Editor’s note: As the owner of Walking the Spirit walking tours, Julia Browne has been guiding travelers through the history of Black Paris since 1994. Here, she tells us the company’s origin story and why people are increasingly recognizing “Paris Jazz,” “Africa in Paris,” “Pioneers of the Left Bank,” and more as valuable world-history lessons to add to their itineraries.
I had moved to Paris in 1990, and I knew very little about Black history there. I was taking classes at the Sorbonne and my professor had founded the Center for Afro-American Studies and put out a book, A Street Guide to African Americans of Paris. I took this book and walked around the streets with it.
I knew about Langston Hughes from studying literature in school, but I discovered that he had lived just down the block from me. Paris became not just a city I chose to live in with my French husband, but there was something there for me, with my roots. I’m Canadian, born in Britain, but still Black—that is part of my heritage, too. With this book, I could see there was so much unknown heritage.
When I started out, I was the only guide for about 10 years or so. Then I hired other guides, people living in Paris, and trained them. Our clients want information, but to also connect with somebody who is of Black heritage. There are a lot of mixed cultures in Paris—maybe you are Black Caribbean or one parent is Polish and the other is African. What is the Black French experience?
I wish more people were more aware of the contribution of Black culture to France—not just African American, but the African culture, the African soldiers during the war, for example. Black heritage tours are still a small niche, something special, but that’s changing. I’m working with more travel agents and tour companies to put together programs, and more people are asking for it. Black heritage isn’t just African history, it’s world history. Think about how jazz has influenced the world, or African art, or literature—there has been a big focus on James Baldwin and his experience in Paris, and France was life changing for him.
In our “Black Images in the Louvre” tour, I think of Portrait of Madeleine [originally Portrait of a Negresse], by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. It’s a side view portrait, and she has one breast bared. The question is, what does that symbolize? It’s a woman from the very beginning of the 19th century and she’s not enslaved, but probably a freed woman, so she’s her own woman with her own status. The baring of the woman’s breast has symbolized liberty in other French paintings. Of all the paintings in the Louvre with Black people, she’s the only one seated on her own. There is a sense that she is regal but it tells a major story behind the scenes of a freed woman.
Nowadays, I would say Jacqueline Ngo Mpii [deserves a spotlight]. She’s doing wonderful work as the founder of Little Africa in Paris and brings so many members of the community together. They’re creating a physical space cultural center and concept store in the Goutte D’Or district, where people can meet and plug into the Black community. She also put out this book, City Guide: Africa in Paris, and is such a great resource.
There is more in the works: The city of Paris voted unanimously this month to create a new cultural space, the James Baldwin Mediatheque, in the 19th district, opening in 2023—it will pay homage to Baldwin, his values, and activism for human rights. The organization Collectif James Baldwin is also petitioning City Hall to have an Afro-Francophone Cultural Center created in Paris.
There’s a growing thirst and desire and acknowledgement of the perceived value—it has always been valuable—of Black heritage in French history.
Julia Browne is also the associate producer of Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, available for purchase and viewing here.
As told to AFAR Luxury Travel + Advisor editor Annie Fitzsimmons.
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