I’m not sure when I started thinking about leading a study travel trip to France; I only know that I really started thinking about when I was on the job market following my graduation in 2014. In some of my cover letters, if I discussed study travel trips, I would always mention my desire construct a course on African American expatriate writers in France. This year I’m finally getting the opportunity to teach that course. I’ve written, previously, about the syllabus for the “Black Expatriate Writers in France” course, and today I just want to take some time and walk through why I’ve always wanted to teach this course, my construction of the course, and why I’m excited about the opportunities that this course provides for students.

Looking back, I think that my interest in teaching this course arose during my PhD program when I had to show competency in a foreign language by translating a journal article and writing about it. Being in South Louisiana, and working on African American literature, my professor chose an article on Victor Séjour and Armand Lanusse’s Les Cenelles, an edited collection of Black poets in New Orleans. Being from Louisiana, I had always known about the French influence on the state, but reading about Séjour’s work, specifically his short story “Le Mulâtre,” and Les Cenelles, led me to thinking about the connections between the gen des couleur libres and the specific connections between Louisiana and French literature and art.

St. Paul de Vence, France

Along with learning about these connections, which occurred in the early to mid nineteenth century, I knew about Richard Wright and James Baldwin moving to France, but I did not, at that time, know about the full picture of France within the Black literary and intellectual imagination from Séjour and those in New Orleans through Wright and Baldwin and beyond. Over the years I learned about Chester Himes’ expatriating to France and about Frank Yerby moving to France in the 1950s for a few years then settling in Spain. I learned about novels set in Paris or partly in Paris such as John A Williams’ The Man Who Cried I Am. The more I learned, the more I wanted to teach this course.

When I was thinking about the construction of “Black Expatriate Writers in France,” I thought about where I wanted to take students for the class. We could go to Paris, of course, and there are plenty of writers and artists who called Paris home and set their works in the city. However, I didn’t want to take students to Paris; instead, I wanted to take them somewhere else, somewhere that brings together multiple cultures. I wanted to have them visit the French Riviera, notably Marseille and Nice. I wanted them to see the regions that, as Claude McKay puts it, brings together individuals from across the Black diaspora. McKay, in A Long Way from Home, writes about his initial impressions of Marseille: “It was relief to get to Marseilles, to live in among a great gang of black and brown humanity. Negroids from the United States, the West Indies, North Africa and West Africa, all herded together in a warm group.”

While Paris is also a multicultural and cosmopolitan city, the Mediterranean Coast brings together Europe, Africa, and Asia through the port cities. Marseille is the second largest city in France, and it is the oldest city in France, founded in 600 BC as a port city by Greek’s from Phocea (modern day Turkey). McKay, throughout his work, draws attention to Marseille and the coast as a crossroads, an intersection of cultures brought together in the port cities. Along with this, I knew that Baldwin spent the last seventeen years of his life in St. Paul de Vence, a village right outside of Nice, and one cannot teach a course on African American writers in France without teaching Baldwin.

Once I decided to focus on the South of France, I started reading through Michel Fabre’s From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840–1980, and I started to think about what specific authors and texts I wanted to teach. The problem, I soon discovered, was that while a lot of Black writers and intellectuals travelled to the South of France, few used the region as a setting for their works. McKay was one obvious example with Banjo: A Story without a Plot; however, I did not find any other novels centered in the region. I discovered Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Comedy: American Style which takes place, partly, in Toulouse, and I finally read Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room which uses Nice as an escape and as part of the frame story while the majority of the narrative takes place in Paris. Apart from these, I did not really find anything centered in the region.

For the course, I decided to focus on Fauset’s, McKay’s, and Baldwin’s novels, but I wanted to find one more work to have students read. When preparing my “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” which is an extension in a lot of way of the “Black Expatriate Writers in France” course, I chose to incorporate William Gardner Smith’s The Stone Face, a novel about a Black man from Philadelphia in Paris who falls in love with a Polish woman who survived the Holocaust and who fights alongside Algerian nationalists in their quest for independence. Even though this novel takes place in Paris, a lot of its themes overlap with Fauset, McKay, and Baldwin, and it is for this reason that I decided to add it to the course.

Nice, France

As I started reading the novels for the course, a recurring theme arose in each author’s work. Each author, either in their novels or in their other writings, addressed France’s colonial exploits, notably in regard to Algeria. This recurring thread, woven through texts from the 1930s and culminating in the Paris Massacre in 1961 where French officers murdered between 200–300 Algerians, throwing their bodies into the Seine, points out the outward veneer of France as the land of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité for some while oppressing others. Fauset, Baldwin, McKay, and Smith came to France for the freedom that it offered them, the freedom to be who they were, without having to worry about being accosted or attacked because of their race. However, as they lived in France, they began to see the cracks that arose. While they were accepted, others were not. They were Black Americans, not Senegalese or Moroccan or Algerian. Thus, they received acceptance.

Along with this, each author addressed, in their own way, the way that the freedom they experienced in France allowed them to look back to the United States. France served as an escape, a way to get away and think, as Eddie S. Glaude puts it, to remove themselves from the constant fear of racism and violence and to sit with themselves and work through not just social issues but also their own identity. The latter is what Baldwin does throughout his work, and this remove, as he puts it at the end of “Encounter on the Seine,” allows one to “make peace with himself and with the voiceless many thousands gone before him.”

These are not all of the thoughts and ideas I had when constructing “Black Expatraite Writers in France,” but they are some of the main ones. I’m looking forward to this trip, and I plan to, in the coming months, write about our experiences in Avignon, Marseille, Nice, St. Paul de Vence, and more. So, stay tuned! What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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