americans have traveled and moved to Paris for centuries, often to escape the continuous racism in the States. Dating back to the early 1700’s, wealthy French colonists sent their mixed-race sons and their black or mixed-race mistresses to Paris to be educated, at a time when it was illegal in most of the U.S. for black people to even learn to read. The gens de colour, as they were called, made up a middle class of sorts in many French colonies, such as New Orleans and Haiti.
During the WWII era, African-American soldiers brought with them to Paris both liberation from Nazi control, and the bourgeoning art and music of the Harlem Renaissance. There’s a story of an African-American military regiment marching through the streets of Paris, while playing a jazzy version of La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, something that the citizens hadn’t heard since the German take-over years before—and certainly never in that style. Parisians greeted African-American soldiers with great enthusiasm, equal enthusiasm — no small thing when compared with the then segregated ranks of the American military.
The love affair between African Americans and Paris continues to this day. Many African American expats I’ve spoken to still tend to gravitate towards the 6th and 18th arrondissements as did African American expats of the past. There is a feeling of freedom and even privilege living in Paris and coming from our racial background. There’s little fear of police violence here for me, no being followed around in stores, or told I ‘probably can’t afford’ something I have my eye on. Being American and in Paris, I am assumed to be well off, and thus enjoy a level of deference that African Americans, regardless of class, rarely get in their home country. What’s more, the French are often eager to discuss African American history and race relations in the US. This has in fact been the main topic of most conversations I’ve had with French people.
Interestingly, however, many French people are less enthusiastic in discussing race relations within their own country. They often fall back on that much used trope of being ‘colorblind’ when it comes up in conversation. This is perhaps because, like most relationships, the black community’s relationship with France has gotten more and more complicated as time goes on. As in most of Europe, there has been an influx of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean due to social unrest and financial troubles in former French colonies there. Sadly, this seems to have resulted in a disturbing amount of anti-African sentiment in France. African immigrants to France often face discrimination with regards to housing, jobs and other basic necessities. France refuses to collect racial demographic information, thereby making it difficult to prove any discrimination based on race has occurred.
Several friends and acquaintances of mine have started experiencing discrimination in the country. Those with darker skin tones or names perceived as ‘African’ reported a much more difficult time finding housing. Their landlords imposed ‘rules’ about who can come to stay with them and for how long that those of us perceived as ‘American’ did not experience. One friend even had a landlord threaten to throw him out after a neighbor complained about too many ‘Africans’ staying in his apartment. The ‘African’ in question was his cousin who had come to visit for less than a week.
While I never personally experienced this kind of prejudice, I heard too many stories from others to discount it. I also heard several conversations between French people and long term expats (sometimes even African American expats) making comments about African and Muslim immigrants that closely mirrored the negative stereotypes often lobbed at these communities in the US. Curiously, these offensive comments would often come on the heels of heated condemnation of American racism and praise for African American culture and achievements. Thus, there is an uncomfortable dichotomy between the treatment one receives as a black American expat versus the treatment of other people from the African diaspora. While Paris is certainly a far cry from the nearly weekly stories of systemic racism and police violence back in the States, clearly Paris is also not the racial utopia it has been made out to be in the minds of many African Americans.
Yet the love affair between Paris and this community continues on both sides. Businesses cater specifically to African-American travelers or travelers interested in African-American history. Several tour groups offer walking and bus tours that outline the history of that community in Paris. Popular ‘Soul food’ restaurants are often more popular with the French than they are with tourists or expats. Similarly, the plethora of jazz clubs and jazz festivals seem more popular in Paris than in the country of its birth.
Any idealistic view I had of the city before spending time here has given way to a much more pragmatic and realistic one. And yet, my personal love affair with Paris is also far from over. The sense of freedom that I’ve found here, and the perspective I’ve gained on my own country has been invaluable. Through the community I’ve found, Paris — with all its faults and freedoms — has still come to feel like home.