Black Girl in Paris.
Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood is a colorful literary jazz arrangement where the author's narrative improvisations transport the reader through the streets of Paris, deconstructing in their wake many fixed preconceived ideas about France and its influence on African American artists. The interest these virtuosos show for the city of lights is still undeniable in spite of, or due to, the present tumultuous situation between the United States and France. However, one must confront the image of a haven that is free of racism with other more paradoxical representations in order to gauge the full extent of the French influence for African American artists of the twentieth century.
Shay Youngblood is a talented novelist, playwright, poet, and author of short stories, born in 1959 in Columbus, Georgia. Readers and audiences have already profusely acclaimed her first novel, Soul Kiss (1997); her two plays, Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery: a Play (1994) Talking Bones: a Play; and her collection of stories, The Big Mama Stories (1989). She opens her second novel, Black Girl in Paris, with a list of the authors who gave the young Eden, her main protagonist, the impetus to move to what she perceives as her own Arcadian land, France: "James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera all had lived in Paris as if it had been part of their training for greatness" (1). Indeed, James Baldwin (1924-1987) went to France where he tried to escape racial injustice so that his writing became more prolific when he was abroad even though he lived in poverty there for eight years. As for Langston Hughes (1902-1967), he spent time in Mexico before living poorly in France. However, in spite of the hardships he had to face there, he enjoyed more freedom to reconnect with his homeland, weaving musical elements into his poetry and fiction and giving voice to his African American heritage. Similarly, Richard Wright (1908-1960) moved to Paris in 1946 and gained the privileges of French citizenship, but he never relinquished his American citizenship or ceased tackling the issue of race in the United States. Those three destinies mirror the paradox of the French experience for African American artists, something that has often been overlooked in idealized depictions of the land of the French general and political leader Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Montier de Lafayette (1757-1834).
Indeed, the Marquis de Lafayette's encounter with the slave James Armistead in 1781 marked the beginning of a never-ending connection between African Americans and French people. He hired James as a spy, after which he successfully requested that he be granted his freedom for his great service of the Patriot cause. On his return to France, the Marquis de Lafayette became a charter member of a society called The Friends of the Blacks. In the nineteenth century, slavery was still strong on one side of the Atlantic, whereas Europe acclaimed the writer Alexandre Dumas Jr. regardless of his Haitian roots. A century later, while the Reconstruction era (1865-1876) had failed to fulfill its promises and that heightened racial tensions led to many bloody riots in the United States, France appeared once more as a progressive place where African Americans could find shelter and recognition. At home, they faced merciless segregation and deathly altercations that followed one another with the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the Rosewood Riot 1923, the Belle-Isle (Detroit) Race Riot of 1943, the Watts Riots 1965, or the Detroit Riot of 1967. Conversely, Europe was more ready to acclaim the artistic or military value of African Americans, as exemplified by the experience of James Baldwin or Langston Hughes, but also by the acclaim that the French government gave to the "Harlem Hellfighters" during World War I. There, the 369th Infantry Regiment earned the Croix de Guerre for its outstanding actions in combat. As a consequence, it is no surprise that many African Americans revere France as the place where one can succeed regardless of racial belongings. Through a vibrant depiction of Eden's life, Black Girl in Paris offers the reader an opportunity to discover the French capital in a new light as it conjures up a disturbing though still intoxicating and inspiring fluid representation of the city. The American's topological exploration turns out to represent the quest of a poet in search of James Baldwin, her hero, but foremost of her own talent.
Eden, a young aspiring poet, a "mapmaker" (2), who wants to become the successor of Hughes and Baldwin, arrives in Paris in September 1986 only to have the decay and squalor of her surroundings becloud her illusions. The further she goes away from home, the more nostalgic she feels for the United States so that she increasingly seeks the company of her fellow compatriots, which reaches an apex at the home of the African American poet, Professor May Day. Indeed, his gatherings of diasporic blacks allow all the homesick artists to share their experiences. The protagonist's explorations of the meanders of Parisian streets as well as her professional and emotional instability image her internal journey to find her own poetic voice. Still feeling constrained in spite of the multiple encounters she makes, she goes to the South of France, in Vence, in another attempt to meet her mentor. This new travel, like her initial one, fails to fulfill its promises as she does not find Baldwin and works for another low-paid job where she is objectified as a model. Not satisfied, she finally goes back to Paris to find not only Baldwin, but prominently her artistic individual voice that had always been dormant in her, waiting to bloom, and another promising journey awaiting her. Throughout the narrative, Eden's love of music and her own lyrical thoughts and expression foreground her coming to voice. All along, the road to inspiration lies in her own soul in a novel that celebrates African American artists. It underlines how one needs to be far away from home to reconnect with the latter, asserting one's soul all the more powerfully.
Black Girl in Paris portrays, documents, and maps the life of the twenty-six-year-old African American poet throughout her journey in Paris: an adventure punctuated by joys, disillusions, and a chronic soundtrack of bombings and violence. The violence in the background strikingly contrasts with the idea of Paris as a haven for African American expatriates. Not only is terrorism ever-present in the novel, mirroring the Syrian terrorists attacks of 1986, but it also conflates with the hardships of Eden's everyday life as an artist's model, an au pair, a poet's helper, or even a thief when she has to survive without a job. Maps, lists, and tokens document her journey while the persons she encounters come to embody the chapters of her life in a novel dedicated to "the angels, the poets, the lovers, and the thieves." Even in the late twentieth century, James Baldwin still epitomizes for Eden, and probably for the author as well, the expatriate who writes hybrid musical texts from Europe about African American artists. In Black Girl in Paris, Eden follows the steps of her lyrical predecessors who only encountered success once they moved to France. It has been a long and tumultuous process for American society to acknowledge the artistic production and virtuosity of African Americans in music, literature or sculpture. The Jubilee singers indeed had to triumph first in Europe before American audiences begun praising their merits. Similarly, the famous classical singer Roland Hayes encountered a comparable experience, as DuBois virulently points to in "Criteria of Negro Art" and this phenomenon has happened again and again throughout the evolution of black music. The majority of American music critics acknowledge French influence, while African American novelists concur in this depiction as they move there to write more freely, but also as they anchor their fiction in European settings. As a consequence, France and the United States have been closely interconnected in African American artists' lives and productions from the intervention of the Marquis de Lafayette in the eighteenth century until present days.
In this stirring and engaging novel, Shay Youngblood inscribes herself in the genre of "books about the black artists' experience in Paris." As her main protagonist retraces the steps of her predecessors, the author writes with her soul in musical evocations as well as in the musicality and eclecticism of her melodious, rhythmic and sensual prose filled with rhymes, repetitions and musical echoes, embracing the Blues and the Jazz in the vein of Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin or Ishmael Reed. Lyrical and inventive is her style as love and music conflate both in the narrative voice and in Eden's life, guiding the latter through her physical wanderings, spiritual wonderings and romantic explorations.
University of Washington
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|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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