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Julia Browne, historian and founder of the Walking the Spirit Tours

Julia Browne, historian, travel advisor and tour guide, takes us back to Paris as a meeting place for descendants of Africa scattered across the globe, and is the author of three profiles for SRPUnerased Pathfinders and Patriots. This conversation reveals her love affair with ‘The City of Lights.’ The natural progression was the Black Heritage in France Walking The Spirit – Black Paris & Beyond tours.


SRP:  What inspired you to launch Black Heritage in France Walking The Spirit Tours – Black Paris & Beyond?

JB: I had long been a Francophile and was inspired by the French language and culture from an early age. I was born in the north of England and my family emigrated to Canada on June 17, 1966 and then I moved to France in 1990 — actually on the birthday of Langston Hughes. I have a foot on both continents, but I’m also an instinctual person. I had taken a study year abroad in the south of France, and I stayed there for 18 months. I met someone in Aix-en-Provence, whom I eventually married.

Four years after I had been in Paris, I was taking a course at the Sorbonne with the late Professor Michel Fabre. He had written a guidebook on streets that were significant for African Americans in Paris. So, I took this guidebook and walked the streets.To my amazement and thrill I discovered that Langston Hughes had lived in my neighborhood. I walked over to his house and snuck up to the 6th floor where the guidebook said he lived in the garrett.   That I could trace the footsteps of these writers like James Baldwin, artists and musicians in one city, stand in the same place they had lived and created was a revelation to me.  For this child of West Indian parents, Paris spoke to me. It wasn’t just glittering and bright. It was a place that layers and layers Black history had occurred. It was personal and inspirational.  So I would tell my friends, Did you know that this happened here? And they asked me to take their family and friends around when they would come to town. It was amazing — exhilarating — that Black people had such deep roots outside of America.

SRP:  What led you to select the three women you profiled for Patriots and Pathfinders-Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Paulette Nardal and Ada Smith, aka Bricktop?

JB: Because the Centennial of the 19th Amendment is centered around the 1920s and the suffragist movement, I decided to look at women from that era. I immediately chose these three women because they had very different experiences that led to very different outcomes.

Prophet, a sculptor, had such a heartbreaking experience. She moved heaven and earth to get there, scraping together $380, plus dragging along a husband. It was hard even finding a place to live and work. In France emerging from World War I, times were hard. Expatriates supported by grants, patronage or family finances could make it, but for those without money, it was a  bleaker story. “Creating through hell” is the way she put it. She stayed 12 years, longer than any of the other Black ex-pats of that era. Her talent was finally recognized in Paris, which led to exhibitions in prestigious art shows that eventually led to recognition in the U.S. As a Black woman, that would never have happened in the United States.  Studying  Paris was the ticket that gave Black and all artists credibility.

When we talk about Black history in France,  African Americans are usually the initial focus. But France in the 1900s was a meeting place for the global Black Diaspora. Paulette Nardal led the charge to appreciate the diversity of that experience. She was the first Black person to study at the Sorbonne in 1920. She was very much an activist. Born to an upper-class family in Martinique, she spoke English and French. She could write about what was happening in the Caribbean literary circles when Caribbean writers started coming in in 1924 and 1925. She was the editor of the seminal Review Of The Black World that gave voice to all parts of the Black Diaspora, including the Harlem Renaissance. The review was vital to spreading  the message of Panafricanism further into Africa and the Caribbean. She helped launch the Negritude movement for which she received credit only well after the fact. Nardhal was extraordinarily influential and not just among the Black expatriates. She was one of seven sisters, and  with her sister Jeanne they created a literary salon that attracted the top writers, scholars, intellectuals, and artists. It was a woman’s search for power.

And I chose Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith  more popularly known as Bricktop because when people think of  the Black  presence in France in the 1920s, they think of entertainers.  African American entertainers were the public face of the Black world in France. Bricktop was already a well-known entertainer when she arrived. She eventually opened her own club that welcomed everyone — Black writers, entertainers and musicians as well as White artists and patrons. She was the center of the wheel in the glamorous and wealthy white community. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Gloria Swanson — they all buzzed around her. She was also a close friend of Eslanda Robeson, Paul Robeson’s wife. That was her gift–bringing people together. People talk about Josephine Baker, but Bricktop made it possible for all those worlds to meet on an equal footing.

These three women provide a perspective on what Black women were  accomplishing in the 1920s. When Nancy Prophet saw  African art for the first time, she found a deeper core  that resonated with her. When Eslanda Robeson‘s travels extended to Africa, those experiences shaped her view. All of these women were instrumental in advancing that conversation.

SRP:  What lessons/examples do they offer for Black artists and activists today?

JB:  For me, history is always a teacher. You look back and try to learn about what other people went through, their resolve and their obstacles. We’re living in a much different world. And so it puts today’s issues into perspective understanding that these struggles have been going on for a long time. Four years ago, the Musée du Quai Branly, which focuses on non-western art put on an exhibition on Black art and politics called the The Color Line – African American Artists and Segregation, sharing how  African Americans used art and music for activism since 1865. One of the things that surprised me  was the piece about Billie Holiday’s song, Strange Fruit. I hadn’t realized that the song was about lynching. I went home and looked up the history of that song. The museum recreated  the photographic exhibition curated by DuBois for the 1900 Paris Exposition  that displayed an affluent class of African Americans.  At the time, people were shocked to find out that all American Blacks weren’t impoverished. I was thrilled to see works by artists who I speak about on the tours, seeing their original pieces for the first time  – knowing that their sojourn in France had allowed them to gather steam then go on to create with a renewed skillset. I watched people around me absorb, lean into these messages delivered through art. They, too, were consciously learning from the historical context, digging into the subtle meanings. Being subversive but also being vocal is very important, then and now. There’s much value to studying where we come from, what we’ve done and the outcomes. And so much to guide us in hope and encouragement. The way the artists expressed their reality shows that there has been progress, things won’t always be like this moment we’re caught up in now. It’s not just marching in the streets, which is very important. But there are other ways to express that sentiment.

SRP:  How has the Black experience in Paris changed or remained the same since the era you wrote about for Patriots and Pathfinders?  

JB: Paris today, compared to a hundred years ago, is more visibly multiracial because of immigration. There is a wider cross-section people of African, Caribbean, and American origins. Those communities don’t necessarily come together as a monolith. They all have different cultural and historic relation experiences. In the 1960s men and women from the French overseas departments were brought to mainland France as labour force. Africans from the former colonies also came to work, joining the existing population of students. African Americans were considered American first (citizens of a mighty nation), then Black and that’s the same today.

There’s a European Black Lives Matter movement, but it’s not about the North American Black experience. This week, there are Black Lives Matter marches, but they’re not focused on George Floyd. They’re focused on police brutality and over-policing of their population .

The word Black community is problematic. In North America, we have our own container. In Europe, the community is different because it flows from many strands. France sees itself as a nation that is indivisible – the color, race, cultures of the individual disappears into the one-ness of the French nation.  “We are all the same; we are all French”. So when you bring up the ideas about a Black community in France, that’s considered divisive. That’s the idealistic view Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. First generation, second generation Black French toed the integration line. But not the younger generations.

France always saw itself as colorblind. When I started doing tours in the 1990s, recognizing that people of color were separate from others was not acknowledged. There is no census, no statistics on the country’s racial make up. We are all one in France. That’s all very convenient when France wins the World Cup with a team made up of 3/4 Afrodescendant players. But when those voices demand to be heard, they are shut down. A strong contingent of activists in various fields and scholars in their 30s and 40s updating the work of their teachers are inspiring Gen Z to forge their Black French identity. It’s fascinating to see how the world unfolds.

SRP: What about immigration in France?

JB: The migrants issue has forced reactions over the past 4 years. Countries are putting up walls faster than you can imagine, bringing on the louder voices anti-migrant feelings. Paris became a sanctuary city and it was disconcerting to see all the tent cities springing up, what was going to happen to them all. On the other hand, from what I read in the papers, the City scrambled but put in place services to house, feed and integrate refugees and asylum seekers who were of many ethnic groups.

What’s really exciting is the explosion of Black and multicultural entrepreneurship across the country: restaurants, fashion, services, technology, you name it. Paris has become a center for African fashion. We include the African district on our tour offerings, and visitors love it.   The pandemic has basically shut my overseas business down, but we expect to resume in 2021. As a travel advisor, I’m encouraging people to plan now to travel later and give themselves a year to prepare. We’re re-orienting so people can still travel locally or nearby – in Canada or the U.S. Travel in safe ways, there are heritage and mainstream fun to get out and visit. Tourism supports local economies. You learn something wherever you go. Why not just go out and see what’s all around you.

Join Julia Browne on a quick walking tour of James Baldwin’s Paris adventure here.

Julia Browne also collaborated with documentary filmmakers Joanne Burke and David Burke in the production of the award-winning film Paris Noir: African Americans In the City of Lights. Visit here for a glimpse of the film and more on Blacks in Paris below.

Paris Pathfinders

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, unsung Black sculptress, is the first of three-part tribute to Paris Pathfinders by Julia Browne.