Paris Noir

By Vickers, Robert J. | Black Issues in Higher Education, March 27, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Paris Noir

Vickers, Robert J., Black Issues in Higher Education

Study abroad program explores historical, cultural, intellectual connections between African Americans and the "City of Lights"

Over the course of American history, Paris has stood out as an intriguing place for African Americans. Josephine Baker renounced American racism along with her citizenship in favor of the more accepting French capital and - while performing as a burlesque entertainer - served as a spy for the French resistance during World War II.

And all through the Harlem Renaissance, countless Black artists and intellectuals temporarily escaped American racism, or permanently relocated there. W.E.B. Du Bois and Langsten Hughes both wrote about their experiences in the city. Other authors and poets such as Jessie Fauset and Countee Cullen used the city as a setting for their prose.

Despite these consistent linkages, little academic study has focused on this connection. That changed dramatically two years ago when Dr. Janis A. Mayes, an African American studies professor at Syracuse University, was asked to create a summer study program in Paris to highlight and explore the historical, cultural and intellectual connections between African Americans and the "City of Lights."

The product was Paris Noir, a six-credit program open to undergraduate and graduate students. The subtitle of the program promotes a study of "literature, art and contemporary life in Diaspora," but that's just the beginning.

"I conceptualize it with a kind of jazz structure," Mayes says. "This way, students with a variety of academic interests can look at the concept of Paris Noir from their own academic interests."

During the five-week program, approximately 15 students, who are housed at an "apartment hotel," meet at the famous Cafe de Flore, visit the Louvre and other renowned museums, and attend lectures by artists, intellectuals and African American expatriates.

Students have met and talked with singer Nina Simone, jazz musician Archie Shepp, sculptor and author Barbara Chase-Riboud and poet Sonia Sanchez, Mayes says.

"They meet everyone there is to meet in Paris who are doing things in a lot of different communities," she says. "The students are not tourists. They become immersed in Paris' culture."

Mayes' expertise in African Americans' connection to Paris was nurtured as an undergraduate studying French literature at historically Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. It blossomed at Brown University during her master's and doctoral studies, and took flight with additional study at the celebrated University of Paris-Sorbonne.

After arriving at Syracuse in the 1980s, Mayes spent much of her time teaching subjects that invariably linked African American and women's studies, French and literature. Eventually it all came together in a course she created studying Black Paris, she says.

It was just a matter of time before word of her niche made its way around campus.

"The spring after I taught the course, I was contacted by someone from the university's (international studies office), who asked me to do a summer abroad program like the course," Mayes says.

Early on, the program focused on African Americans from the 18th century, but it has evolved to look at Blacks from all over the world, their influence on Paris and the influence of Paris on them.

"I realized that even though we are talking about African American life, literature and art, it's all interrelated with Africa and the Caribbean," Mayes says.

And even though the program is just entering its third year, it is having an impact on not only the students, but Paris as well.

"The Paris museums had never given tours and lectures from the perspective that I was asking," Mayes says. "Now they have people at the Picasso and the Louvre and other museums who are developing this specialty."

The museum experience was particularly moving for Alicia Hines, a 20-year-old Syracuse senior who enrolled in the program in 2002.

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