Eugene Bullard, the world’s first Black fighter pilot who was also awarded the Croix de Guerre, ran a series of successful Paris nightclubs in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Le Grand Duc where Langston Hughes worked as a busboy and where Ada Smith, the performer known as Bricktop, worked as a hostess who would later open her own celebrated nightclub. Following the Nazi occupation of France, Bullard returned to the United States and died penniless and unsung.
But even three decades before the war, the Philadelphia native Henry Ossawa Tanner moved to Paris and became an internationally acclaimed Black artist. His painting “The Raising of Lazarus,” won a medal in the 1897 Paris Salon, was purchased by the French government and once hung in the Musée D’Orsay. Tanner was made an honorary chevalier, or knighthood, of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, for his achievements.
For more than a century, many African Americans have marveled, as I do now, at the city’s warm reception and relative reprieve from racial hostility.
“I needed Paris,” the photographer Gordon Parks wrote in “Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography.” “It was a feast, a grand carnival of imagery, and immediately everything there seemed to offer sublimation to those inner desires that had for so long been hampered by racism back in America. For the first time in my life I was relaxing from tension and pressure.”
I, too, bask in this newfound status even as I’m saddened to acknowledge the extent to which African Americans are unaccustomed to and therefore covet what others might consider common courtesy. I am also reminded of the hazards of acceptance; how before George Floyd many white Americans seemed inured to the plight of Black people and the many unarmed Black boys and men too often killed in encounters with the police.
Now, what am I to make of this sudden role reversal in treatment as an African American in Paris? What is my responsibility to other Black and brown people whose experiences are markedly different from my own? W.E.B. Du Bois and other Black leaders were confronted with a similar conundrum when they gathered in Paris for the Pan-African Congress in 1919 and were advised to limit their criticism of the United States to lynchings and racial oppression so not to offend their host.
But history continually shows us that bigotry can only flourish when good people remain silent and look away. So even those of us who are spared the sting of prejudice in Paris must speak out when it injures others. We cannot become blind to the injustice we’ve long experienced at home.