Entrée to Black Paris: African Americans in the City of Light
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If you can identify any of the personalities above, you are already on a path toward understanding African-American history in Paris. But there is much more to discover.
This exploration might first bring writers James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and the charismatic performer/activist Josephine Baker (and her pet cheetah) to mind.
These celebrated African Americans, who came to Paris to find a freedom that did not exist in the U.S., were well-known for their talent, articulation of racial injustice, and dedication to the ideal of equality.
Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly . . . I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both. — James Baldwin
I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee.
— Josephine Baker
Beyond Baldwin and Baker
Dr. Monique Wells — the co-founder of Entrée to Black Paris — wants to show us that the history of African-Americans in Paris is more than the story of musicians and writers.
It is about remembering the African-American troops that fought alongside the French in WWI, who were treated with respect by the French but were greeted with segregation, and even lynching, when they returned home to America.
It is also about some of the lesser known talents in Paris, like painters Beauford Delaney and Loïs Mailou Jones or Christiane Taubira, the first Black woman to run for president in France.
Monique’s tours — traditional walking tours and the more recent virtual tours that were pandemic-born — focus on the broader African-American and French-African experience in Paris. With these targeted walks, she brings physical traces and often-lost stories to light.
She and her husband Tom Reeves take visitors to several of the Paris treasures that are part of Black culture in Paris — the sculpture in the Luxembourg Gardens dedicated to France’s formerly enslaved people; the statue of the first Black president of the Senate, Gaston Monnerville; the Carpeaux Fountain near the Observatory, where women from four continents stand together; the Closerie de Lilas in Montparnasse where James Baldwin wrote part of Giovanni’s Room; the Hotel Odessa on rue Odessa where painter Beauford Delaney stayed; south Pigalle where the jazz clubs after WWII reached their heights and welcomed musicians like Louis Armstrong and Count Basie; and the colorful multicultural Château Rouge area of the 18th arrondissement, sometimes called “Little Africa.”
“The African-American presence is often hidden in plain sight,” Monique says. And so, it is part of her mission as a self-described change agent and steward of legacy, to share this history with Paris residents and visitors and to inspire important conversations about what it means to be a person of African descent.
A Personable Personality
Monique is an eloquent storyteller, making visitors feel as if they’re at the most interesting of dinner parties. She has a unique depth of knowledge, but will also freely admit when she doesn’t know the answer to a question. And you can bet, she will find that missing information quickly.
She presents information in a nonjudgmental way and then opens a space for the group to pause and reflect — to determine how they feel about these important times in history.
She remembers one moving moment at the memorial to the abolition of slavery in the Luxembourg Gardens when a group of students spontaneously joined hands and stood in silence.
The walking tours are of interest to visitors of color, but also to diverse study groups from the U.S. Monique believes this history should be equally interesting to everyone.
Her virtual tours are often presented to underserved communities in the U.S. who don’t have the means to travel abroad so that they can better understand the Black experience in Paris. Monique also hopes this will inspire travel to Paris in the future, whether virtually or in person when possible.
A Tribute to Painter Beauford Delaney
Monique’s particular passion is American abstract-expressionist artist Beauford Delaney. In her research about Delaney — a great friend of writer James Baldwin — she found that Delaney was buried in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Paris. And, as timely serendipity would have it, he was about to be exhumed because his gravesite rent had not been renewed.
Monique moved into organized overdrive — a common rhythm for her, although you would never guess because of her calm demeanor. She raised the funds to pay for his gravesite, and started a nonprofit — Les Amis de Beauford Delaney—to raise money for a headstone.
She continues her quest to give him the recognition he deserves as a talented and versatile artist, by taking the endless bureaucratic steps necessary to place memorial plaques on the facades of buildings that were a part of his life, by organizing exhibits of his work (most recently at Reid Hall of the Columbia Global Centers in Paris), and by working on a documentary of his life, entitled “So Splendid a Journey.” (We should all have such an advocate in our corner.)
Monique’s varied activities would make most people’s head spin. How does she do it?
She is passionate about what she does . . . and, oh yes, she doesn’t watch television.
Her organization — The Wells International Foundation — focuses on STEAM (science/technology/engineering/arts/mathematics), travel study abroad, women’s empowerment, and work in developing nations.
A Houston native, Monique began her professional life in the U.S. as a veterinary pathologist and toxicologist. Her journey has taken her far and wide, especially in her 29 years in France.
James Baldwin said, “Once you find yourself in another civilization, you are forced to examine your own.” Monique has brought the best of her past and present — America and France — together to make a difference in understanding Paris Black history.
In answer to the question of where her roots lie as a dual citizen of France and the U.S., she says she is very much an American. She is now just a different kind of American — one with French sensibilities. And clearly one with a vision.
To find out more about Entrée to Black Paris tours, newsletters, and other materials, visit the website.
Lead photo credit : Beauford Delaney, James Baldwin, and Josephine Baker © Carl Van Vechten/Public Domain/Creative Commons; Allan Warren, CC BY-SA 3.0; Rudolf Suroch/Public Domain/Wikipedia Commons
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