After three months in Paris I had created a routine—I got up in the late morning and headed down the steps of my courtyard flat near the Park Monceau to the coffee shop at the end of my block. Once there I ordered my usual: a butter croissant with a café au lait, and began editing submissions, answering emails and figuring out which artistic events were most likely to have the most black people in attendance. This was my whole purpose in spending a summer in Paris: To find and interview African American expats about their experiences in the city and hopefully convince them to submit work to an anthology project I was completing as part of my master’s degree. Though the project itself had some pitfalls, the experience itself, and the community that I found on my journey, was life-changing.
It started in San Francisco, in a class I took about writers of the Harlem Renaissance. It was difficult not to talk about Paris in a class like that, considering that James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Josephine Baker all decided to spend several years there before abandoning the US and live out the rest of their lives in France. Indeed, it seemed that at some point, Paris had become the place to go when escaping racism in America. What was it about this city that black writers found so compelling? And was this still the case? After the class was over I was determined to find out.
My first contact with regards to the contemporary Paris-Black arts connection was an organization that was right in my backyard. Maison de la Culture Noire Américaine, or MCNA, is a media company based partially in Paris and partially in San Francisco that celebrates the African American and black diaspora experience in Paris. Robin Bates, the founder of MCNA was instrumental in suggesting people in Paris that I needed to get in contact with and places that I needed to visit if I wanted to really understand the African American expat community as it is now.
Through MCNA, I met another contact who would become a friend. Sylvie Carien Smith, who runs a travel consulting company called Paris by Sylvie. Her company specializes in helping new visitors to Paris purchase international cell phones, figure out how to navigate the Metro and offers a host of other little services to help you get settled in. Paris by Sylvie also organizes trips outside of the city, including a fabulous trip to the Champagne region that I was lucky enough to take for a test run.
Another, unexpected source of community was Meetup.com, specifically the Paris Black Social Network, which has been around since 2013. The group hold events and meetups around the city of Paris for anyone (visitor or expat) of the African Diaspora that happens to be in the area. For me, this group was a great way to experience parts of the city that I would never have visited as a tourist. I also met some people at these meetups who would remain good friends long after my time in France was up. The deep conversations I had with this group taught me a lot about history, America’s international impact and what it’s like to be black around the world.
The experience that I had and the friends I made in Paris have only fueled my passion for further exploration. There are dozens of locations around the world—many of them unexpected—that hold strong ties to the African diaspora. Places where I can learn about my history, myself and hopefully make more strong connections along the way.
Inspired? To learn how to create your own Black history-filled Paris experience, tap over to our Black History Lover’s Guide To Paris!
above image: Moyan Brenn