An engaging chronicle of African-American life in Paris since the dawn of the Jazz Age. Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet,...


PARIS NOIR: African Americans in the City of Light

An engaging chronicle of African-American life in Paris since the dawn of the Jazz Age. Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Richard Wright, James Baldwin: Stovall (History/Univ. of Calif., Santa Cruz) tells his story primarily through mini-biographies of such figures and their confederates. He opens by contrasting painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had thrived in France for decades, isolated from fellow African-Americans, with the black soldiers who found Paris a revelation when they came over during WW I. Stovall describes how the freedom and respect afforded them in France inspired veterans and other African-Americans to emigrate. The French jazz craze attracted many musicians and entertainers, among them Baker, Bricktop (Ada Louise Smith), and Bechet. Stovall recounts the important Parisian sojurns of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and other Harlem Renaissance literary figures and painters. The Second World War forced African-Americans to flee but brought in its wake the cosmopolitan Paris of the 1950s, where Wright, Baldwin, Chester Himes, and many other American blacks thrived while African-American politics cross-pollinated with postcolonial movements. The civil rights movement in America, and France's bloody colonial war in Algeria, changed the equation for black expatriates, making the Parisian sojurn less attractive. Baker's death in 1975 marked the end of an era. But the Parisian African-American colony has persisted, encompassing latter-clay radicals like Eldridge Cleaver as well as professionals quietly making a living abroad. Stovall is at his best when synthesizing the stories of the expatriates to demonstrate that, despite their individual achievements, ""their most significant accomplishment was a collective one, the recreation of black American culture abroad."" Stovall's main fault is that he is too modest: His adroit, responsible handling of this saga licenses him to state more forcefully his conclusion that this ""flowering of black life free from the constraints of racism . . . has much to teach us in the United States.

Pub Date: Dec. 4, 1996


Page Count: 288

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1996

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