New York: Riverhead Books, 2000.
Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood is a colorful literary jazz arrangement where the author's narrative improvisations transport the reader through the streets of Paris, deconstructing in their wake many fixed preconceived ideas about France and its influence on African American artists. The interest these virtuosos show for the city of lights is still undeniable in spite of, or due to, the present tumultuous situation between the United States and France. However, one must confront the image of a haven that is free of racism with other more paradoxical representations in order to gauge the full extent of the French influence for African American artists of the twentieth century.
Shay Youngblood is a talented novelist, playwright, poet, and author of short stories, born in 1959 in Columbus, Georgia. Readers and audiences have already profusely acclaimed her first novel, Soul Kiss (1997); her two plays, Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery: a Play (1994) Talking Bones: a Play; and her collection of stories, The Big Mama Stories (1989). She opens her second novel, Black Girl in Paris, with a list of the authors who gave the young Eden, her main protagonist, the impetus to move to what she perceives as her own Arcadian land, France: "James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Gabriel García Márquez and Milan Kundera all had lived in Paris as if it had been part of their training for greatness" (1). Indeed, James Baldwin (1924-1987) went to France where he tried to escape racial injustice so that his writing became more prolific when he was abroad even though he lived in poverty there for eight years. As for Langston Hughes (1902-1967), he spent time in Mexico before living poorly in France. However, in spite of the hardships he had to face there, he enjoyed more freedom to reconnect with his homeland, weaving musical elements into his poetry and fiction and giving voice to his African American heritage. Similarly, Richard Wright (1908-1960) moved to Paris in 1946 and gained the privileges of French citizenship, but he never relinquished his American citizenship or ceased tackling the issue of race in the United States. Those three destinies mirror the paradox of the French experience for African American artists, something that has often been overlooked in idealized depictions of the land of the French general and political leader Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Montier de Lafayette (1757-1834).
Indeed, the Marquis de Lafayette's encounter with the slave James Armistead in 1781 marked the beginning of a never-ending connection between African Americans and French people. He hired James as a spy, after which he successfully requested that he be granted his freedom for his great service of the Patriot cause. On his return to France, the Marquis de Lafayette became a charter member of a society called The Friends of the Blacks. In the nineteenth century, slavery was still strong on one side of the Atlantic, whereas Europe acclaimed the writer Alexandre Dumas Jr. regardless of his Haitian roots. A century later, while the Reconstruction era (1865-1876) had failed to fulfill its promises and that heightened racial tensions led to many bloody riots in the United States, France appeared once more as a progressive place where African Americans could find shelter and recognition. At home, they faced merciless segregation and deathly altercations that followed one another with the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, the East St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the Rosewood Riot 1923, the Belle-Isle (Detroit) Race Riot of 1943, the Watts Riots 1965, or the Detroit Riot of 1967. Conversely, Europe was more ready to acclaim the artistic or military value of African Americans, as exemplified by the experience of James Baldwin or Langston Hughes, but also by the acclaim that the French government gave to the "Harlem Hellfighters" during World War I. …