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Exotic Paris Part I: African Roots

Africa’s influence in Paris comes from all sides, just as the African roots themselves are spread throughout the world, from South America and the US, to the West Indies and sub-Saharan Africa. This week I’m going to focus loosely on just two of these groups: African Americans and French Africans.

African American History

For many Americans, Paris brings to mind Jazz, Josephine Baker, and Langston Hughes. African Americans came to Paris not just to escape the racial segregation and problems of America, but also to revel and flourish in the arts and culture of Paris. Their contributions still inspire musicians, writers and artists of today. The Paris-Anglo Guide provides a bit of an introductory description of African American influences in Paris written by the same woman who gives the Walk the Spirit tours on Black American historical sites.

For those interested in some in depth background, there are some great articles about African American musicians, writers, and history in Paris. Considered an expert in the field, Tyler Stoval, author of Paris Noir : African Americans in the City of Light, has written an article worth reading titled Harlem-sur-Seine.

Entertainment and Dining

For a self-guided tour, Discover Paris! is an African-American owned company that creates customized itineraries and tours of African American history in Paris. Another group giving specialized tours is Noir Montmartre, a non-profit educational company, with tours by international jazz singer Electra Weston.

Don’t miss Josephine Baker, Music Hall et Paillettes, an exhibit to honor the Fabulous Josephine Baker, marking the 75th anniversary of Paris’ celebrated Revue Nègre. It features over 200 photographs, designs, illustrations, costumes and jewelry that once belonged to Josephne herself — Naomi Campbell serves as honorary sponsor of the show. Until February 28th at the Espace Drouot Montaigne, 15 avenue Montaigne.

Afterwards, book a table at the famous African American restaurant Haynes, on rue Clauzel. Founded in 1949 by Leroy Haynes, it was the first soul food restaurant in Europe, and the undisputed center of African American community life. There are still live performances, and the walls are covered in old photographs attesting to its great history.

One of the newest restaurants in Paris is called Bojangles, at 47 rue Rodier in the 9th, Metro Anvers. Opened by Chicago expatriate Sharon Morgan and film/stage star Bennie Luke (who also used to be the manager at Haynes), this soul food restaurant & bar has traditional African American favorites like southern fried chicken, grilled T-bone steak, fried pork chops and Caribbean style fried fish. There’s also, of course, live jazz.

French Africans in Paris

The most obvious African influences in Paris are French African/Caribbean, with large numbers of Blacks coming to France from former French colonies and current territories (such as Guadeloupe, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Martinique). If you’ve ever seen the term DOM/TOM in France, it’s the shortened way of classifying all of these French overseas departments and territories. Antilles is also a term frequently used referring to the French West Indies, and when I say French Africans, I’m also referring to these Blacks as well as the ones from the African continent. The history of the French Africans goes back hundreds of years, but it’s important to note, for Americans coming the first time, that the majority of the French Africans in Paris have French passports, but may have been born and raised in another country with different cultures and languages, and even a different French dialect. I want to make this clear, because it may make it easier to understand why the racial tensions in France are very different than those in the US. Africana.com has a wonderful article outlining this history of Blacks and racism in France, dispelling many myths that have endured over the decades.

For an overview guide to visiting the predominantly African community in Paris, read the Time Out Guide’s description of Montmartre and Pigalle.

Shopping and Entertainment

African art galleries in Paris are too many to list (try the Pariscope, at news kiosks every Wednesday). You can check out the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie at 293, avenue Daumesnil , Metro Porte Dorée in the 12th. The Musée Dapper newly reopened in November with the Exposition Arts d’Afrique through June 30th (free every last Wednesday of the month).

There are plenty of places in Paris to shop for African goods and find authentic African food. Check here [dead link] for over 60 restaurant addresses from many different African nationalities, but try to ignore how ugly the site is. If you read French, this site offers a few reviews of popular African restaurants.

Here are a few shopping recommendations from the great site, ParisAvenue.com, which is usually bilingual, but this article never made it into English:

CSAO: Compagnie du Sénégal et de l’Afrique de l’Ouest is a boutique, gallery and restaurant highlighting West African and Seneglese crafts and art at 1-3, rue Elzévir, Metro Saint-Paul. Fans of African music won’t want to miss Afric’ Music, a pioneer in the African and Antilles music scene. Open since 1976 at 3, rue des Plantes, Metro Mouton-Duvernet.

Senegalese Alioune Diop founded the Présence Africaine publishing company and book store for the Black community in 1947, whose reputation is still known around the world today. Drop in to the shop at 25 bis, rue des Ecoles, Métro Maubert-Mutualité, many of the books are also in English.

If you want to try your own hand at cooking African food, then get off at Metro Chateau Rouge in the 18th. Here you’ll find yourself in African Paris, with the Marché Dejean, and plenty of beauty and clothing boutiques. Also here, on 63 rue Doudeauville is the Congo supermarket Tout Kin, filled with everything from spices, dried fish and palm oil to African sprits and fried bananas.

The popular late-night music bar Cithea features ‘Re-Percussions’, the African drums and electronic music mix by DJ Claudio. L’Eurobar at 6, rue Victor Letalle (Metro Ménilmontant) has a dumb name, but is known for its live jazz, reggae, and 10ff beers. Jungle Montmartre at 32, rue Gabrielle (Metro Abbesses) is a restaurant upstairs with a club on the ground floor playing African music, reggae, hip hop (yeah, French Hip Hop) downstairs.

For more info on what’s going on, check out the Café de la Soul. This is the Black Paris portal, well-done, beautiful and full of great info, interviews, articles, reviews, events, dining/entertainment guide (Soul on the Seine), etc. Not updated since November, but don’t let that stop you – some people have very long vacations in France!

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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