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Friday, March 26, 2010

Treatment of African-Americans and Africans in Paris (Part I)

When I came to Paris in December 2005, this was the subject of the class that I was taking while here. We took a look at how the African-Americans who came to Paris in the early 1900's lived here and how many were very successful in Paris. We also examined how black Africans were treated, many of whom came to France as a result of French colonization. Even though they possess similar skin color, the treatment by the French is vastly different for these two groups.

France prides itself on being a nation of equality. For example, the census does not ask about ethnic origin nor religious affiliation. Religion and politics do not mix, as it is rare when a politician brings his or her religious beliefs into their campaign. It is also said that there is not prejudice on the basis of the color of one's skin. This is what attracted many African-Americans to France, as many of the rights of which they were denied in the United States were attainable in France.

Many African-Americans were first introduced to Paris when fighting for the Americans during World War I. Many loved the fact that people were actually willing to invite them into their houses, that they were permitted to hang out at the same caf├ęs as everyone else, and that there didn't seem to be an aversion on the basis of the color of one's skin. Naturally, this proved attractive for these soldiers, and many began to ponder staying in France as a result.

Numerous African-American performers received attention in France that would be considered unimaginable at the time in the United States. Josephine Baker, born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, is considered a national icon in France. Until the age of 15, she scavenged for food in garbage cans on the streets of St. Louis. Once she began performing in New York, she was paid fairly well, but it wasn't until she moved to France that she obtained iconic status. As a result of her influence, after Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, she was approached by King's wife to lead the American Civil Rights Movement, though she declined so that she could look after her 12 (all adopted) children. She was the first American woman to receive full military honors in France at her funeral.

Josephine Baker, though an excellent example, is far from being the sole African-American to succeed in Paris. Eugene Bullard from Columbus, Georgia, though uneducated, opened a very successful night club in Montmartre, was the only black pilot who flew in World War I, and worked as a spy on the Germans on behalf of the French leading up to World War II. Other famous African-American writers and musicians who lived freely in Paris include Langston Hughes, Sidney Bechet, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. If I were to write about all of these men, this could become a very lengthy entry.

The artistic and personal liberty that these people received in the France was essentially the opposite of what they might receive in the United States. Once Bullard returned to the United States during the outbreak of World War II, he was unable to find a steady job, working as a perfume salesman, elevator operator, and other jobs that did not live up to his accomplishments on the other side of the Atlantic. He died in poverty in New York City in 1961. Baldwin, being both black and gay, was subjected to prejudice for two reasons whenever he returned to the U.S.

African-Americans also had another benefit when moving to France in that their skin color actually helped them, rather than provided a burden. Many Parisians, when meeting an African-American in Paris would assume that the person was an artist, writer, or performer of some sort. As Parisians have a profound respect for those involved in some form of artistic and/or creative expression, they were treated with the upmost respect.

Naturally, these reasons above provide enough justification for an African-American who would have liked to live freely in the early 1900's. Many African-Americans, including my former professor here in Paris, have commented on how racism does not seem to exist in France. Our second professor from my former class, as he is a Black African from Senegal, angrily refuted this claim, as he felt that he was treated with disrespect and suspicion in Paris on the basis of his skin color.

Next week I will continue with the second part of this entry, which will discuss the treatment of Black Africans in France.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at


  1. I have acquaintances who are traveling to Paris in a few weeks from the southern US. They are
    an interracial couple; he's white and she's black.
    In light of incidents such as Oprah's shut out at HERMES and Kanye West's being turned away at a Louis Vuitton show I would say racism is somewhat alive and well in fair Paris!
    How are interracial couples treated in Paris and how do the French "respond" when they see Africans and black American celebrities dating white women? lol. Paris is beginning to sound
    like the the American south of the 1950's, not
    the City of Light..... also heard Paris is
    VERY anti-Semetic....and so on...

    1. We don't like interracial couples, especially from the United States; given the history that whites have shown blacks in that country. We often ask how ANY black person can be with a white one. To us it is stupidity in its highest form.

  2. Thanks for the comment! There certainly still are some issues here with racism, but it seems to be a lot further along than the southern US in the 1950's.

    First, Oprah Winfrey arrived 15 minutes after the store closed. As she is not a household name here, the security guard just gave her a card and told her to come back the next day. I don't see this as a case of racial profiling. As this store deals with wealthy customers on a daily basis, they don't really feel the need to give anyone preferential treatment. The store was nonetheless apologetic in turning her down, as they didn't realize what an issue it would become.

    I'm not sure about the case with Kanye West. He was turned down certainly, but these fashion shows have people from all races and creeds present. So I can't really speculate on what happened, because honestly, I don't know. However, I do doubt that he was turned away because of the color of his skin.

    Interracial couples here seem more accepted here in France than they do in the U.S. I have several friends that are in interracial relationships, and I haven’t heard of them having issues with it. I think your friends coming over here will be pleasantly surprised. The one thing I recommend for ANYONE that is coming to visit France is to learn at least a few little words to get around, because people will be far more likely to help you and treat you with respect when you show that you are making a little effort with their culture. Even little words like bonjour and merci will get you far.

    In the past, there was a problem with anti-Semitism here. Actually dating back to the 1180's, when King Philippe Auguste forced the Jews out of the kingdom, there have been some issues. In the last year, there have been two films, La Rafle (The Round-Up) and Sarah's Key that have focused on the French role in the deportation of Jews, which is something that has really come into light only in the last few years. Former French President Jacques Chirac blasted the French for seemingly ignoring their complicity in the round-up of the Jews in France.

    But to say that Paris is very anti-Semitic today is somewhat unfounded. Paris has a thriving Jewish quarter, which happens to be what most Parisians consider one of the most desirable places to live in the whole city. There are numerous monuments in honor of the Jewish population (the Shoah and the Deportation Memorial, to name two) who were sent away in WWII. The above-mentioned films have instilled a sense of guilt that has led to classrooms in France using these films as rubrics to teach these events to their students.

    France was also among the first countries to pass a law making it illegal to deny the Holocaust.

    There was a lot of anger in Paris directed at Israel for what has happened in Gaza in the last couple of years, mainly because there is a large Arab population here, which could explain the perceived anti-Semitism...but believe me, no one wants to relive what happened in the 1940's. It is something that people here still live with in their memories today, even those who were not alive during the war.

    Nevertheless, to say that racism is extinct in Paris would be an understatement. Part II of this subject addresses this issue. If you have any questions regarding that article, feel free to ask.

    I suggest you come to Paris and see these things for yourself. If you have any more questions, don't hesitate to contact me. I appreciate your comments and thanks for reading.

  3. Although I don't know anyone in Paris, I plan to move there soon. I'm currently living in the South, North Carolina, recently quit my job and am just tired of the same old boxed in, routine boring life. I need to expand my horizons and my desire has always been to live abroad. Its time for me to live my life instead of trying to fit into a mold that's been dictated to me my whole life.

  4. Hello Anonymous,

    It's great to hear that you are thinking of moving abroad! It will do wonders to see a different way of life.

    One suggestion I might have is coming over to Paris just to visit before taking the plunge to move here. It is much easier to find work over here once you are on the ground in France. Not only that, it will give you an idea whether or not you want to settle here. If you end up not being a fan, then no big deal, you can just head back and try to come up with another plan.

    Thanks for writing and good luck!


    1. Do you happen to know certain types of jobs/careers that seem to be the most popular. I live in the U.S. and have experience in child care and B.A. in psych.

  5. I am a single male and I have visited Paris twice. I was in my mid 30's at the time and received more attention from men, than women. I was not offended; actually I was flattered. I 'm in my 40's now, and would like to reside in Paris. I saw a lot of Black (African-American)owned shops there and was pleasantly surprised. I really didn't look at the guidelines about residing there, yet, but strangely I'm at a point in my life where I am ready to travel abroad and live cheaply. I see that I am getting nowhere professionally here in the U.S., even though I have Master's degree in Management and currenly working on my MLIS. Maybe I can teach English there! I am ready to move on...

  6. Hello,

    Grat to hear you are interested in moving here! As you have already visited a couple of times, you might have an idea if you could be able to live here or not.

    English teachers are in high demand here, and it's probably one of the easiest ways to get a job here, especially if you don't speak French. I would sign up for a class to get your TEFL certification, and see what you can find!

    Not only that, as you do have a master's in management, it wouldn't hurt to see if there are some English speaking companies looking for people. There are several here. and are a couple of great places to look.

    Good luck and thanks for writing!


  7. This Black San Franciscan is ready to go/come there too, me and my kids. I will be a single mother, but I believe things will work out.

  8. Thanks for this informative article. I will have to look you up for tours when I return to Paris. I am not in love with the rich food of some Parisian food and usually go to Saint Preux, Paul, Le Bon Marche market,Galleries La Fayette etc for something simple but would love to explore a little. Black San Franciscan, do it! I am an AA woman and love it there and it will be the gateway to EVERY amazing place to visit by train, plane and automobile! I have been several times and feel so at home, safe and relaxed. We usually stayed out until 12am every night. I am going to be working on my French for subsequent visits but I love love love France and specifically Paris out of any other European cities. Yes, there are issues with race or religion but feeling like an "alien" in the US makes their issues refreshing. I feel France is very non committal to religion. In some areas race may matter but mostly nationality seemed more important. Italy was much harder on blacks and Africans in my opinion. So much to give your children by moving there....even if just for a few years. Get them involved in a sport. France loves their tennis do I! Look up soul travelers blog for info on living abroad with children. They lived in Spain for 5 years, now they are in China. I love Paris but also want to spend time on the coast of Spain. Good luck

  9. Hello!

    I've gone and done what I've dreamed of doing for years now: purchasing a one-way ticket to Paris!! I'll be arriving from New York in July of next year, presumably (but hopefully not!) by that time still seeking a job. Obviously, I'm interested in your many stories, particularly your success in finding gainful employment. Forgive me if my first query becomes tiring, but: how did you find the tour guide position?


  10. Hi Mark,

    Glad to hear you want to come to Paris! FInding a job is not as easy as it used to be in Paris, but there still are some ways. Perhaps the easiest way is to sign up for a French class at La Sorbonne for a few months. If the class is longer than 3 months, they will provide you with a visa, which will allow you to work as well (and as the class is only a few hours a day, you'll have time to work as well).

    Other than craigslist, here is another place you could look:

    The big issue is with getting a visa in Paris. What might be best is if you come over to Paris on an exploratory trip, as it is much easier to find work whilst in Paris as opposed to searching from abroad.

    Other than these places I mentioned, expat bars are a good place to look for work. Every now and then they don't need visa paperwork, though that is increasingly rare. But most won't even look at your application unless you are already in Paris. So once again, perhaps it is best to do an exploratory trip, or sign up for the class at the Sorbonne, where you will be provided with a visa.

    Hope this helps and thanks for writing!


  11. I'm 61 year old female who have been considering living in Paris. I am single and I am open to finding a friend, mate and even husband. What are my chances?

  12. You know, your chances might be better than one might think. First there are plenty of organizations for Americans living in Paris that can be found online. They hold social events and gatherings where you could probably meet someone in a similar situation.

    Second, social events, readings, gallery openings, etc. are held on a daily basis in Paris. Shakespeare and Co., for example, has frequent readings where some in the expat and even the French community gather.

    It wouldn't hurt to take a trip over here to get a feel for the city and see perhaps if you can envision yourself living here.

    As long as you are an outgoing person and can laugh off making mistakes in the language, then you should be fine in terms of finding a friend, or maybe more.

    Thanks for writing!


  13. I would love to explore life in Paris. I am a single African American gay woman who has 3 college age children. Over the next four years I plan to visit several times. My French is atrocious, but I plan on doing all I can to improve it. I hope to settle into become an author soon. What could I expect moving to Paris alone, no family, and being gay?

  14. Hello and thanks for writing! I'm glad that you are considering spending more time in Paris. In regards to coming to Paris alone, you more or less get out of it whatever you put in to it. There are always events and opportunities for meeting others here. Attending one of Jim Haynes' supper clubs would be a great place to start, as it is an easy place to meet new people here.

    The Parisians are as a whole very tolerant of homosexuals, so I do not think that should be an issue for you here.

    I hope that this helps! If you have any other questions, do not hesitate to ask. Practice your French and thanks again for writing!


  15. Hello,
    I am 23 years old and a single mother. Its just me and my daughter. For some time now I have had trouble with finding work in the us and its frustrating. Also, I would like to offer my little girl a more rich way of life (new language, culture ect) I have been doing some research and came across your blog. Any advice you can give regarding my decision would be greatly appreciated

  16. Good Morning,

    I am considering moving to France to experience living abroad and feed my passion for travel. I am working in a highly stressful job that I am tired of. The problem is that it pays well. I am not looking to capture that salary. I am looking for a balance of quality. What is the realistic cost of living? What does and average monthly budget look like for a family of 3.

  17. Hello there,

    Glad that you are considering moving to France!

    France can be a very expensive or a very reasonable place to live depending on your spending habits. Paris is the most expensive city here, and rent is perhaps only a little less expensive than much of NYC, London, Vancouver, etc. However, I noticed since living here that I pay less for groceries here than I did while living in the US.

    Salaries are generally less than what one might think. An average salary in France is somewhere around 1,800 Euros per month.

    I would say the biggest obstacle in your way is finding a job that would provide you a visa. If your company could provide a transfer if they have an overseas office here, then that could work. If you speak French fluently that would be a huge plus but it is not a requirement. Probably the easiest way to get a visa is to sign up for French classes at somewhere like La Sorbonne or Alliance Francaise. They provide visas and you can work a part time job (maximum 25 hours a week). But this would not be a long term solution. The website could be helpful for finding work.

    Hope this helps! Thanks for writing and good luck!


  18. John-Paul,

    Thank you. I am doing some research. I think I can live on less. In this case less is more...

  19. Hello,
    I am a caramel skinned African American woman that is wanting to move to France. I have visited numerous times( as we were stationed in Germany).I have been in love with the culture and way of life for years! I am a nurse and was wondering about finding out as much as I can about jobs, apaprtments and dating. Lenell

  20. I would love to visit Paris, France this year. I don't know French at all. I want to know what time of the year is really the best time to visit? What place is the best safest place to stay?

  21. I would love to live in Paris for a few to 6 months. What is required for that span of time?

  22. Since high school I had fascination about France. I have a MBA and I am currently working on a Doctrine in Business Management. Unfortunately in the US a MBA gets you raise, however, it doesn't help you obtain a job. I would eventually like to use my Doctrine to teach. After reading this blog and the responses I am motivated to visit France and find out if it would be a great fit for me or at least enjoy the experience.

  23. Since childhood, I have dreamed about living and working in Africa and France. In 2001, I was blessed with an opportunity to live and work in Malawi (Africa). I haven't been so lucky with France. I was about to give up until I read your story and some of the blogs on this website. It motivated me to keep trying. I have a Psychology degree and experienced in social services. In August 2013, I will be completing my training in culinary arts. When I am done, I would love to start my new career (Culinary Arts) in France. I would love to hear your thoughts on it and where I should start looking for culinary opportunities.

  24. I appreciate reading your blog. I'd like to purchase a home in Cognac if I can tear my husband away from California. It is good to hear from the Black American community in France.

  25. Are you fantasized about interracial dating? Do you want to have a partner from another race or ethnic group? If yes, then you have come to the right place.