In his new book, Sheffield-born writer Johny Pitts shows a side of Europe and its people that often goes unseen. A s the Eurostar pulled into the cavernous entrance of the Gare du Nord at dusk, I sat back for a moment and watched the same commuters I’d seen elegantly sipping their sauvignon blancs and café noirs just a moment ago lose their grace, awkwardly pushing, struggling with baggage and queueing up to dash out on to the platform. They had families to catch up with, friends to see, business to attend to and parties to schmooze at – the things I was about to opt out of for a few months.
Having no obligations should have been a pleasant feeling, I suppose, and yet, sitting there alone on the Eurostar, rain droplets on the windows disfiguring the platform beyond them, and west African cleaners as shadow-like as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man taking the place of those well-heeled commuters I’d just seen alight, I experienced the kind of trepidation people often have before setting out on a long journey. It suddenly struck me that what lay before me was an empty, disquieting expanse of loneliness and uncertainty. That I’d just entered a geographic landmass in which I would be a foreigner in every capacity. Was there really a cohesive idea of a black Europe I might find some sort of solidarity with? Everything suddenly struck me as an abstraction: who was “black”? What was “Europe”?
With a sense of foreboding pulling me back into my seat, I sat for a few minutes until I must have been the last passenger on the train, surrounded by the remnants left behind by my former travelling companions – empty crisp packets, mini bottles of wine rolling on their side and tables stained with coffee rings – and learned the lesson of slowing down in order to tap into a new big-city frequency. Various tempos reveal different realities, and very often Europe’s black workforce inhabits the liminal terrain I’d just experienced, as cleaners, taxi drivers, porters, security guards, ticket sellers and nightclub bouncers; they are there and not there. I knew of this world already, of course; I’d been part of it in the past but had never before thought of it as an invisible world through which white Europe blithely passes without ever really seeing.
I watched the two Senegalese men joke with one another in creolised French, making the most of the banality of tidying and preparing the carriage for what would likely be another set of mostly white commuters. This job was hardly enviable, and struck me as symbolic of a power dynamic between Africans and Europeans that hadn’t changed for centuries; whatever European countries like to suggest, black people were still cleaning white people’s toilets, changing their bedsheets, guarding their buildings and sweeping their floors. They were also being accused of “stealing” these jobs (which nobody wanted) while simultaneously managing, somehow, to live as lazy freeloaders. They could be both these things in the imagination, on news bulletins, in the right-leaning press, as long as nobody ever really acknowledged their existence in daily interactions, as long as their lives and humanity and work were all rendered invisible in the flesh.
La Bite, Paris. Photograph: Johny Pitts
As soon as I stepped down on to the platform, Paris presented itself as a city occupied by African communities in a way even I had never noticed on previous trips. I suppose, if I had been searching Europe for its pensioners, or its Chinese communities, the continent would appear full of those demographics, too. I knew that, apart from London, Paris had the largest black presence in Europe, but it struck me as overwhelmingly black, from station staff to the commuters passing through and on the Métro, as I voyaged beneath the north African quarter of Barbès-Rochechouart and the west African market hub of Château Rouge on Line 4, to my digs on Rue Caulaincourt. This was also a city that had its very own tours designed to celebrate this long, rich history, and I’d booked to be on one of them the day after I arrived, curious to see some commerce centred around black tourism.
After a terrible night full of anonymous snores and stinks (my first ever night in a hostel), I overslept and woke up groggy, worried I was going to be too late for the tour. In my email correspondence with the tour leader, Ricki Stevenson, however, Quote: : “We never leave anyone behind, so don’t worry if you’re running on French-people time.” When I finally arrived, 10 minutes late, at our meeting point, Brioche Dorée, a somewhat banal French cafe chain, I felt an eager curiosity about what I’d find. How many people would be taking the black Paris tour? Would they be black or white? What had brought them to it?
In the corner of the room sat a black man and woman, middle-aged and neatly dressed, obviously waiting for somebody. They were distinct from the many black French customers at the cafe and I knew they were African American from a mile away.
They were Jimmy and Niecy Brown, and Jimmy pronounced their names as though they were a business. He was miffed that Ricki, our guide, hadn’t yet shown up, and wary and defensive of me until he found out that my dad had been born and raised in Brooklyn. When I saw his frostiness thaw a little at the mention of this, I laid on my second-hand African Americanness thickly, not putting on an accent exactly but softening my “T”s a little and saying things like “So whadda you guys doing so far from ‘home’?”, implying that America was a psychic home we shared. I talked of the cook-outs we have at the Pitts family reunions every year in South Carolina. I was sort of mimicking the way I’d noticed my dad act when he was around other African Americans in the UK. Watching him, I’d always feel as though he was a member of a secret club that my mum and I didn’t have access to. My dad never tried to be overtly English, and still has his Brooklyn accent after four decades living in Sheffield, but something about his character would change when he met a fellow African American. He was mildly subdued, slightly secretive even, when he presented himself in interactions with Brits, black or white, but would suddenly come alive when speaking to a “brother”. That was one of the words he’d use, and he’d laugh and clown in a way that made me, with my Yorkshire accent, feel envious and flat.
Barbes Rochechouart, Paris. Photograph: Johny Pitts
Jimmy was boasting that he’d already seen half the world but had made this particular trip because he’d always promised Niecy he’d whisk her off to see Paris, a city that occupies a special place in the imagination of many African Americans. Just then two women walked – or, more accurately, sauntered – over. Though these women were both American, unlike Jimmy and Niecy they could have passed for French, one wearing a red woollen beret with a woollen jacket, the other in a crocheted hat and a yellow mac. One of these elegant women turned out to be our guide.
Right from the start, I could see that Jimmy was going to give Ricki a hard time. She introduced herself warmly: “Hi, I’m Ricki Stevenson, and I’m gonna go ahead and guess that you all are my group.” But Jimmy just scowled and said: “We were starting to think you might not show up.” The woman she was with, also African American, was called Clemence, worked at a publishing company in New York and was a trainee tea master. Both women were middle-class academics, and their knowledge seemed to clash with Jimmy’s, who would go on to dismiss almost all their observations with his own brand of experiential wisdom. He was keen to let us all know he had lived and that his education at the school of life was where the real knowledge was at.
We had to say why we were taking the tour, and I stumbled over my words, incoherently spurting out that I was thinking of writing a book about black Europe, which I regretted immediately, but at the mention of this the table came alive, saying how it was a great idea. Clemence asked if she could see a manuscript once it had been written (it was the first time I’d had the notion that my scruffy notebooks might one day form something called a “manuscript”). Jimmy said: “I’ve got some stories for your book”, and Ricki mentioned texts for research, such as Three Years in Europe by William Wells Brown (1852).
After our introductions, Ricki handed us all a sheet of paper with a list of names of black historical figures, then asked us to put a tick next to all the people we thought might have either lived in Paris or had a strong connection with the city. If I had played the game in earnest, I’d have ticked off maybe a third of the names, but I suspected it was a trick question and that everyone on the list should be ticked. I didn’t say so, because I didn’t want to spoil Ricki’s big reveal – that would be a job for Jimmy.
Coulaincourt, Paris. Photograph: Johny Pitts
“You pro’ly just gon’ tell us they all been here,” he said.
“And you’d be correct,” replied Ricki, unfazed by the smart alec of the group, and went on to tell us about Alexandre Dumas, who carved out a legendary space in the canon of French literature with world-famous novels such as The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844–5). Dumas’s West African grandmother, Marie-Cessette, had been an enslaved woman working on a plantation in Haiti in the late 1700s and was ultimately emancipated because of her physical beauty – bought for a “golden price” by Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a French nobleman. It’s unclear how complicit Marie-Cessette was in the love affair that would ensue with her “master”. On the one hand, when his finances started to wane, the marquis sold the four children he had with Marie-Cessette back into slavery, indicating that the power dynamic between white master and black slaves hadn’t shifted terribly. On the other hand, he did sell the children to a “mulatto” colonialist, perhaps in the hope of fairer treatment, and eventually bought back his only son, later sending him to Paris to attend a prestigious military school. This young boy was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who would go on to become a general in the French army and the highest-ranking black soldier in Europe’s history, and himself had a son who would become one of the most famous French novelists of all time, Alexandre Dumas. Alexandre Dumas’s son, also Alexandre, would go on to achieve a lauded place in French society as a playwright and novelist. Jean-Fernand Brierre, the Haitian poet and politician who contributed much to the Negritude movement, was a descendant of Marie-Cessette’s sister Rosette. This is the type of grand Afropean lineage you don’t often hear about.
As the tour group headed out along the Champs-Élysées, Ricki made not just contemporary blackness visible but lifted the veil of Europe to reveal black histories all over the city. Paris’s most famous avenue was no longer a place of high-end boutiques and suggestions of white European greatness but evocative of the 369th infantry regiment , also known as the Harlem Hellfighters (due to being comprised mostly of men of African American and Puerto Rican descent – who made up the cultural language of Harlem in the early 20th century). Stationed in France during the first world war, they fought bravely in the trenches, setting a record for the longest deployment of any unit, playing an instrumental role in several key battles and winning the French Croix de Guerre medal for bravery. Despite this acknowledgement, when the war was won, US government officials refused to allow them to join the 1919 Champs-Élysées victory march, a racist PR manoeuvre the Allies would later replicate at the end of the second world war with regard to black soldiers from the French colonies. The Hellfighters managed to leave a lasting legacy not just through their bravery but also through their music; under the direction of band leader James Reese Europe, they essentially introduced France to jazz and doo wop, an indelible mark no member of the government could erase.
‘This idea African Americans have about racism not existing in France is ridiculous because it does, in abundance’
When we arrived at the Arc de Triomphe, Ricki told us how the monument had been turned into a symbol of freedom and a place of pilgrimage by African American artists and intellectuals who had visited the city, from Frederick Douglass to Booker T Washington and Countee Cullen, ever since, said Ricki, “William Wells Brown climbed its stairs in 1849 and described how ‘you could look out on a city where you are finally free, even from bounty hunters and fugitive slave laws’”. This imagining of Paris still holds weight for many, and I saw it in the eyes of Jimmy when we were on the bus driving towards [the American novelist] Richard Wright’s former home in the suburb of Neuilly. He was looking wistfully out of the window at the coffee-coloured townhouses and the stylish Parisians filling the streets and found it hard to believe that anybody actually lived in such a place. The whole city was, for Jimmy, a film set, with even its homeless people appearing to him as something oddly picturesque – this wasn’t Skid Row in Los Angeles, it was Les Mis poverty, Roma women in headscarves begging beneath dramatic Napoleonic fountains and scattering pigeons. He turned to Ricki and asked if she liked it in Paris. Because everything he’d said so far had seemed loaded, Ricki was unsure where he was going with the question and asked him what he meant.
“Do. You. Like. It. Here?” he repeated pointedly, and Ricki told him that yes, of course she did, and wanted to know why he asked, and suddenly his facial expression became earnest.
“Because I do, too. I could live here, you know. I walk around the streets and it feels as though people don’t see me. In a good way, I mean. It’s like I ain’t black here, I’m just a human being.”
Rome. Johny Pitts’s research for Afropean took him all over Europe. Photograph: Johny Pitts
“Well, that’s because you’re an American, Jimmy,” said Ricki. “The Afro-French have a very different experience here than you or me. This idea African Americans have about racism not existing in France is ridiculous because it does, in abundance. Even if you look at some of the comparatively successful African Americans who came and lived in France – Baldwin, Wright, Baker and many others – you’ll notice that they all died alone, and often penniless.” Jimmy, though, was too busy admiring the view out of the bus window – he’d barely listened to a thing Ricki had said all day and, more and more, I found it hard to concentrate on the information Ricki was giving me because Jimmy had started to sort of take me under his wing. I would be taking two tours for the price of one: Ricki Stevenson’s tour of black Paris, and Jimmy Brown’s tour of his own life, a life that at least partly explained the romance of Europe held by black Americans.
Much like my dad and many of the people Ricki mentioned who managed to make a home in Europe, as a young man Jimmy had escaped a violently racist America for a Europe that perhaps exoticised African Americans but at least wasn’t lynching them. He left as a 17-year-old with the US navy’s submarine division in the 1960s, hating white people, he said. That’s when he found what he called his “promised land”. And the name of this utopia?
“Scotland. We were stationed in Holy Loch and what I loved about that place was that nobody was prejudged on race but instead on faith – it wasn’t about whether you were black or white, it was about being Protestant or Catholic. That’s when I realised it wasn’t white people who were my enemies, but American whites.”
We headed north towards Neuilly, an upmarket district and formerly the home and hangout spot of a number of black intellectuals from the 30s to the 60s, including James Baldwin and his sometime friend, mentor and, later, rival, Richard Wright. Just before entering the district, Ricki stopped us on a bridge overlooking a bypass. “See that stream of cars down there? That piece of road circles right around central Paris and is known as Le Périphérique . Everything outside the periphery is considered a suburb. We are about to enter one of the nice suburbs of Paris, but the French word for “suburb” usually has connotations of something much less quaint than in English – as you can see, there is a different world outside that romantic depiction of Paris on postcards.”
Ricki pointed towards a series of spooky white tower blocks standing ominously in the distance, illuminated by a low sun and shimmering in the hazy pollution like an otherworldly apparition. It really was another world. Ricki told us that some say the word for “suburb”, banlieue , comes from the words bannissement (“banishment”) and lieu (“place”). Banlieue: “place of banishment”. In the early 19th century, Paris was a city rampant with crime and disease so, funded largely by colonial riches from Africa, Napoleon III decided to clear the slums, commissioning city planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann to create a new Paris with better sewage systems and wider streets that could be patrolled and controlled, to replace the shady, revolution-friendly labyrinth the city had become. Aside from the newer streets being easier to police, the poor and unwanted were also driven further out of the centre of Paris because of the higher rents these new, luxurious townhouses commanded. It was the era that gave birth to the Paris the world knows and loves but, today, beyond the periphery, the “banished ones” still reside, now often immigrants from west and north Africa, as well as Roma travelling communities who are cut off from the centre of the city geographically and imaginatively. Napoleon and Haussmann may have pushed the poor out, but it was another legendary architect, Le Corbusier, who, in contrast to the extravagant Haussmann (and, in many ways, attempting to serve as an antithesis), created a template for the concrete tower blocks that are home to such social unrest today.
With a design principle called Unité d’habitation, Le Corbusier gave birth to a new architectural idea that would spread across France and the rest of the world like wildfire in the postwar years and, in essence, spawn the birth of what we now know as the projects, or council estates. Both Haussmann and Le Corbusier were ahead of their time and appear to have had good intentions, but between them they created a landscape perfect for breeding angst in poor communities. Through his luxurious housing ideals, Haussmann first pushed the poor out of the heart of the city, and then, with depressing austerity and modernist experimentation, Le Corbusier pushed them up into the sky, into faceless concrete cages sandwiched on top of one another, later left to fall into decay by the state.
Bern, Switzerland. Photograph: Johny Pitts
The area of the city Richard Wright and James Baldwin inhabited in the 40s and 50s was Haussmann’s Paris , and Neuilly, now among the most expensive districts in the city, was even then unobtainable for most of the Afro-French community. Walking down the main boulevard, through artisanal market stalls selling mouthwatering tapenades, cheeses and saucissons, kicking through autumn leaves that matched the warm, neutral hues of the buildings, then looking up at beautiful iron balconies jutting out from windows with wooden French shutters, it was easy to see what inspired this unashamedly gushing love letter. Wright, author of the polemical American classic Native Son (1940), wrote about his adoptive home in the 40s:
“Yes, the effect of Paris is deep! Paris does something to one and what it does is good – I love this, my adopted city. Naturally in such an atmosphere there is no race tension or conflict. Men are not prejudged here on the basis of their skin or nationality, and I have never heard a Frenchman tell anybody to ‘go back where you came from’. I have encountered among the French no social snobbery: men are accepted as individuals, the more individualistic a man is the more acceptable he is… The French are a civilised people and to live among them is a joy. ‘ Sois raisonnable’ – that is, ‘be reasonable’ – is their motto.”
Only a few days later I would find myself wandering around a banlieue where Wright’s words, the type that still so often inform African American ideas about Paris, tragically contradicted the modern-day reality for many of its black population. As informative as the tour of black Paris was – and I got the feeling Ricki was tailoring it to this particular group – the focus on stories of expats and the general feeling of African American exceptionalism began to frustrate me a little.
‘Welcome to Little Africa!’ said Ricki, as we alighted from another bus and finally immersed ourselves in some Afro-French culture rather than an expat American one. “Little Africa” was Ricki’s name for the neighbouring areas of Château Rouge and Barbès-Rochechouart, and we were greeted by a crowded and discombobulating street full of Senegalese, Cameroonian, Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan market stalls. The Haussmann buildings that cocooned it all were losing their battle to stay Parisian cliches, their facades and interiors reverse-colonised by African aesthetics. Senegalese women bartered for a better price at fruit stalls and old men gossiped on mismatched chairs planted on street corners as Arabic men entered a makeshift mosque. My African American friends were in a state of shock. “This is insane,” said Jimmy, about seven or eight times, and then: “It’s like we on 125th,” referring to the street in New York that runs through Harlem.
What struck me most was how out of place they all looked as African Americans, how frigid and conservative they suddenly appeared. Jimmy kept telling Niecy to watch her bag and Clemence was on edge, as though worried about touching anything and getting dirty. There was a nervous haughtiness about the way they held themselves. I, on the other hand, felt completely relaxed: Château Rouge wasn’t so different to Firth Park, where I grew up, or the part of Peckham I lived in in London. The stores in Château Rouge were fiercely independent, with beautiful DIY signage, fonts painted by hand, very slightly off-kilter, like old Coca-Cola logos on Haitian beach shacks. They sold oddments: outdated electronics, Ghanaian fabrics, mixtapes from Côte d’Ivoire, specific ingredients for African recipes and palates, and intricate haircuts. Château Rouge was brimming with treasure and junk – the backwash of second-hand one-offs from Africa and Europe, antiqued by journeys between the two.
Ricki told us we’d reached our last spot on the tour: her favourite Senegalese restaurant.
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Ricki had been a soldier. The tour had been a challenging one: Clemence turned her nose up at everything, Niecy didn’t seem to understand anything and Jimmy and I spent most of our time back from the group, him talking, me trying to make sure I memorised everything he was saying to write down later. I felt a bit sorry for her at the end of it all; even this big “Ta-dah!” at the end of a long day had turned sour. The food, I thought, was excellent, and as we ate we were serenaded by a man playing his kora (a harp-like west African instrument), but after a few spoonfuls Jimmy said: “I wanna get out of here,” and Clemence whispered to Niecy: “I bet the hygiene is poor.”
After the meal, we said our goodbyes and exchanged email addresses, promising to stay in touch, and there was suddenly an odd sense of camaraderie, or perhaps acknowledgement, the type you give someone when you know you’ve just experienced something with them that, for better or worse, you’ll remember for a long time. I was glad to have met Jimmy and Niecy Brown, Clemence with her beret, and elegant, knowledgeable Ricki, but I left the tour with no doubt in my mind that, despite my best impressions, and the blood in my veins, I would have to look beyond African America for answers about my situation as a black man in Europe and orient myself more confidently along an Afropean axis.
• Afropean: Notes from Black Europe is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Topics Books The Observer Race Europe Travel writing Society books Paris France extracts