Paris Noir

David Futrelle review the book "Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light" by Tyler Stovall.

Published December 5, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

It's a story as characteristically American as any Horatio Alger novel -- the poor immigrant who makes it big after arriving on distant shores. In "Paris Noir," Tyler Stovall writes about an inversion of the American myth of success: a group that had to leave the United States in order to make good. They were the African-American expatriates who made new lives for themselves in Paris.

During the first World War, nearly half a million African-American soldiers discovered a racial egalitarianism in France they'd never experienced at home. Quite a few never came back. While white writers like Hemingway spent the decade in Paris cafes and pecking away at literature, a generation of black musicians and performers -- most famously Josephine Baker -- took advantage of France's fascination with "primitivism" to carve out a kind of Harlem Renaissance East. Indeed, black jazz musicians were in such demand in Paris that some white musicians put on blackface in order to land gigs.

While most white expatriates returned to America when the Depression hit, their black counterparts stayed put; it took the Nazi occupation to finally jar them loose. After World War II, the whole process repeated itself. Although bebop musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie found enthusiastic audiences in Paris clubs, now it was the writers who set the tone -- among them Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes.

Stovall, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz, writes his book as an unabashed "success story." This works well with the most notable expatriates, but it leads him to neglect some of those who were anything but a success in France. Like the down-at-the-heels con men who (in the words of one observer) scurried from "cafe to snack bar to bistro seeking that action, whatever comes, that will snare them enough elusive francs for another meal, a bottle of wine, a thin wedge of insulation against the chill specter of a vagrancy arrest and deportation."

The Golden Age of the black expatriates was long over before its leading characters passed away -- Wright in 1960, Baker in 1975. Stovall tries valiantly to infuse the less-glamorous later years with some vitality, but the book itself loses steam in its latter third. Still, despite a slight excess of sentimentalism, "Paris Noir" presents an informed and elegant account of a community that stood astride two cultures without quite being part of either.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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