Timeline - in construction


Imagine a young woman. She has been thoroughly educated in a traditional manner  and has been taught that freedom should be fought for. Imagine a handsome

man. He has been regularly denied access to education, but is never afraid to

think for himself. She is used to parading on her balcony to raving crowds, while he had to use the backdoor over and over. All his life, nothing came easy, oppression was everywhere, but he continued to contribute to a culture that was rich and groundbreaking. She was comfortably installed in her traditions and sometimes couldn’t find her way out. Can there be two more different people? Guess what? They fell in love.

African Americans and the French: A Love Story will look at both sides of this passionate and utterly glamorous affair. There is so much to tell, starting with New Orleans Creoles sending their offspring to study in France in the 19th century, and ending with French teenagers’ infatuation with hip hop culture. African Americans published in France, were exhibited in France, set their novels in France, toured in France. While certainly not immune to racism, the French welcomed with open arms this influx which was bringing a new breath of life to the world they knew.

Like many relationships, the mutual expectations were often unrealistic. Many African Americans idealized France as a heaven of tolerance and equality. And the French, instead of seeing African Americans for who they were, often created their own nebulous dream of  a primitive and liberated people. Despite these misconceptions, they found each other and established long lasting bonds.

  First glimpse 

While a few well-to-do Creole students and African American artists had resided in Paris in the 19th century, the first meeting in large numbers between African Americans and the French took place during World War I. Despite the American Forces’ best efforts to keep them segregated, African Americans soldiers were seen as saviors and fraternized with the French.

One story amongst many

“…A deep sympathy is in store for these men, which, yesterday, was not surmised. Very quickly it is seen they have nothing of the savage in them, but, on the other hand, one could not find a soldier more faultless in his bearing, and in his manners more affable…”

Letter by a Frenchwoman to a local newspaper in 1917

The (passionate) courtship

Enjoying the embrace of sympathy, some African Americans stayed in France and brought their friends: James Europe, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Bricktop. A lot of them were entertainers, who came because they could make a decent living there. But writers and painters, such as Langston Hughes and Loïs Mailou Jones, came too, usually for shorter periods of time, often on a grant. Some of these expats married and had children. They opened restaurants. In Paris. In Montmartre. While in the United States, they had suffered from racism and systematic segregation, they were welcome with open arms by the Paris intellegentsia and by the French at large. African Americans brought with them a popular culture, with a spontaneity and rawness which the French craved.

One story

Eugene Bulard, whose father spoke highly of France, had always wanted to go there. He stowed away on a ship bound for Germany at the age of 10 in 1906 and made his way to France a few years later. When war broke out, he enrolled in the French Legion. He became an ace flier and got the Croix de Guerre. He remained in France after the war, first as a musician, then opening a successful nightclub.

                                       The separation

   World War II. A country at war is no place for foreigners, and the Nazi

   menace was particularly severe for ethnic minorities. African

   Americans left. But they came back as soldiers, and again, fought for the 

   liberation of France. And fell in love all over again.

One story

Famously Josephine Baker worked for the French resistance and was later decorated. Her involvement increased her popularity after the war, especially in view of the many French artists who had collaborated with the Nazis.

The romance

After the war, a café society thrived in Paris’ Left Bank. A lot of thinking and exchanges of ideas took place in these cafés, attracting African American who had moved to Paris as political expatriates. While incidents of racism were on the rise, African Americans retained their privileged position in France because of their artistic prestige. The mood was very different than it had been before the war. Gone were the carefree years of the 20’s and 30’s. Millions of people had perished, Jews had suffered a genocide, and the atomic bomb had been dropped. Along fellow French writers such as Sartre and Camus, African Americans, such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, were ready for some changes in the world. At the same time, African Americans came up with a revolutionary music whose sounds echoed this change of mood and which became the soul of the new intellectual movement: Bebop.

One story:

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about a character having a philosophical epiphany while listening to the blues. He was fanatical about jazz, and so was Marcel Camus. They hung out in the Left Bank jazz cellars with Richard Wright, Chester Himes and Miles Davis who had an affair with an iconic French comedian, Juliette Greco. Boris Vian, a French writer and jazz trumpet player, was part of the group. His novel “I Will Spit On Your Graves” was published under a pseudonym to create the illusion that it had been written by an African American. Its plot had similarities to Richard Wright’s “Native Son.”

    The mature years

    And then they left again. Not out of anger or disinterest for their

    paramour. They were summoned home by a very different mistress:

    the civil rights movement.

One story

In the film Paris Blues, Sydney Poitier plays a young, successful saxophone player who decides to leave his beloved Paris to join his fellow African Americans in the fight for civil rights in the United States.

The children

Today African American artists do not experience as much the need to leave their country, since it is possible for them to express themselves in the United States. Still, heartstrings subsist, and some follow the footsteps of their intellectual forefathers, such as the writer Shay Youngblood, as told in her memoir “Black Girl in Paris”. In France the fervor was taken up by a new generation: the kids of the 90’s and 00’s when they fell for hip hop and African American culture. And they have it bad. Music, clothes, hairstyle, gestures are imported. Even Spike Lee’s movies are more consistently successful in France than in the United States. There is a fervent obsession in France with African American culture, which is not as reciprocal as it used to.

One story

Hip hop has found an echo in the young people of North African descent who live in France and share with African Americans the experience of racism and oppression. A modern dance company named itself after the expression BlackBlanc Beur which means Black White Arab and sounds like Bleu Blanc Rouge, the French flag. This France-based company strives to reinvent French identity by integrating the French and Arab experience, and expressing it through hip hop and breakdance.