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Adieu, Utopia : Paris seemed a refuge from bias to African-Americans. Now rising ethnic tensions threaten the myth.

March 22, 1993|TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Twenty-five years ago, Tony Clarke hopped a plane bound for Paris with a one-way ticket, $40 in his pocket and romantic visions of a colorblind French society.

Like many African-Americans, he had come to seek his fortune in this European mecca that "Native Son" author Richard Wright had ecstatically described as "a place where your color is the least important thing about you."

"I was all into the fantasy of a liberal France, the Josephine Baker mythology that I grew up with," says Clarke, 46, referring to the black American singer and dancer who won international acclaim in the 1920s for her provocative performances at the renowned Folies Bergere cabaret. "I love being here--but the reality is, it is no racial utopia."

Clarke's fantasies were fueled by tales of African-American achievement in France as blacks in the United States battled discrimination on all fronts--on the job, in housing and in the classroom. From the days of slavery through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Paris provided a refuge for black Americans--musicians, dancers, writers and artists--seeking to realize their creative talents in exile. Among them were Baker, Wright, James Baldwin and Melvin Van Peebles.

But although many black Americans still feel that France is generally more racially tolerant than the United States, things are changing. A dramatic influx of West African immigrants, combined with high unemployment, has heightened racial tensions between blacks and whites. For the first time, black Americans in France are beginning to encounter the kind of discrimination that the French used to reserve for Arabs.

"Before, in the '60s and '70s, all of the racial prejudice in France was directed toward North Africans," says Barbara Chase Riboud, a sculptor and writer from Philadelphia who moved here in 1958. "But that changed when the immigrant population started to change."

Based on his experience, Clarke too is ambivalent about today's racial climate.

"I'm walking down the street one day with a white colleague after a business meeting when this white policeman jumps out and asks me for my papers," he says, sitting in a Parisian cafe where James Brown's song "I Feel Good" is playing in the background. "We're both in suits. He asks me what's in my bag and then starts going through it.

"He says he's looking for drugs. When he doesn't find any, he turns and walks back to the car, then yells back, 'Ce n'est pas racial' ('It's not racial')," says Clarke, a choreographer who has lived in Paris since 1967. "Yeah, right. It's not racial when I can see some white guys nearby smoking a doobie and you can smell it all the way over where we are."

Jeffery Smith, 38, a singer from New York, has a different story. Smith says he was never invited back to sing at a popular nightclub on St. Germain de Pres after he expressed his displeasure with a statue in blackface on a stairwell. The likeness was of a man with grotesquely swollen eyes and big lips, holding out a serving tray.

"I told the owner it was offensive, but he refused to remove it," says Smith.

Despite occasional incidents like these, American blacks frequently enjoy a degree of entree and privilege that local blacks don't.

"It's very different from the States in many respects," says Tannie Stovall, 55, a civil engineer with the Paris public works department. "Americans tend to group anything black together, whereas the French distinguish between blacks from Martinique and Guadeloupe, blacks from West Africa and blacks from the States. They don't lump everyone together into the same category."

Stovall, who left Atlanta 20 years ago for a teaching position at the University of Paris, says he does not experience the level of racial prejudice that he does back home.

"If I go to places I've never been to before, I get much better treatment in France than I do in the United States," he says. "When you go to Santa Monica and walk into a department store, you get the feeling that a lot of eyes are on you when there is no reason to think a 50-something-year-old man is going to shoplift some postcards. That kind of thing doesn't happen here."

Poet James A. Emanuel, 71, says living in Paris was the first time that he "did not have to be on guard for being black."

"Home is a place where you are always treated with affection, and I don't know any place like that other than right where I am sitting," the soft-spoken Nebraskan says as he sits in his apartment in Montparnasse. "I wouldn't say I would never go back to the States, but I can't think of one thing there that I can't get here."

And while black Americans have held a certain mystique for Paris, Paris has also held a certain mystique for black Americans.

Back in the '20s, poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and writer Claude McKay journeyed to the banks of the Seine. Later, after World War II, many black GIs disillusioned by the discrimination that awaited them back home chose to remain in France, marrying Frenchwomen.

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