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48 Things You Never Learned About Black People In Paris

Then and now, the history of black people in Paris is a rich one.

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- Paris has been historically known for the large number of black people from African immigration or who came from overseas territories.

- Even if statistics on ethnicity are not allowed in France, we know that about two-thirds of West Indians in mainland France settled in Île-de-France (2008 figures).

- Those from the Reunion island live mainly outside the Paris region. According to the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies, they have settled more widely across the land.

- In Paris, the Goutte d'Or neighborhood (Barbès, Château Rouge) has a large number of people of African descent.

- In 1996, many "undocumented," especially from Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania, occupied St. Bernard Church (in the heart of Goutte d'Or) for two months.

- The occupation was backed by many celebrities and political figures from the Left.

- On Aug. 23, 1996, French riot police carried out the evacuation of the church by breaking down its doors with an ax.

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Veteran Senegalese Tirailleurs.

- From 1914 to 1918, 170,000 men from West Africa fought in the French army in France and the Balkans.

- They are named the "Senegalese Tirailleurs" (tirailleur means rifleman) because it was in that country that the first Regiment of African Tirailleurs was formed in 1857, but the term actually refers to all black African soldiers who fought for France in the First and Second World Wars.

- The Senegalese Tirailleurs helped with the Liberation of Paris on Aug. 25, 1944 , but they have long been notably absent from the commemorations relating to the First and Second World Wars.

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Miles Davis in the '70s.

- If there is a city that has left its mark on African-Americans, that city is Paris. It was an American, W.E.B. Du Bois, who pioneered Pan-Africanism (a movement of solidarity and thought among the African peoples) whose first congress was held in Paris in 1919.

- In 1949, having been invited to the International Jazz Festival in Paris, Miles Davis fell in love with the city and started to hang out with the intellectuals from St. Germain des Prés, who had great admiration for him.

- In particular, he spent time with Boris Vian, an avid lover of jazz, who took Davis, along with Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, to the trendy bars in the sixth arrondissement of Paris with his friendsJean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Juliette Greco.

- It is Vian who would introduce Miles Davis to Juliette Greco, and they then ended up living a "passionate" relationship for several years.

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James Baldwin at Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the South of France in 1979.

- We can also mention James Baldwin, a great intellectual figure of the civil rights movement who settled in Paris after the war.

- His homosexuality would be one of the major topics in his novels.

- In describing his arrival at Paris, he would say: "I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. (...) When I arrived in Paris in 1948 I didn't know a word of French. (...) It wasn't so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn't know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York."

- It would be in Paris that he would find a way to live his homosexuality "freely" and to live off his art without that being a problem, until he was confronted with a stark racism, especially after the war in Algeria.

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Josephine Baker in the mid-1920s.

- Yet, the American who is the most Parisian is still Josephine Baker, born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, and who died in 1975 in Paris.

- She is regarded as the first black star in Paris and became an emblem of the Parisian music hall, thanks to La Revue Nègre, at once outrageous and groundbreaking.

- She who was called the "Black Venus" professed a deep love for Paris, in part because it didn't have segregation laws, unlike her home country.

- Even if she conquered the French capital with her talent and her extroversion, it was mainly through racist clichés she unwillingly spread. Adorned with bananas, wild dances, and lascivious poses, she played the part of the exotic woman.

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On the left, Josephine Baker in 1940, as a volunteer for the Resistance, and on the right, during a Franco-American gala at Versailles in 1973.

- In 1937, the star married a Frenchman and became a dual citizen.

- In 1939, when war broke out, she entered the Resistance as a spy in the French Intelligence and as second lieutenant in the Women's Air Force Corps, and then by hiding guerrillas in her Château des Milandes, in Périgord. Her involvement earned her five military medals.

- After the war, she became involved in the fight against racism by supporting Martin Luther King's movement for civil rights and Lica (which would become LICRA, the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism) in France.

- She then transformed the town of Milandes into a "world town and the capital of universal brotherhood" by settling there with 12 children from different countries and religions whom she had adopted.

- In recent years, many people bring up her name among the personalities who should be honored in the Pantheon, a secular monument that hosts the remains of important French people.

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- A comparison can be made with Rafael Padilla, "Chocolate, the Negro Clown," who met with a fate more tragic than that of Josephine Baker, and who was the first black artist in the French scene.

- On the billboards for 15 years, the sketches he acted in with his sidekick, Footit, had as premise the humiliations endured by the black clown, which brought laughter from the audience.

- After becoming famous, he died in complete obscurity in 1917 in Bordeaux.

- The story of Rafael Padilla was adapted for film by Roshdy Zem, with his role played by popular actor Omar Sy.

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Aimé Césaire

- The Pantheon is the one monument in Paris that holds a special place in colonial history.

- To date, the only black person who rests in the Pantheon is Felix Eboue, a colonial administrator involved in the Resistance during the Second World War and a French politician. He was buried on May 20, 1949.

- Also buried there are Alexandre Dumas, whose father was mixed race, though in France many people "don't know about his black ancestry."

- Other important personalities like Toussaint Louverture (father of Haitian independence) and Aimé Césaire (one of the founders of Négritude) are not burried there but have commemorative plaques to their name in the Pantheon.

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Léon-Gontran Damas: "The Black Student, a corporate journal about struggle, aimed to end tribalization, the clan system prevalent in the Latin quarter! We stopped being Martinician students, or Guadeloupean, Guyanese, African, or Malagasy, to be nothing other than single and united black students."

- The Negritude movement started in Paris, between the two world wars, based on the initiative of three young intellectuals who came together to create the journal, The Black Student. They were the Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Guyanese Léon Gontran Damas, and the Martinician Aimé Césaire.

- The word Negritude was created by Aimé Césaire, toward 1936. It was used in one of Léopold Sédar Senghor's first poems, "The Portrait."

- Césaire defined it thus: "Negritude is the simple acknowledgement of the fact of being black, and the acceptance of this fact, of our destiny of being black, of our history, and of our culture."

- They were inspired by the struggle of the African-Americans. Senghor, like Césaire, read a lot of the works of black American writers: W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay, whom they considered to be the true inventors of Negritude.

- In addition to a political and intellectual movement, it was above all a literary movement that launched black poetry in the '30s.

- The Negritude movement and its strong symbolism, which helped black people to recover pride and take their destiny into their own hands, is described in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, which is today the most read and translated work by Aimé Césaire in the world.

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- Among women, we may also mention Nardal Paulette, who was the first black woman to study at the Sorbonne, and also one of the instigators of the feminist movement in Martinique.

- With her sister Andrée, she organized a salon open to all, to discuss "the awakening of racial consciousness."

- Christiane Taubira was the first black woman to stand in the presidential elections in France and to become attorney general.

- In 1921, Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to earn an aviation pilot's license, and it was in Paris for two months that she learned the basics of piloting.

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- In recent years, a number of initiatives have made it possible to learn more about black history in the French capital through dedicated routes.

- The Black Paris, created by Kevi Donat, allows for a visit to the Left Bank and to the Right Bank. The first is devoted to historical black intellectual figures who shaped the capital city and the second, more contemporary, is dedicated to the African diaspora.

- Little Africa Paris, created by Jacqueline Ngo MPII, follows in the same line, bringing to the fore the history of the African presence in France, and especially in Paris.

To learn more:

- Black France by Pascal Blanchard

- "The Black Condition: Essay on a French Minority" by Pap Ndiaye

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