- Paris Noir, African Americans in the City of Light by Tyler Stovall, and: Black France/France Noire, The History and Politics of Blackness ed. by Trica Danielle Keaton, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Tyler Stovall
In 1996, a decade after Michel Fabre’s seminal work, La Rive noire: de Harlem à la Seine,1 Tyler Stovall, a professor of French History at the University of California at Berkeley, published Paris Noir, African Americans in the City of Light.2 Fabre, the founder of African American studies in France, described Stovall’s book as “the first comprehensive chronicle of the changing yet steady presence of African American creators of culture in France during our century.”3 Paris Noir unfolds as a chronological journey through the destinies of African Americans who left their native land to come to France. The reader discovers the drafted soldiers, traveling artists, and exiled intellectuals who, [End Page 214] from the Great War and early twenties to the close of the twentieth century, have built the story—perhaps the myth—of a Black Paris.
African American performers famously flocked to enjoy the carefree Jazz Age in Montmartre and most Harlem Renaissance artists dwelled in the French capital. In the post–World War II era, political exiles haunted the cafés of existentialist Saint Germain des Prés. Yet beyond the iconic figures of Josephine Baker and Richard Wright, Stovall uncovers more invisible characters and unheard voices, starting his narrative of Paris Noir with World War I veterans, ending his thorough study with contemporary testimonies of professional achievers, lawyers or corporate executives, and including his own vision as a Fulbright student in the 1980s.
Stovall’s Paris Noir is thus more than a portrait of the artists and quaint scenery of La Butte Montmartre and the Left Bank of the Seine, for the numerous interviews offer a variety of experiences. This vast and multifaceted representation interrogates the very notion of a cohesive black community, not so much to deny it but to redefine it. Departing from the usual focus on a buoyant art scene and exploring economic success and political concerns as well, Stovall argues that Black Paris has fostered empowerment and agency for individual blacks while cementing a community over “positive affinities and experience”4 instead of a common past of slavery and shared life of segregation. He compellingly shows how visitors and expatriates, being welcomed and considered primarily as Americans, interacting with French Africans, first fulfilled an African American identity that was to be acknowledged in America much later. This, in turn, influenced the African American community’s self-vision and identity on U.S. soil. There is no understanding of the significance of Black Paris, of the edifying encounter with the French sense of freedom and France’s own colonial racism without the backdrop of home.
Indeed Stovall reads the centennial vividness of Paris Noir as a subversive American success story wherein self-realization stems from the departure from the land of opportunity and offers a critical reappraisal of French racial history. Stovall’s last chapters raise the question of France’s claimed color blindness, a question that he interestingly explores in the recent Black France/France Noire5 through the lens of a French-American collaborative perspective.
Black France is a welcome counterpart to Paris Noir, further evidencing that the African American experience of Paris reveals just as much about France’s interrogations over race as it does about America’s history. The Black France collection of essays echoes the repeated narratives by African Americans in Paris that they personally experienced the color blindness of French society while being the witnesses of how flawed the ideal turned out to be when it came to other blacks. James Baldwin’s realization that he could not immediately relate to the Africans he met in Paris6 or Jake Lamar’s sense...