Wednesday, January 15, 2014

11 Months of African American History

February will be here in a few weeks, and events celebrating African American History Month will become ubiquitous. As mentioned before, on this blog, squeezing an entire culture into one month of events seems arbitrary and limiting, so this year, Evanston Public Library is taking a different, and somewhat radical approach.

You will not see a February Black History display. We will not have a list of African American History Month events. Instead, in March we are launching a series we're calling "11 Months of African American History". Rather than attempt to fit all of our  rich African American cultural offerings into 28 short days, we are committed to offering at least one African American themed event every month between March 2014 and January 2015.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Discovering Black Paris

Next Tuesday, we'll be discussing Passing Love, the story of an African American woman who discovers that her mother was part of the postwar generation of African Americans who sought equality and dignity in Paris when it was denied them at home. The story is fiction, but based on a very real cultural phenomenon, one that has been getting renewed attention recently. (Get in the mood with this bluesy evocative piece by Mighty Mo Rodgers, "Black Paris Blues".)

African Americans have been fleeing to Paris since the early 19th century, but it was after both the first and second world wars that black soldiers, (like Squire in the novel) who had been stationed in France, discovered  that French attitudes towards race were far more accepting, and that their home country was by contrast becoming even more intolerant. As Tyler Stovall, a history professor at the University of California Berkeley, examined in his exploration of Black American life in Paris, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, many Southern Whites “feared that glimpses of racial tolerance in France had spoiled Black soldiers” and would refuse to go back to the ways of subjugation".

Many of the greatest African American writers, artists, musicians and thinkers made their home in Paris in the early 20th century: Jack Johnson, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Sidney Bechet, Nina Simone, and most famously Josephine Baker. This cultural heritage is now the subject of college courses, blogs, and specialty travel sites such as Walking the Spirit, Entree to Black Paris, and Black Paris Tours, profiled here on  NPR: "Paris Has Been a Haven for African Americans Escaping Racism".
For more on African American life in Paris, past and present see:

"Blacks in Paris",  Ebony, July 19 2012. Highlights the musical influence of Paris on African Americans, from Josephine Baker through Jay-z and Kanye West.
Entree to Black Paris blog, link to article on African American  soldiers

Spirit of Black Paris blog, "My Top 30 Books on Black Paris and Beyond"

See you next Tuesday!