The first time I wrote an essay about relocating from Harlem to Paris, I'd been living in France for all of 10 months. My newbie reflections concerning the City of Lights were based on less than a year's life experience in my adopted city. May 2010 will mark six years since I uprooted my hip-hop-media-centric lifestyle in New York City to the French capital and welcomed the wholly different trappings of fatherhood and marriage. Time tells the tale: My familiarity with African-American expatriates and French racial politics has grown far more nuanced as the '10s begin.
For a cosmopolitan city that tried to strike a post-racial stance before the term even existed, Paris still has plenty of black touchstones. My transcontinental trail was already famously blazed in the 1950s by some of my old literary idols, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes among them. Négritude, the 1930s literary arts movement, took its cue from the Harlem Renaissance, and the presence of black Americans in Montmartre, the so-called "Harlem of Paris." Nina Simone, Langston Hughes and Melvin Van Peebles also spent significant amounts of time soaking up la vie Parisienne in decades gone by. What I moved here wanting to know was, how does the modern-day hip-hop aesthetic influence the black French identity?
Local rap music couldn't teach me anything until I learned the language (a two-year process, eventually). Beyond appreciating their beats and lyrical flows, MCs like Abd al Malik, Sefyu and Diam's were indecipherable to me for a long time. Before measuring hip-hop's impact on France, I needed help getting the lay of the land. Chance encounters with several African Americans in Paris soon proved the vibrancy of the black ex-pat experience going into the 21st century. MC Mike Ladd, author Jake Lamar and soirée hostess Patricia Laplante-Collins gave me plenty of insight to satisfy my vision quest.
Opening a show for MC-poet Saul Williams (a Parisian transplant as of last year) back in 2005, Mike Ladd commanded the stage of Élysée Montmartre with his raucous blend of hip-hop and hard-core music. His satin baseball jacket told me serendipity was at work; this Boston-born MC was repping the Mustangs team of my old Bronx high school by sheer coincidence. I soon discovered that both our girlfriends were French, and pregnant. Our first sons would be born weeks apart.
Ladd left his Brooklyn enclave for Paris months before I did, to commit to his woman, escape the restrictive air of post-9/11 New York City and live out artistic fantasies of the American abroad. More commonalities then; our reasons for relocating to Europe were pretty much the same. My first exposure to the titre de séjour, the French residency card for non-European Union immigrants, came from Ladd years before I was issued my own 10-year permit.
Jake Lamar invited me to the home of 60-something Morehouse College graduate Tannie Stovall one Friday night, for a weekly gathering of black-male bonding. For years, this elder statesman (an expatriate since the 1970s) has been hosting African-American males-Parisians and out-of-towners-to his apartment for current-events barbershop talk accentuated with bottles of wine and sandwiches. Lamar and the Tannie Stovall events exposed me early on to how a long-term life in Paris might be.
Laplante-Collins founded Paris Soirées in 1994 as African-American Literary Soirées, settling into its current moniker in 1999. Held in her living room every Sunday, the weekly get-togethers feature a wide range of guest speakers. Writers, photographers, singers, painters and businessmen give spirited talks over the hostess' own Southern-style soul food. Like the famed French salon gatherings of writers Gertrude Stein and Madame de Sévigné, Laplante-Collins carries on the storied tradition of basking in the arts by rarified Parisian sunlight.
Raising two preschool-age boys in Paris has me constantly gauging France's racial politics with an eye toward America. Current neo-conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy once stoked controversy with a promise to clean the country of racaille (scum) during weeks-long rioting in 2005. (Nationwide civil unrest spread over the accidental electrocution of two Muslim teenagers who fled police interrogation in the suburban Clichy-sous-Bois projects.) Last year, Sarkozy also targeted the Islamic burqa-Muslim women's religious traditional covering-as unwelcome in France, stopping short (as yet) of passing prohibitive legislation against it.
While I visited Harlem for a family Thanksgiving in 2006, an all-too-familiar news report broke: Local police had murdered an unarmed black man, 23-year-old Sean Bell, in Queens on the night before his wedding day. Recounting the historical police victimization of other African Americans to my French wife, her horror served as a reminder that this type of thing went largely unheard of in her country. We are both appalled by Sarkozy's Muslim scapegoating, but thankful that police killings of blacks in cold blood on a semi-regular basis isn't part of the French social fabric. And the Gallic president has yet to extend his anti-immigration stance to American expatriates, no matter what our color.
I have learned that the comfortability of being black in France clearly depends on one's origins. Renewing my annual residence permit every summer (ultimately being granted a 10-year card in 2009), I always breezed through the préfecture office's heavily bureaucratic process while watching African immigrants be hassled over minute details. Following in the footsteps of Baldwin and Wright as a black American expat in the 21st century is one thing, but navigating French life with Algerian or Cameroonian roots is quite another.
Miles Marshall Lewis is an American expatriate author, living in Paris since 2004. He blogs at Furthermucker.