We nestle together in the corner of a quaint French cafe as our guest speaker/tour guide leads us in an orientation of friendly banter and eager smiles. Beige, tan, mahogany, ebony, and a myriad of other brown skin tones weave in and out of chairs, booths, and tables as we sit in crisp attentiveness, hanging on every word. This is the Ricki Stevenson Black Paris Tour, and we are on our way to diving into a pool of Black history in Paris.
This tour is just what we needed since, as I shared before, my travel bestie and I could not seem to find “us” in the landscape of Paris. Or Versaille. Or Fontainebleau.
Though we marveled at the beautiful Mona Lisa and gazed in awe at the peak of the city from the prominent Eiffel Tour, nowhere could we seem to glimpse the Black folks whose presence enhanced the City of Love.
But here, we are being told the age-old story of Parisians who worshiped a Black goddess that ruled the waters. Back then, ancient Parisians wondered how Africans were so strong and powerful and figured it must be due to their gods, so they tried their hand at polytheism. They would eventually transpose this water deity into Mary, the mother of Christ, but the impact of African culture had already made its reveal.
In most history tales and books, the story of African descendants is quietly erased, probably because those in power were intimidated by this people group whose history scales the heights of 200,000 years ago when the first human remains were discovered in East Africa.
We find out just how intimidated those in power were when we visit the Arc de Triomphe and learn of Napoleon the Great’s rivalry with Creole general Thomas Alexandre Dumas. General Dumas was the first person of color to become general-in-chief of a French army. Born into slavery, he was freed when his father, a French nobleman, whisked him off to France to be educated. So victorious was his military career that Napoleon 1 esteemed him as the “Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol,” after a hero who had saved Rome.
So much was Napoleon’s envy of General Dumas that he set out to defeat him in his attempted conquest of Europe. Though my bestie and I had already visited the Arc de Triomphe once, we had no idea that the names stamped on its insides were names of those Napoleon had defeated.
While our guide explains the story of General Dumas, we lift our eyes to read his name written in stone next to many others while taking a sharp intake of breath. He was literally engraved in history.
But with the general’s death did not die his legacy. He had a son, Alexandre Dumas, who became a well-known author in France.
Alexandre Dumas, the author, and playwright, was not known to me by name, but I surely had been acquainted with some of his works, such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. So impactful was he with his writing that his novels had been created into two hundred films! Talk about greatness. My heart was warmed with pride to hear how Black folks had been honored and esteemed in France in a way they had not in the U.S.
As the tour continued, we discovered other notable men and women, such as Bessie Coleman, the first Black female pilot who obtained her flight license in Paris because the U.S. did not allow people of color, or women, this opportunity. Jean Baptiste du Sable, the founder of Chicago, Illinois. Eugene Bullard, one of the first Black military pilots in WWI. Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr., and so many more had their impact or roots in Paris.
But the tour suddenly slowed, paying ample attention and homage to the Black Venus herself. The one and only Josephine Baker. Wooed by her good looks and talents, Ms. Baker swept Paris off its feet and took the city by storm with her unique style of dance. Suddenly, Parisians were donning her inspired ensembles and rocking name-brand attire with her name as the logo. What 25-year-old Black female millionaire was there who had existed at this time? Outside of Madame CJ Walker, she was it. As my bestie so adequately put it, Ms. Baker was our Beyonce.
We had the luxury of visiting the Church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, where Josephine’s funeral was held. This is also the storehouse for the actual bone that belonged to Saint Marie Madeleine herself!
We grazed the historical halls of this legendary monument and beheld the voices of angels that sailed from the choir practicing in the nave. We were truly close to heaven.
Though my tummy was ravished and the heat was blasting, we endured. Our guide was supremely knowledgeable, and I’m sure had spent the better part of her life engulfed in the history she was gushing out. We were learning from the best. And we were learning the truth. She did not sugarcoat a thing. Not even when comparing how great Black Americans were treated, being able to fight in the French army after being rejected by the American’s and yet still facing their own bouts with racism towards Black French people.
But for that discussion, I’ll have to do another blog post. So stay tuned for part three…
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