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Before reading the article, be aware that I wrote a 200+ pages book about traveling as a black person. Click here for more info.
When you’re about to visit Paris, especially when it’s the first time, you usually already know what you want to see : the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées, the Sacré Coeur Basilica, Notre Dame de Paris… The basics! Those who already visited Paris go back to wander in various areas : le Marais, Belleville, the Seine… I recently found out that it’s possible to visit Paris from another angle : the history of black people in Paris. It’s called le Paris Noir!
What is le Paris noir
Le Paris noir was created by Kevi Donat. Originally, Kevi was doing “classic” walking tours in Paris, he started in 2011. Being black, fellow black tourists from the US were often asking him questions “Why are there so many black people in Paris? Where do they come from? How is it going for them?” He didn’t address the subject in his walking tours.
Facing the influx of questions about black history in Paris, he had the idea to host walking tours focused on black history in Paris. Those black walking tours are common in the US (especially during the black history month), but a lot less in France. Le Paris Noir was born in 2013!
With the black walking tours in Paris, Kevi allows tourists and locals to discover areas they never would have set foot in. We realize the history of black people in Paris is important, and we realize the impact black people had in the French capital. There are two visits, one in the rive droite (right bank) and one in the rive gauche (left bank).
Paris noir : visit to the rive droite
This visit starts in front of the Moulin Rouge. We’re having a stroll in Pigalle, Barbès and Château Rouge in the north of Paris. We learn about the années folles (the crazy years ie. the 1920s) in Pigalle, and Josephine Baker is a good representative of this era! At the time, negrophilia (love of the negro) was huge in Paris, the Parisians want to listen to jazz (even though they fetishize black people…).
Josephine was often performing at the Carrousel from 1926 to 1928. It was really hard to “make it” in the US for black people because of segregation. Therefore many of them were living in Pigalle, the Harlem of Paris. It was an area with a lot of diversity (it’s still the case to this day).
Still, she went back to the US a few times, for instance in 1963 to speak at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King. She died in 1975 and now rests in the Monaco cemetery (because she was Grace Kelly’s friend). Some people campaign to repatriate her in the Pantheon. In the meantime, there’s a place Joséphine Baker in Paris.
Obviously, our guide doesn’t just talk about Joséphine Baker during our visit. We learn about the writers, intellectuals and black artists who got things moving in Paris. I’m thinking about Langston Hughes, an American poet who lived in Pigalle. Or Henry Ossawa Taner who settled in France cause there was no legal segregation there, unlike in the US. Or Eugene Bullard, the first African-American military pilot. We also talk about Lamine Senghor, a Senegalese political activist.
Paris started importing the black American culture in 1917, when the American soldiers went to France to help French soldiers during World War I. The most famous regiment, consisted mainly of African Americans, was called the Harlem Hellfighters. Max Brooks released an interesting comic book explaining who they were. Click here to buy it.
After the war, the African Americans went home but they were suffering discrimination, especially from 1919 to 1921. Fleeing segregation, they went back to France and this is when numerous jazz clubs open in Paris, thanks to the negrophilia at the time.
At the time, the French government naturalized people easily (losing French nationality was also easy), so many foreigners settled in France, especially from 1927 to 1939. Although there was a rise of xenophobia in France, the African American artists were not really discriminated against.
Did you know the boulevard de Clichy was called the boulevard of the dead? Cause you could see numerous men lying on the ground following a settling a scores? Did you know the Americans used to call Pigalle pig alley because of what’s going on there (prostitution…)? Did you know Picasso liked the negro art, and there’s even a photo of him with negro art taken in 1906?
The visit ends in Château Rouge then Barbès. Two areas known for its working-class population, where people from North Africa and West Africa mingle. But the area changes, is becoming gentrified. The brasserie Barbès, a popular bar, is a symbol of this gentrification. Anyway, you’ll still find cheap markets, African hairdressers, street peddlers and sapologie stores.
The visit is really interesting and dynamic. We learn many things and Kevi, our guide, knows what he’s talking I couldn’t wait to take the other walking tour, in the rive gauche.
Paris noir : visit to the rive gauche
The visit to the rive gauche starts place du Panthéon. We’re having a stroll in the jardin du Luxembourg (the Luxembourg gardens) and in Saint Michel. We learn a lot about Alexandre Dumas, a famous French author who’s a carteron (3/4 white, 1/4 black) because his grandmother was black. This visit focuses a bit more on the intellectuals, artists and political figures from Africa, the Caribbean Islands and the US who lived in Paris.
Kevi talks about the history of Félix Eboué, born in Guyana and grandson of an ex-slave. He’s the first black French man appointed to a high post in the French colonies, when appointed as governor of Guadeloupe. He’s also the first black person to have his ashes placed at the Pantheon in 1949 (Dumas was transferred there in 2002). Aimé Césaire followed in 2011.
Then comes one of the highlights of our visit. We go to the abolition of slavery memorial in the jardin du Luxembourg. I didn’t even know there was one! In fact, it’s well hidden… In the 1790s, France was fighting against the whole world (the British, the Spanish, slaves too).
In 1794, France negotiates the abolition of slavery in exchange for the slaves to fight for France. Above all, Haiti had to pay for its independence from France. Between 1825 and 1950, Haiti paid the equivalent of 20 billion euros to France…
We learn about Victor Schoelcher, a white French man known for his work towards the abolition of slavery in France. He’s very famous in Martinique, but unknown in France. We also learn about Gaston Monnerville, a Guianian man who was president of the Senate for 20 years. Kevi also talks about Chester Himes, Richard Wright an of course James Baldwin. All of them were hanging out in this area.
The African American intellectuals were sometimes meeting up at the café Tournon, still open to this day. We also learn about the literary movement called négritude, initiated by Paulette Nardal, the first black woman to study at la Sorbonne, a famous French university.
Kevi, our guide, is clearly passionate about black history in Paris. He speaks with dynamism and humor. It’s not a walking tour for black people, but a walking tour about black people and the impact they had in Paris. We don’t bring up the subject at school and even less during more “classic” walking tours.
With le Paris noir, we quickly understand that the history of France is linked to Africa, slavery, colonization and the migratory flows. Even as a Parisian, I learned a lot about the city. Give it a try!
How to take a Paris noir walking tour
Head to their website by clicking here. You have to contact them via email, and they’ll give you the dates of the next walking tours.
When do the Paris Noir walking tours take place
The visits usually take place on the weekends, Saturdays and Sundays.
How long are the Paris Noir walking tours
Each visit lasts two hours.
How much is a Paris Noir walking tour
Each visit costs 20 euros.
In which language are the Paris noir walking tours
Visits are available in English and French. Indeed, many English speakers are interested by le Paris noir, but more and more Frenchies take the Paris noir walking tours!
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