Paris Noir

In PARIS NOIR: AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE CITY OF LIGHT, Tyler Stovall, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, presents a highly readable account of African American expatriates in Paris from World War I to the late 1990’s. The book starts with the experience of African American troops during the “great war,” when they discovered a white society far more racially tolerant than their own. Following the war, a number of these troops either stayed on or returned, with the greatest number settling in the Montmartre section of Paris. Other African Americans soon made their way across the Atlantic. This included numerous entertainers, who brought the “jazz age” to Paris in a big way, as well as prominent artists and writers. During the 1930’s, the depression dampened, but did not destroy the African American community in Paris. This latter task was accomplished by the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II. After the war, the G.I. Bill allowed African American students to study in Paris. In addition, Paris once again served as a refuge from the remnants of American racism. During this period, the “left bank” and Saint-German-des-Paris replaced Montmartre as the neighborhoods where the African American presence was most prominent. This was also the golden age for African American literary figures in Paris. In the 1960’s Paris’ image as a refuge for oppressed African Americans was weakened by French colonialism and mistreatment of their own racial minorities. In addition, a vibrant struggle for racial equality had now begun in the United States. Nevertheless, Paris remains the home to a significant African American community, though the golden age when Paris could be seen as a racial utopia is long gone.

Unfortunately, the comprehensiveness of Stovall’s book is achieved at the expense of depth. While there is engaging material on figures such as Josephine Baker, Bricktop, Sidney Bechet, Kenny Clarke, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes, the overall effect is often more tantalizing than satisfying. Still, the book is genuinely informative, including a helpful bibliography and a smattering of photos.