Historian Tyler Stovall on Montmartre

Tyler Stovall explains the African American community centered around Montmartre outside of Paris, a community filled with key players in black literature and music. Next: Watch and listen to Tyler Stovall recall the days of Bricktop’s.

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Tyler Stovall: Paris was a tremendous amount of fun in the 1920s. I mean, after all, this is the decade of the Lost Generation, of, you know, mostly white artists and writers who, you know, gave up everything to come to France and live the good life.

And so, African-Americans when they came to Paris – if they met other black Americans – they would be told generally, “Well, the only place where there really is a concentration of our people is in Montmartre. And that is because of the jazz clubs. So if you want to meet other black Americans, wait until the sun goes down and then go to these jazz clubs and stay there basically until the sun comes up.”

Ok, Montmartre was and is to this day a distinctive Parisian community. It was as early as the early 19th century a place where because it lay beyond the city walls, alcohol was cheaper there because it didn’t have to pay the tax to go into Paris itself. So there were lots of speakeasy- lots of speakeasies, and lots of bars and cafes there. So it had- by the time African-Americans came in there- came there in the 1920s it had a tradition of over- almost a century of being a place where one went to enjoy good times.

There were tales of a so-called shoeshine boy, an African-American man who worked with the American Express outside Paris, who whenever he met African-Americans coming through would tell them – “Go up to Montmartre. That’s where our people are.”

Ok, these writers- people- the writers that came from America. Writers like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay – basically the cream of the crop of the Harlem Renaissance who came during the 1920s were attracted to Paris for several reasons. They were attracted because of its literary prominence, above all. They were attracted by the fact that it was one of the greatest cities in Europe. And increasingly, they were attracted by the fact that so many of their colleagues also seemed to be coming to Paris in the summer.

So, they did represent something different. And yet at the same time, there was a strand of the writing of Harlem Renaissance writers – and you find this especially in Claude McKay – that celebrated a certain kind of primitivism. Claude McKay writes his groundbreaking novel Banjo – actually it’s set in Marseilles in the late 1920s – and it really celebrates the primitive, the idea of the non-intellectual. And it’s full of contradictions, of course, because it’s written by an intellectual. And it includes a self-portrait of Claude McKay as one of the primary characters.

Josephine Baker also falls into the whole primitivist narrative. In fact, there’s an interesting little piece by a woman named Paulette Nardal. Paulette Nardal was one of the famous Nardal sisters who really helped create the Negritude movement and brought together African-American, African and Caribbean writers. And at one point she called- she wrote an essay called Exotic Puppets, which was basically a hatchet job on Josephine Baker. And she talked about this little half case from St. Louis shaking her butt on the Paris stage.