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France and Black America: An enduring relationship

Photo caption: Vernon A. Williams in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Part two of three

France is one of the most intriguing destinations on the planet. It has always held a certain allure for Black American artists, with its charming combination of natural beauty, cuisine, superb wine, rich history, liberal lifestyles, architectural character and broad cultural appeal.

Given a choice of Spanish and French to fulfill educational language requirements, I opted for the one considered most romantic (for obvious reasons). The more I learned about France, the more I wanted to know. So, I’ve been interested in visiting its most well-known city, Paris, since Mrs. Frankie McCullough’s French class at Beckman Middle School in Gary.

It took six decades but the opportunity to fulfill a lifetime objective of visiting Paris recently became a reality. Traveling with an organization of Indiana University alumni and friends, we spent eight mesmerizing days in “The City of Lights.” That wasn’t nearly enough time to see every stretch of the fabled metropolis, but with the help of expert tour guides, we were exposed to a lot.

I will use my next three columns, starting with this one, putting into words and pictures this enlightening experience. Some of you who have been to Paris on several occasions may find it a reiteration. But those who have never been will hopefully share my fascination. Paris is a place that engages all the senses.

The global love affair between Blacks and France began in the early 20th century. It’s tied up in the history of the United States’ involvement in World War I. A large number of African American troops served in France and were not allowed to fight alongside white Americans. They were “given” to the French and fought valiantly next to French military.

African American troops were awarded medals for bravery and invited into French homes. This was an experience they could have never hoped for on U.S. soil.

When the war was over, they went back home and talked about that. The summer after that war ended is known as the Red Summer, because anti-Black riots erupted in two dozen cities and racist violence killed or injured hundreds of people. White America felt it needed to put these Black men back into their place.

France took on this sort of mythical quality. It was seen as a place where Black people could just be people. And that’s where the myth of the colorblind France really took hold. Perceptions can sometime obscure reality.

That was especially true, given the tragedies of Black soldiers lynched in their uniforms in the South, rampant Jim Crow and bombing of successful Black communities like Tulsa and Rosewood. Even if France as Utopia was exaggerated, it was definitely a far cry from U.S. racism and bigotry.

France was a second home for writer James Baldwin. He said, “I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France, but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York.” Paris is the place where Baldwin and author Richard Wright once feuded over Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son.

Paris is also the place where the legendary performer Josephine Baker danced and ate lunch with her pet cheetah, Chiquita. Artists Lois Mailou Jones and Beauford Delaney both painted in Paris. The names of famous Blacks who have called Paris home reads like a “Who’s Who.”

In the upcoming next two columns, I will look at not only what made Paris so enticing for the past 100 years, but will explore some of the intricacies of that nation today, and why acquainting one’s self with the city remains an offer many visiting African Americans can’t refuse.


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