When Kévi Donat started guiding tours of Paris in 2011, there was one frustrating question he kept getting asked by foreign tourists: “Who is this African American guy?”
They pointed to a portrait of Aimé Césaire – the hugely influential 20th-century Francophone writer, intellectual and politician from the Caribbean island of Martinique – on display in the Panthéon, a mausoleum of some of France’s most famous citizens.
“‘Outside of America there are black people!'” Donat recalls, he thought in his head when he didn’t go so far as to verbally abuse his guests.
“The US has its own complicated racial history to deal with,” he explains. “But there are a lot of other stories around the world, and the problem is that so many people don’t have a clue.”
Although admittedly the image of Césaire must have stood out in a space normally reserved for white faces, ignorance of the Martiniquais and his remarkable achievements led Donat – who grew up in Martinique and moved to France at the age of 13 – to found Le Paris Noir, or Black Paris, in 2013.
The concept is simple: to tell the often-overlooked black story of the City of Light.
While Paris has been and remains one of the most visited cities in the world (the city of two million expects 33 million tourists in 2022), Donat argues that there’s a lot more to it than the clichés of quaint boulevards and charming wine bars, and heavily frequented sights like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.
“Paris is a typical tourist city,” says Donat. “It’s famous all over the world. A certain image of Paris was told in films and magazines. But that means most of them [who come to visit] already have ideas of what it is or should be.”
In reality, the French capital’s connection to Africa, the Caribbean and the United States – from its horrific history of slavery, colonization and immigration to its masses of black writers, politicians and artists – has been largely swept under the rug. After all, history is written by the winners, he explains.
“I want to make this alternate history more visible,” says Donat. “If it is not told by someone, it could be forgotten. But when we tell that story, it also means that hopefully we have an opportunity to learn from what happened in the past.”
Currently, Le Paris Noir offers two tours, available in French and English. The first is based on La Rive Gauche, or the Left Bank of Paris, and traces a route through classic stops on the Paris tourist trail with a twist: from the steps of the Pantheon to the Jardin de Luxembourg and the Sorbonne University. The second, focusing on La Rive Droite, or the Right Bank, is a very different vista and traverses the vibrant and diverse 18th arrondissement neighborhoods of Château Rouge and Goutte d’Or, known for their West and North African populations . By the end of the year, Le Paris Noir is embarking on a third tour focused on the role and meaning of statues.
On each of the routes, Donat brings these lesser-known tales to life with engaging storytelling, all the while strolling around in the real Parisian flâneur Style.
The Rive Gauche tour, for example, touches on the life of Alexandre Dumas – author of French literary cornerstones such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers– who was known as the “Quarteron” (a child born to a white parent and a mixed-race parent) and was discriminated against as a result. There are references to Victor Schoelcher, a politician in Guadeloupe and Martinique between 1848 and 1851 who played a leading role in the abolition of slavery, and to Félix Éboué, the first black Frenchman appointed to a high post in the French colonies . And there’s also room for intellectuals like WEB Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, the African-American writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin who lived in post-war Paris, and the pioneering women who defied gender inequality of the day like Josephine Baker, who Burlesque dancer turned heroine of the French Resistance. In many cases, these stories are just as little known in France as they are abroad.
Donat has a pluralistic, relaxed style on his tours. He asks questions rather than preaches – for example, whether it is right that those from former French colonies then appear to need to come to France to validate themselves through its educational systems. He also recommends an amazing list of podcasts, books, and movies for further research. “It’s up to people to make up their own minds,” he says.
Almost a decade later and a lot has changed. Donat, who now does between 15 and 20 tours a month, says interest has grown steadily over the years. The number of visitors interested in his tours has also increased.
“In the early years, most of my visitors came from the United States,” he says. “But that’s starting to change. The interest of the French, who now make up the majority of my customers, has increased.”
Donat believes events such as the murder of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by a police officer in May 2020 after a store clerk claimed he used a counterfeit $20 bill, played a role.
Likewise, events in France, which has long grappled with its painful past, such as its exploitative relationship with former colonies like Haiti and the bloody struggle for independence in the Algerian War, continue to cause turmoil.
Tensions have risen recently over the exclusionary implications of the country’s “color-blind” approach to race, as well as the idea of ”alertness” and critical race theory, with critics arguing it was exported from the US to France. Confirming these societal rifts, the French far-right garnered its highest share of the vote in history in April’s presidential elections.
“It’s a difficult situation in France,” says Donat. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m an optimist. But I don’t want to be too dramatic either.”
Also, he says, there are small signs of progress: In May, a statue of Solitude, heroine of the fight against slavery in Guadeloupe, was unveiled in Paris’ 17th arrondissement – the first statue of a black woman in the city.
“We’re taking small steps forward,” says Donat.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/a-paris-tour-where-you-probably-know-as-much-as-a-parisian?source=articles&via=rss A Paris tour where you probably know as much as a Parisian