James Baldwin in Paris

James Baldwin and Richard Wright

James Baldwin and Richard Wright
public domain (source: Library of Congress)

James Baldwin and Richard Wright were the two most famous African-American expatriates to have lived in Paris in the post-World War II era. Though they both critically examined social issues in the U.S. and abroad from France, their lives in the French capital were quite dissimilar. Wright was a central figure in the African-American community, in Paris, while Baldwin was peripheral to it. Wright achieved fame prior to moving to Paris while Baldwin did so afterward. Wright became increasingly cynical and embittered during his years in Paris, while Baldwin evolved as a writer and a man in embracing aspects of his nationality and sexuality that had eluded him in America. Moreover, while Wright maintained a self-imposed exile from the U.S. during the civil rights period, Baldwin returned home to experience firsthand those turbulent times and to chronicle them.

Baldwin moved to Paris in the winter of 1948 at the age of 24. Never swayed by the myth of a colorblind France that attracted many African-American expatriates of that time, his life and his writing were nonetheless profoundly influenced by his experiences there. His first acquaintances (besides Wright) were white American students and artists.  He had befriended African students and frequented Arab cafés before he enlarged his circle of African-American acquaintances.

To support himself and his New York family, Baldwin wrote essays invoking his encounters with these people.  He reworked his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), in the upper room of the Café de Flore – one of Paris’ most famous literary cafés. Further, he transformed the ground floor apartment of a French friend into the suffocating abode that he describes in Giovanni’s Room (1956).

Wright’s circle of friends overlapped little with Baldwin’s entourage. Baldwin’s friends included painter Beauford Delaney, composer Howard Swanson, dancer Bernard Hassell, and writer Ernest Charles “Dixie” Nimmo. Among their favorite nightspots were Gordon Heath’s L’Abbaye on rue Jacob and Inez Cavanaugh’s Chez Inez on rue Champollion.

Baldwin’s coverage of the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists for Encounter magazine in 1956 was a watershed moment in his career – it inspired him to return to the U.S. to contribute to the struggle for racial equality. He became a passionate spokesperson for the movement and brought this passion back to France, staging a march on the American Embassy in Paris in support of the March on Washington just one week prior to Dr. King’s historic event. He filled the void created by Richard Wright’s untimely demise, becoming the leading African American that the French press sought out for comment on racial issues around the world.

Though Baldwin was often critical of the French in his prose, he frequently depicted their land – and particularly their capital – in his fiction. Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962), and Just above My Head (1979), among other works, all feature Paris as a setting. These narratives are perhaps the best tribute that he left to the City of Light.

“James Baldwin in Paris” is an Entrée to Black Paris walk

Monique Y. Wells

Courtesy
Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

The First Skyscraper in Paris The Croulebarbe Tower

The Croulebarbe Tower

The Croulebarbe Tower
Photograph by www.DiscoverParis.net

In the 1950s, certain sections of a Parisian neighborhood called Croulebarbe, which lies near place d’Italie, were declared insalubrious. A city planner named Adrien Brelet set out to improve the area.

View of Tower from rue Abel Hovelbecque Photograph by www.DiscoverParis.net

View of Tower from rue Abel Hovelbecque
Photograph by www.DiscoverParis.net

One of Brelet’s ideas was to physically link two parallel streets—rue Abel Hovelbecque and rue Croulebarbe—that were separated by a railroad yard. He planned to build an esplanade that would arch over the yard from rue Hovelbecque and lead to a monumental staircase on the other side of the tracks. Then pedestrians could walk across the esplanade from rue Hovelbecque and descend the staircase onto rue Croulebarbe below.

Over time, the plan was altered, and at some point it was determined that a 23-story apartment building would be erected on the patch of land where the monumental staircase would have been built. Quickly dubbed “the first skyscraper in Paris,” the building would be the third tallest structure in the city after the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Though the idea for the staircase was abandoned, the idea for an esplanade arching over the railroad tracks was carried forward. When architect Edouard Albert was selected to design and build the skyscraper, he incorporated a public terrace two stories tall that cut through the seventh and eighth floors, believing that the esplanade would be constructed to lead to it.

Albert worked with engineer Jean L. Sarf, to perfect the technique of using hollow steel tubes for construction, and used it to build the new tower on rue Croulebarbe. Filled with concrete to provide resistance to fire and to dampen sound, the tubes formed a lightweight frame that could support a building from the outside, leaving its interior free of load-bearing walls. This allowed each floor to be partitioned according to the desires of the owner because the constraint of designing a floor plan to accommodate load-bearing walls had been removed.

View of rue Abel Hovelbecque from Tower Photograph by www.DiscoverParis.net The sky-blue iron fence can be seen across the railroad tracks.

View of rue Abel Hovelbecque from Tower
Photograph by www.DiscoverParis.net
The sky-blue iron fence can be seen across the railroad tracks.

Today, nineteen tubular columns standing 1.5 meters apart are visible on the longitudinal façades of the building, and twelve are visible on the lateral faces. At each story, the columns support reinforced-concrete floors that jut beyond the façade ever so slightly. When the windows of the building are closed, the lines created by the horizontal concrete slabs intersecting with those created by the vertical columns give the building the appearance of an elongated checkerboard. When the windows are open (they open outward), the building takes on the appearance of a giant Advent calendar.

Although the two-story terrace was built, the esplanade crossing the railroad yard never was. The municipal railroad authority objected to its construction and as if to signal permanent disapproval of the idea, built a solid sky-blue iron fence along rue Hovelbecque that obstructed the view of the railway yard.

Today, there is a magnificent view of Paris from the terrace of the skyscraper, but because the esplanade over the railroad yard was never built, the public does not have access. Even the residents of the tower have limited right of entry.

Edouard Albert

Courtesy
Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

Black Images in European Art

Black Images in European Art

Europeans have portrayed Africans and persons of African descent in their art since ancient times. Their depictions range from crude and stereotypical to sensitive and respectful, depending on the era during which the works were created, the circumstances that prevailed at the time the artist created each work, and the personal opinions of the artist regarding black people and their place in the world. Images of blacks in paintings and sculpture may be found in many of Paris’s finest museums if one only takes the time to look for them.

At the Louvre, the number of paintings that portray blacks is remarkable. Over 20 of them can be discovered during the Black Images in European Art tour organized by Discover Paris, beginning with depictions of the three wise men in numerous paintings called The Adoration of the Magi. It is fascinating to view the different ways in which the black King is portrayed from one painting to another. He often occupies a prominent position, and his coloring and facial features vary.

Adoration of the Magi - Peter Paul Rubens - Wikipedia public domain

Adoration of the Magi
Peter Paul Rubens
1626-1627 Oil on canvas
Louvre
Public Domain Wikipedia

Black men and women are frequently portrayed in scenes depicting or evoking Ancient Greece and “The Orient,” the latter of which for the French means North Africa and Egypt, as opposed to the Far East. Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus and Women of Algiers in their Apartment are but two examples.

The most extraordinary portrayal of a black woman in a painting at the Louvre is Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. A portrait of a servant brought to France by the artist’s brother-in-law, it was exhibited at the Salon of 1800. It captures quiet dignity and perhaps even sadness, in the face of the subject.

Across the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay is home to many magnificent works that portray blacks. My two favorites are L’Afrique by Eugène Delaplanche, a cast-iron sculpture that sits on the esplanade outside the museum, and Le Nègre de Soudan by Charles Cordier, a marble and onyx bust that sits in the nave on the ground floor inside the museum.

The woman that Delaplanche created to represent Mother Africa is nothing less than regal. Tall and proud she sits, and her gaze is steady and piercing. She was once gilded—we can only imagine the added splendor that this would have given to the sculpture!

Charles Cordier created Le Nègre de Soudan (and the accompanying bust of a female figure called La Capresse) at a time when Europeans had a keen interest in ethnology, the study of the division of mankind into races, origins, and characteristics. Cordier wanted to contribute to ethnology through his art. He was the only 19th century French sculptor to devote time and talent to representing human diversity. None of his works, including Le Nègre de Soudan and La Capresse, reveal a trace of caricature.

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Monique Y. Wells

Courtesy
Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

Champagne and Chocolate – An Uneasy Pairing

Marie Pours Ronseaux-Wanner Grand Cru 2005

Marie Pours Ronseaux-Wanner Grand Cru 2005
Photograph by www.DiscoverParis.net

Marie Gantois of Chocolats Mococha—our favorite chocolate shop on rue Mouffetard in Paris—is a never-ending source of inspiration when it comes to chocolate tasting. One of the events that she recently organized at her shop was a Champagne and chocolate tasting. Alexandre Billon, a wine merchant from the nearby shop La Fontaine aux Vins, supplied the Champagne.

Marie declared that the purpose of the tasting was to challenge the idea that Champagne doesn’t go well with chocolate.

Alexandre began by pouring a Ronseaux-Wanner Grand Cru 2005. He explained that the older the Champagne, the fewer bubbles it will have because the carbonation slowly escapes through the Champagne cork over time. Indeed, this grand cru did not have as much fizz as a younger Champagne. I found its taste quite bitter.

Although participants enjoyed the Champagne, Marie circulated with trays of different ganache (cream-filled) chocolates. We tried several with this wine, and I succeeded in determining that a fig-flavored ganache by Rémi Henry did indeed complement the Champagne. However, this was not because of the chocolate, but because of the fig—the sweetness of the fruit offset the bitterness of the Champagne.

Alexandre then poured a Robert Desbrosse 2006. I found it to be only mildly bitter, which to my mind gave it a better chance at harmonizing with chocolate. I thought that it went well with a peach-flavored ganache called Péché by Fabrice Gillotte, again because the chocolate was flavored with fruit, but it also went well with a bitter-sweet praline chocolate called Muscovado by the same producer. Together in the mouth, the Desbrosse and the Muscovado tasted like sweet, liquid chocolate.

The third Champagne was a Drappier Brut Nature, produced from 100% Pinot Noir grape. Its label indicated that it was zéro dosage, meaning that it did not receive a liqueur de dosage (a small quantity of cane sugar mixed with champagne) during its production. Dry and refreshing, it went well with Amandes “turbinées” (milk-chocolate coated almonds) by Fabrice Gillotte. I attributed this harmony to the flavor of the almonds, not to the flavor of the chocolate in which they were enrobed.

By the end of the event, while I enjoyed some fine Champagne and chocolate, I remained unconvinced that they complemented each other. The production of Champagne and chocolate is a complex process, and in my mind, they emerge as finished products that should be enjoyed on their own merits.

However, if one feels compelled to drink wine with chocolate, I recommend Banyuls, a fortified red wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France.

 

Tom Reeves
Discover Paris

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