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A Concept Map of My Paris

Black Writers in Paris 2013

Rebecca Celli

on 15 January 2014

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Transcript of A Concept Map of My Paris

Understanding this Map
In order to get around Paris, I read many maps. The most literal map I read was the Paris arrondissement, a booklet compiling the many intersecting streets that made up each one of the city’s twenty districts. It was this map that brought me to class each day, to museums, to restaurants, to the metro and on walking tours. Accompanying this map was an internal map which was fuelled by my memory of the two times that I had visited Paris with my family. I called upon this map routinely, especially when I returned to the Pompidou, Musee D’Orsay and Louvre—all places that reminded me of my visits with my parents and siblings. The final map was the one that I have brought to life here. This was the only truly dynamic map. It’s an amorphous map that’s bound together by the two aforementioned maps but was constantly changing form based on our classes, the texts I read, the people I met and the museums we toured. This map’s backbone is not metro stations, landmarks or street signs. Instead, it’s built upon the ideas and themes that I studied during my time in Paris. What I learned while creating this map was that the more I learned about Paris-- particularly in relation to the Black experience there--- the more I understood that it’s full of connections and full of contradictions. In this map, I have worked to bring the primary themes of our class to life through etches of the relationships between the writers, readings and museums that were most central to my understanding of Paris.
Comparing Quai Branly to Musée D’Orsay

I realized how problematic the approach taken by Quai Branly was when I compared it to that of the Musée d’Orsay, a nearby western Modern art museum. Like all Western art museums that I’ve visited, the rooms at the Musée d’Orsay are highly organized—either by time period, place, style or artist. On the second floor of the building, for example, a series of rooms are dedicated to Impressionist art, a style of art developed by a small group of French artists in the 19th century. When I think about how specific this categorization is in relation to the uncategorized indigenous conglomeration of artifacts shown at Quai Branley, I am forced to question Quai Branly even more. According to the approaches taken by these two museums, it appears as though specific facets of white Western civilizations have the luxury of being studied and analyzed on their own, while the fruits of Eastern “uncivilized” societies are jumbled together and portrayed as a single unit.

Parisian Museums and Primitivism
Primitivism at Quai Branly
According to their website, the Quai Branly Museum's goal is to feature indigenous art and artifacts from multiple centuries and from places as diverse as Africa, Asia and South America. Even though I respect Quai Branly's mission to display non-western objects and art, I found an issue with the approach taken by the museum. First of all, the objects displayed all occupied a massive room and weren't organized by a single style or origin. In fact, I found that there was no visible unifying trend or theme connecting the diverse artifacts to one another. Beyond this, the individual pieces were accompanied by minimal supplementary text. In my opinion, the extreme range in objects and the lack of clarity in the exhibit’s thesis (beyond just a display of anything “exotic” or “indigenous”) does more to delegitimize non-western cultures than it does to promote acceptance and diversity. The implication is that for the western viewer the cultural specificities of these objects are irrelevant, given that the objects are essentially de-historicized. Furthermore, the short paragraph write-ups underneath each object are intended to suffice in terms of historical context, and the importance in these pieces seems to be purely their aesthetic appeal.

Quai Branly Museum's Modern Exterior
Inside of Quai Branly Where Hundreds of Diverse Artifacts Occupy a Single Space
Primitivism at Musée D'Orsay

During my time in the Musée D’Orsay, I looked at the work of Paul Gauguin, a visionary French painter of the 19th century, who was one of the first European artists to use “Primitive” subjects for his work. More specifically, Gauguin created a series of paintings of Tahitians. Not only are the subjects of his paintings locals, but Gauguin’s art also includes masks and traditional Tahitian prints. When I saw these pieces at the Musée D’Orsay, I paid close attention to the text accompanying the pieces. And, when I went home after our visit, I looked at the scholarly writing published about Gauguin and this particular series. In both cases, I found that there was very little written about the individuals depicted, their masks and the indigenous prints included in the work. Moreover, the readings simply glorified Gauguin’s work because of his attention to so called “exotic” subject matter, without mentioning more information about the subjects beyond them being just “exotic.” And, additionally, it’s clear that Gauguin’s work influenced many of his peer modern artists to similarly include exotic subject matter in modern artworks. The most significant of which was Pablo Picasso, who’s work “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” appropriates African masks and has been labeled by some art historians as one of the very most important paintings in art history.

Tahitian Women on the Beach
Gauguin, 1891

Les Demoiselles D'Avignon
Picasso, 1907
What is Primitivism?
Primitivism refers to western affinity towards objects, styles and art from eastern, “uncivilized” cultures. There are many problems with Primitivism given that westerners will often appropriate “primitive” objects for their own aesthetic enjoyment without properly citing the cultures that the objects come from or further contextualizing the pieces.
A Different Approach Taken by
Musée Dapper
A couple days after our visit to Quai Branly, we visited Musée Dapper, a much smaller, strictly African museum. Compared to the broad approach taken by Quai Branly, the Dapper makes a conscious effort to explore the intricacies of individual indigenous African communities comprehensively. During our visit we toured the current exhibition, which explores the initiation practices for young boys from the Congo basin. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the pieces on display, and the pieces’ subsequent descriptions on the wall were far more detailed than those at Quai Branly. As a viewer, I was able to understand each piece’s historical significance and, unlike the Quai Branly, the thorough descriptions made it clear that these pieces had meaning beyond pure aesthetic value. At the end of the visit, a student in our class inquired about whether or not the members of the Congo basin endorsed this public western display of these sacred practices. The tour guide’s answer was that the community members were not consulted and likely would not have been in support of the museum’s initiatives. To me this reality is problematic. Furthermore, even though this museum clearly does have a more respectful approach to representing African cultures than the Quai Branly, the means to which they acquire their artifacts is certainly questionable.
The Parisian Imaginaire
The Parisian Imaginaire

According to our class discussions, the “Parisian imaginaire” refers to a traveler or expatriate’s idealized preconceptions of Paris. Although each traveler’s imaginaire is, to a certain extent, individualized, certain themes related intellectualism, beauty and acceptance were popular amongst many people that I studied. For a 20th century African American expatriate, like Langston Hughes or James Baldwin, Paris was a beautiful and glorified haven for otherwise marginalized African Americans who were facing harsh racial oppression at home. For an aspiring scholar from the third world, take Sambo Diallo of Cheikh’s novel Ambiguous Adventure for example, Paris was a symbol of modernity, success and a place of intellectual abundance. Last, for me, a contemporary American college student, my idealized Paris was one where deep historical significance, monumental architecture and beautiful art were omnipresent. But the writers I have read do not just speak about the imaginaire. In fact, equally importantly, the texts we have read voice the problems facing Parisian society and the ways in which the Parisian Imaginaire is contested by the reality of Paris. In this section of the map, I have decided to use my experience in Paris, the texts and the speakers we met to discuss the complexities in the Parisian imaginaire.

Hazel Scott's Unique Parisian Imaginaire
Hazel Scott, a writer that we read early on in our class, speaks candidly about his Paris, and what makes it special. Scott implies that his Paris is magical, but is not magical in the way that many of his readers may assume. He writes, “My Paris is not the city of champagne and caviar. My Paris is pot full of red beans and rice and an apartment full of old friends and glasses tinkling and the rich, happy sound of people laughing form the heart…” ("What Paris Means to Me, p. 186). Scott’s experience does not exemplify most people’s Parisian imagaires but is, nonetheless, pretty dreamlike.
The Parisian Imaginaire of
Black Writers

In The American Fugitive In Europe, William Wells Brown uses descriptive language to illustrate his Paris. At first his writing seems to describe the typical Parisian imaginaire, but later on he explicitly states what made Paris so special for a black man. More specifically, he writes that while in Paris he was considered human, rather than just black. He writes “[men] who would not have shaken hands with me with a pair of tongs while on the passage from the United States, could come with hat in hand in Paris, and say ‘I was your fellow passenger’” (p. 173). And other Black writers working in Paris had similar experiences. In “What Paris Means to Me”, Hazel Scott speaks similarly about the absence of racism in Paris. “But whenever I encountered racism in any form, it was so rare that it was an exception rather than the rule and it stuck out as an incident. I’m not going to say that France is paradise, but I will say this: You can live anywhere you’ve got the money to live. You can go anywhere if you’ve got the money to go and whomever you marry or date is your business.” (p. 187)

One of the things that I noticed during my time in Paris was that I could never manage to fully escape traces of America. Chain restaurants like Chipotle, McDonalds and Subway felt ubiquitous. And Starbucks, a place my friends and I termed “the unofficial American embassy” managed to have a headquarters on what felt like every other corner. In Andrea Lee’s short story “In France”, Lee speaks to this same phenomenon. The protagonist goes out to see a movie in Paris and finds that it’s a mock western. With a hint of irony, the protagonist in the story says, “It seemed that I had spent years dreaming of Paris when all Paris had been dreaming of cowboys” (p 9). And, she even speaks more explicitly about Americanization in a later part of the story when she says “If I was idle, all France around me was vibrating to the latest invasion of Anglo-Saxon culture. The first McDonald’s in Paris had opened on the Champs-Elysees. The best French commercials were those for Goldtea—artless takeoffs on Gone with the Wind” (p 10). I similarly was peeved by the abundance of American corporations. As a tourist, there was something disheartening about looking up to see the intricacies of traditional French architecture but instead having my vision clouded by massive signs advertising American fast food restaurants.

The Infiltration of American Corporations and the Parisian Imaginaire

Jake Lamar Discusses the Parisian Imaginiare and American Writers

One of our class speakers, Jake Lamar, a successful African American writer who plans to live and work in Paris indefinitely, spoke tacitly about the Parisian imaginaire in relation to writers. He further stated that people come to Paris assuming that just by living in the city they will become stronger writers. According to Lamar, even though the aura of Paris inspiring, simply living in the city does not give writers more talent.

Being Black In Paris
Montmartre: The Epicenter of Black Paris
Starting in the 1920s and running up until World War II, groups of African American expatriates moved to Paris to work as musicians in Montmartre. At the time, Montmartre was a kind of artistic “free zone.” It was there where Black performers harnessed the sounds of the Harlem Renaissance and were hailed by wealthy French patrons. At the time, it was trendy to attend Jazz clubs and much of French society grew an affinity towards the Jazz sound, which was a critical byproduct of African American culture. The French celebration of “Blackness” extended well beyond the music scene, and as time went on Black painters, sculptors and writers moved to Paris for inspiration, and in search of a higher quality of life.
Paris Presents New Challenges for Blacks
Given the cultural obsession with jazz and black performers, African Americans in Paris during this time period faced far better treatment than their counterparts in America. Despite this, the writings of contemporary historians and black individuals of the time period indicate that the Parisian treatment of blacks was, in its own way, problematic.
Langston Hughes and the Limitations of Paris for a Black Man

According to Langston Hughes, blacks were heralded in the context of jazz but didn’t experience occupational freedom beyond Montmartre. In “From the Big Sea”, Hughes writes about his arrival in Paris and his encounter with a black man in a doorman’s uniform. In this conversation, Hughes learns that there is no place in Paris for black men to work beyond Montmartre. After Hughes asks for advice about where he should look for a job, the man says, “You must be crazy boy…There ain’t no ‘any kind of a job’ here. There’re plenty of French people for ordinary work. ‘Less you can play jazz or tap dance, you’d just as well go back home.” In my own opinion, forcing black people to work only in the context of Montmartre is a means of dehumanization. To the white patrons of jazz clubs, Blacks were seen as purely a means of entertainment. I imagine that confining the black community to this sphere of Paris kept them from threatening the white establishment, and perpetuated ideas about blacks as a primitive, animalistic and ultimately subordinate race.

Negrophelia in Montmartre
In her book, Petrine Archer Straw discusses “negrophelia”, a term representing the white French establishment’s “love” of black people and black culture. The term is especially relevant in discussion of jazz in Montmartre but it also applies to the western obsession with primitivism and exoticism found in other cultural venues. During our tour of Montmartre with Monique, we discussed the remnants of Negrophelia that still exist in Paris. One example of this was a vintage poster of a dramatized image of “Banana Girl” (an offensive caricature of an African woman) that still sits in the window of a store in the neighborhood. Images like this strip black people of their humanity and further perpetuate assumptions of blacks as an inferior race.
This is not the exact image that I saw in Montmartre but is similar to it. The exaggerated smile and large lips are typical of caricateurs of black women of this time period.
Sydney Bechet and the Spirit of Montmartre
In “Trouble in Paris”, Sydney Bechet, a famous Black musician of Montmartre, discusses the vibrant social atmosphere of Montmartre in the late 1920s and early 1930s. His writing is particularly celebratory of the cultural climate of Montmartre. He writes “in those days it was really something the way things went on. Any time you walked down the street you’d run into four or five people you knew—performers, entertainers, all kinds of people who had a real talent to them. Everywhere you’d go you’d run into them; you couldn’t help yourself. And everybody had a kind of excitement about him” (p. 532).

Positive Attributes of the Black Experience in Montmartre
Hardships Facing Blacks in Paris
James Johnson and Human Rights in Paris
In his text, “Along This Way,” James Johnson discusses the freedom that he felt while in Europe. Furthermore, he explains that while in Paris he felt that he was no longer just a black man but was instead free to be a human being. More specifically, he says “I was suddenly free; free from the sense of impending discomfort, insecurity, danger; free from the conflict within the Man-Negro dualism and the innumerable maneuvers in thought and behavior that it compels; free from the problem of the many obvious or subtle adjustments to a multitude of bans and taboos; free from special scorn, special tolerance, special condescension, special commiseration; free to be merely a man” (p. 199). According to his text, American racism was so harsh that it canceled out his individuality, identity and manhood. In comparison, Paris allowed Johnson to achieve freedom from the confines of blackness; it gave him the ability to be fully human.
Positive Attributes of the Black Experience in Paris
James Johnson's Paris

The statement related to the Parisian Imaginaire that resonated most with me was one written in James Johnson’s piece “Along this Way.” Here he talks about wanting to acquire specific knowledge of Paris that he couldn’t possibly acquire without living there. He writes “I quickly discovered that “historical points” interested me less than almost anything else, that a good picture and the facts told were, generally, as satisfying as the actual sight. What I wanted most, and what cannot be gotten vicariously, was impressions from the life eddying round me and streaming by. I wanted to see people, people at every level, from an elite audience at the Opera House to a group of swearing fishmongers in the market” (p. 201). I shared this sentiment and found that this kind of mentality was a valued way to approach travel. This same notion is what made my flâneur experience so beneficial to my understanding of Paris.

A Concept Map of My Paris
Rebecca Celli
Langston Hughes' Distinctive Style
Based on our readings, I concluded that Black artists living in Paris (including musicians and writers) had a lot of freedom to express themselves and claim their own individualized style. In her text “Internationalism from Negritude Women”, visionary writer and theorist Jane Nardal speaks about wanting the black youth to capture the “Negro spirit” in their writing. She wants black writers to learn from European methods but ultimately diverge from them. In many ways, Langston Hughes’ writing exemplifies Nardal’s vision. His writing, which was largely inspired by his experience in Paris, is unique, and styled in a way that is unlike many of his white counterparts. He seems to riff off of the Jazz melodies, which are inconsistent and, in the words of one of our classmates “melodically ambiguous.” I believe that it was the vibrancy of the Montmartre Jazz scene, and likely the Harlem Renaissance, as well, that inspired Hughes’ distinctive cadence and writing style.

In the days of the broken cubes of Picasso
And in the days of the broken songs of the young men
A little too drunk to sing
And the young women
A little too unsure of love to love——
I met on the boulevards of Paris
An African from Senegal

Knows why the French
Amuse themselves bringing to Paris
Negroes from Senegal.

It's the old game of the boss and the bossed,
boss and the bossed,
worked and working,
Behind the cubes of black and white,
black and white,
black and white

But since it is the old game,
For fun
They give him the three old prostitutes of
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity——
And all three of 'em sick
In spite of the tax to the government
And the legal houses
And the doctors
And the Marseillaise.

Of course, the young African from Senegal
Carries back from Paris
A little more disease
To spread among the black girls in the palm huts.
He brings them as a gift
From light to darkness
From the boss to the bossed
From the game of black and white
From the city of the broken cubes of Picaso

Langston Hughes
My New Understanding of Paris
When I told my mother that I wanted to take an English class in Paris called “Black Writers in Paris”, she sneered slightly and responded by saying “Who knew there were enough black writers in Paris for a course?” I didn’t want to admit it but I shared that same train of thought. To me Paris was all about the history, art and tradition of white people. I knew nothing of the narratives of people of color in Europe. What I appreciated about my month in Paris was that I diverted my attention away from the common attractions of Paris and focused it towards the more unsung Parisian stories. One of the most informative experiences that I had in understanding the untold Paris was my flaneur in the 20th arrondisement. It was there where I saw a different Paris than the one I had seen with my family or dreamed about before my flight this fall. This was the outsider’s Paris. I saw Jewish stores, women in Burkas and a larger population of people of color. The center of this place was rundown buildings, empty parks, modern churches, small bodegas and government housing units. Parisians living in the Gambetta/Belleville area likely didn’t frequent the Louvre, wear glamorous clothing or spend five euros on an espresso in an upscale café. And the best way for me to understand this place was to just experience the “life eddying ‘round me and streaming by” for a couple of hours with no plans other than to watch people.
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