Sojourner Ahébée, Stanford University
Performance, Invisibility, & Survival in the City of Light
Poet, Langston Hughes, once wrote of Paris and said “ There you can be whatever you want. Totally yourself.” And Hughes’ love for Paris was certainly replicated in generations of Black-Americans who would, too, come to see Paris as a place where race did not dictate your life, your death, and the way people treated you.
With the recent emergence of African immigrants in the city, and the complicated colonial history that informs the relationship between Africa and France, the way Blackness is both perceived and received in the city has completely transformed itself. This relationship most certainly serves as an explanation for the racism many Africans face here. But, the big question is- does Paris still serve as a refuge for Black-Americans?
This summer, I was in Paris for over nine weeks working at a local nonprofit that focuses on Black history in Paris. As someone who has grown up in both French-speaking West Africa and America with an Ivoirien father and an American mother, Paris asks questions of my Blackness that complicates my relationship with it as a place of refuge. Most of my interactions with white, French citizens were problematic at best. For example, if I entered a place of business, the reception was often cold or hostile, and I attribute this to being falsely perceived as an African immigrant, or an Afro-French citizen. But, as soon as my American-accented French sprung from my mouth, the reception I received completely changed. There is a certain French fascination and obsession with American culture, so in many ways, Black-Americans continue to be well-received in Paris. But at what expense?
French culture is one that prioritizes assimilation rather than a healthy melting pot of identities and experiences. I think fashion was one of the first things I noticed in the city that reflected this priority. Generally, people here tend to be really well dressed, but I do not get a sense of individual style. As a Black-American woman, fashion is often an opportunity for me to resist invisibility in a world that attempts to unsee me. Fashion is about claiming a space and demanding your humanity. I find that French culture works to deny people -- especially marginalized groups -- their individual style. And after speaking with a few Afro-French women I met at various moments in my travels, they often told me that they were in awe of the sense of freedom Black women in London and in the States seem to wield.
But as I moved throughout the city I did discover one fascinating detail : Black women in Paris are starting to sport natural hairstyles in great numbers. I see this as a powerful reclaiming of Black, female humanity in Paris.
I think Paris -- and by extension French culture -- is also obsessed with drawing divisions between whole communities of people. It was hard for me to find a social space in Paris that was not highly segregated. The French café scene was my first real encounter with such a realization. After an evening spent at a local café with a fellow Black-American woman and artist, we quickly noticed that we were the only Black people there. This is not to say that Black folks in Paris do not participate in café culture. Certainly they have their own communities, and their own spaces to kick back and enjoy coffee. But it is glaringly obvious that there is something about dominant café culture in Paris that is not inclusive. I can recall one afternoon in particular. After a meal at a café, I needed to use the restroom, and ventured inside the café to find one. Upon entering, I walked towards the counter, and as I made eye contact with the waiter, he swiftly turned his back to me. I politely asked him where the restroom was located, but he assumed I had not eaten in the café and responded in a rude manner. His assumptions were certainly a result of my being Black. To him, I did not belong here.
The irony of my experiences in Parisian cafés lies in the history of the French café and the liberatory role it has played for many African-Americans who ventured to Paris over the ages. The French café was often the place in which many Black-American ex met with each other to share stories, to organize projects, and to exist without the burden that their racial identity created for them back home. It was a space where the Black mind could find repose and joy. But for me, I found little repose or joy in such venues.
My most stunning encounters with Paris have been the moments in which other Black women in the city were willing to love me, to save me. And is has also been the moments in which I was able to to do the same for them. Shoutout to the Black woman who allowed me to help her carry her baby’s strollers all those flights of stairs in the metro. Shout out to the Black women at the open mics who shared their stories with all the light in their mouths overflowing with truth. Shoutout to the Black woman at a local art exhibition who called me beautiful.
Being a Black woman in Paris is always a surreal experience. My very presence in the city demands that I navigate all the history, trauma, and joy Black women have known here. It means conjuring names like Sally Hemings and Sarah Baartman, but also names like Serena Williams and Denise King. In other words, it means carrying both power and violence against our bodies at the same time.
A poet I met while in Paris said, “as Black people in the diaspora, we are not historically native to a land, but we are native to our people.” So perhaps being a Black woman in Paris is less about expecting refuge from the city and more about finding refuge in other Black women. Yes, they are my people.
Read more of Sojourner's work at Sojourner Ahébée.