The Black legacy of the City of Light

If Paris were told to us from an Afrocentric perspective, what would it look like? Tour guide Monique Y. Wells answers that question through her Parisian walks and the example of the African American painter Beauford Delaney, whose forthcoming exhibition she curates.

10 A.M. near the Luxembourg Garden. Monique Y. Wells, red beret on, is not a typical Parisian. Born in Houston, Texas, she came in France to work for a drug company but later co-founded with her husband the travel planning organization Discover Paris!. When she first came to Paris, she was captivated by its mystique and like many before her, she fell in love with the city. Now a Parisian for 23 years, Monique combines business and pleasure with her guided itineraries. With her Entrée to Black Paris tours, Monique offers a one-of-a-kind view of the city, shedding light on the experience of the African diaspora in Paris.

Monique Y. Wells (right) during a tour in the Luxembourg Garden © Discover Paris!

Black Paris’ storyteller

In the shadow of the City of Light lie parts of Paris’ history little known by the Parisians themselves. If strolling across the streets, drinking cafés or admiring the monuments are common tourist activities, with Monique’s services, visiting the French capital takes another dimension. “The fact that you come to Paris does not mean that you have to go to the Eiffel tower or to the Louvre, you can never go to any major sites and still have a fabulous time here”. Reviving a forgotten chapter of the city’s history, she takes on the role of the griot of Parisian Black figures both old and contemporary.

“The fact that you come to Paris does not mean that you have to go to the Eiffel tower or to the Louvre”

The multicultural aspect of the city was not a self-evident fact for Monique: “As I settled down in the capital, I began to see that in the city of Paris itself, there were not only other European cultures, but world cultures as well and that was a surprise to me.” The fact that Paris was such a diverse place, influenced by many cultures, was not part of her imagery. “In the United States, we call ourselves a “melting-pot” or a “tossed salad”. I had no idea that France was the same, but nobody here was acknowledging that. It was a real dichotomy for me, to see all of these different kinds of people but never having heard about them being here”. And yet the city was at one point a vivid scene of the intellectual and artistic Black World.

Capital of the black world

According to historian Pascal Blanchard, Paris attracted Black people from Africa, America and the Caribbean from the 19th century onwards. A meeting place of the Black intelligentsia, the capital was the site where such Black populations could dispute racism. It is actually in Paris that was held in 1919 the First Pan-African Congress organized by the African American thinker W.E.B. Dubois and Senegal Deputy to the French parliament, Blaise Diagne. Congregating delegates from 15 countries, this event illustrated the city of Paris as the capital of “black freedom”.

After the First and the Second World War, Black American soldiers returning home, brought with them the idea of Paris as a haven of racial tolerance. Artists like the painter Loïs Mailou Jones in the 1930s or the writer Richard Wright in the 1940s, felt that the city was welcoming them with open arms. Whereas they were facing segregation in the United States and experienced reduced career opportunities because of their race, they felt that skin color did not matter in France.

jone paris studio 1938
Painter Lois Mailou Jones in her Paris studio, circa 1938 ©

In the era of les années folles, the African American presence in Paris was particularly important on the art scene. Jazz music, but also dances like the charleston or the shimmy coming right from the United States seduced the Parisian elite. With Joséphine Baker’s show La Revue Nègre in 1925, jazz music invaded Paris, becoming very popular in the Parisian cabarets. Neighborhoods like Pigalle, Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, Montparnasse, or Saint-Germain-des-Près turned into stimulating places of Paris’ nightlife.

Did you know?
The neighborhood Pigalle, Paris’ red light district, was nicknamed “Pig Alley” by the GIs after World War II

Monique also gives a taste of the spirit of Africa through the districts of Château-Rouge or Barbès for a North-African ambience. At the same time, Entrée to Black Paris tours gives insight on France’s race relations and debunks the myth of a racism-free country through the presentation Black Paris and the Myth of a Colorblind France. “My clients feel very enlightened, they feel like they have understood something that has been sort of mystified in the States. The presentation talks about why African Americans have this love affair with Paris and why we believed for so many years that France was colorblind.” A vision of race very different from the American one: “not seeing race is the way that French people have been raised. That’s really something that they believe, and even though the reality is different, it’s in their psyche. »

Beauford Delaney, the forgotten artist

Beauford Delaney, France, 1973 © Errol Sawyer

Apart from her touring activities, Monique Y. Wells also tells the story of Beauford Delaney (1901-1979). Part of the African American expatriates that came to Paris in the 1950s, Delaney was an abstract expressionist painter who lived in Paris for 26 years until he died. Recognized for his talent during his lifetime, he fell into oblivion after his death. Her involvement in the artist’s life started when she discovered that his grave was in a deplorable state. “In Thiais cemetery, I was told that Beauford was going to be exhumed because the concession had gone unpaid. I decided with friends that we had to save it”.
Thanks to her nonprofit Les Amis de Beauford Delaney she raised the money for the maintenance of the gravesite and the erection of a tombstone. But Wells has a bigger project about Delaney. Her aim is to promote the artist’s legacy and honor his memory. After the grave was renovated in 2010 and two commemorative plaques were installed, she created the walk Beauford Delaney’s Montparnasse. Beauford Delaney and Paris: A breathtaking evolution, will be held in February 2016. The exhibition promises to expose the life and works of the painter to the public light like never before.

Cécilia Naquin

Beauford Delaney and Paris: A breathtaking evolution
February 4-29, 2016
At the Reid Hall: 4 Rue de Chevreuse, 75006 Paris.

Further reading
Le Paris Noir by Pascal Blanchard, Gilles Manceron et Eric Deroo. Edition Hazan, 2001.

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