France, an Idealized Haven for African Americans?

“There is more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America,” said writer Richard Wright in 1946. African Americans in search of tolerance have always found refuge in France, a country supposedly indifferent to race. But is this claim fact or fiction? That is the subject of a new American documentary, Myth of a Colorblind France, now available to stream online.
American novelist Jake Lamar in Paris, 2006. © Alan Govenar

Victor Séjour arrived in France in 1834 at the age of 17. In slavery-era America, it was customary for the elite Black classes in New Orleans to send their children to study in Paris. While there, the young man became friends with writer Alexandre Dumas, and was the first African American to find success in France. He left behind 23 plays in French and a short story, Le Mulâtre (The Mulatto), now considered a classic in abolitionist literature.

Author James Baldwin arrived a century later, driven out of America by racism and homophobia. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York,” he later remembered. “If I had stayed there, I would have gone under.” This was echoed by poet James Emanuel, who fled the United States in 1984 after his son was beaten by the police and committed suicide. “I came here knowing that I would be able to write […] without being bothered by the kind of thoughts that ruined my life in the United States,” he says in the documentary.

The reasons that led them to France are as diverse as their own personal stories, but the expatriates featured in Alan Govenar’s film all have one thing in common: They all enjoy a certain freedom in France – individual, creative, sexual, spiritual – that they would never have had in the United States. This sentiment is summed up in the first few seconds by New York actor and playwright Akin Babatunde: “Paris is a place where I belong. It’s a place where I feel at peace and at ease.”

The filmmaker showcases an impressive range of portraits and experiences from past and present, including Josephine Baker, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, who owned several cabarets in Pigalle during the Roaring Twenties, painters Lois Mailou Jones, Romare Bearden, and Beauford Delaney, director Thomas Allen Harris, and writer Jake Lamar, whose crime novels feature African American expats living in modern Paris. An “accumulation,” in Govenar’s words, which tells the story of Black Americans in France from the jazz age to the rise of hip hop.

France-Amérique: A filmmaker and a writer, your first interest was Texas history and African American music. What inspired you to focus your attention on Paris with this film?

Alan Govenar: I have been intrigued by the idea of Paris since I was 4 years old. My father had recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. I listened to them over and over again and I marveled at the Eiffel Tower emblazoned on the album’s label. The music influenced me as a writer and a filmmaker and made me want to go to France. My first time was in 1987 and I have been back every year since, until the pandemic in 2020. My musicals Blind Lemon Blues and Texas in Paris premiered at the Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris. I also directed documentaries in France and collaborated with the French channel Arte and with different museums. Around 2005, I was working with the Franco-American Museum at the Château de Blérancourt when I made a short film about African Americans in Paris. That was the seed that became this documentary, and I shot the last interview remotely last summer, shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests in Paris.

How did you connect with the many people interviewed in the film?

I met many of them through the French scholar Michel Fabre [who passed away in 2007]. We met at a conference at the University of Mississippi at Oxford in 1988 and quickly became friends. He devoted much of his professional career to writing about African Americans in France. He translated into French many of the classics of the Harlem Renaissance and was the biographer of Richard Wright and Chester Himes. He was significant in that he was able to convince the Sorbonne to develop an academic area for the study of African American culture, which had not existed prior to him.

Poet and scholar James Emanuel (left) and saxophonist Chansse Evans. © Alan Govenar
Barbara Chase-Riboud, a sculptor, a writer and the widow of French photographer Marc Riboud, in Paris, 2008. © Alan Govenar.
Historian Tyler Stovall in Dallas, 2019. © Screen grab from Myth of a Colorblind France, director of photography Robert Tullier

The issue of race in France is clearly a question that cannot be answered in 86 minutes. What did you try to achieve with this film?

The idea was to highlight African American voices in France, beginning with Sally Hemings, who traveled with Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century, to the present. I didn’t want to editorialize. The film questions the myth of France’s colorblindness, but the answer lies in the experience of each individual I interviewed. Myth is both truth and fiction. And as Tyler Stovall [the author of Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light] points out in the documentary, it is also a strategy. If you believe that you can be liberated from the racism of America by moving to Paris, then you have the chance to create a new life for yourself. If you look at the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner, who is the patriarch of the African American painters in France, the paintings he made in France were not about racism, but his faith. He was free to see himself not only as a Black American, but as an artist.

The scene when Karim Touré, a French musician of Senegalese origin, remembers being beaten by his white teacher is striking. Do you believe there is a double standard in the treatment of African Americans and French citizens of African descent?

Historically, there has been a double standard, and this double standard continues to be a problem today. African Americans who came to France are treated differently than people of African descent. France was a slaving nation, but slaves were never brought to French soil, and this legacy, combined with decolonization and the influx of Africans into France after the Algerian War, has had a profound impact. Karim Touré typifies the experience of many people of African descent in Paris. French society has remained highly stratified when it comes to race and culture. In the film, Tyler Stovall tells the story of when he came to France for the first time and was stopped and frisked by the police. Once he showed them his American passport, they left him alone. It made him aware of his different status.

Do you believe that France is, indeed, colorblind?

Historically, France has aspired to be colorblind. But the reality, unfortunately, is different. The myth of a colorblind France originated during World War I, and in the years since, this myth has been questioned and debated. In recent decades, French hip hop has challenged the myth of a colorblind France and confronted issues of racism and discrimination, especially waged by French police officials against young people of color. In 2020, protests in France were clearly aligned with Black Lives Matter, pointing up the need to address deep-seeded problems in French society, as we are struggling to come to terms with issues of racism and discrimination in the United States.

Myth of a Colorblind France
by Alan Govenar, streaming on Amazon, Apple TV, and iTunes.