Today, we wish a former member of the Paris family, one Marguerite Ann Johnson, aka Dr. Maya Angelou a very happy birthday. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928. While her time there was short lived, she too was an expat radical in Paris at a certain point, presaging sojourns in other parts of the world such as Egypt and Ghana. We are hardpressed to find another in the history of American - man or woman, white or black, who has lived such an eclectic life, triumphed over so much adversities, and yet rise to the top of her craft while being such a nurturing source to us all. As a result she was one of the first literary expats profiled in our historical repository of great African American intellectuals.
She first visited Paris in the late 50s as part of the all-black troupe of Porgy and Bess’ European tour at the Théâtre Wagram in Paris in a show that was intended to be a three-week run but evolved into several months of performances due to its spectacular success.
While in Paris, she noted the acclimated mannerism of the black Americans to their adopted country, betrayed by the ‘fluttering of hands and raising of eyebrows’ in conversation (Latin traits which would be regarded as histrionic characteristics in the Anglo Saxon culture). She recognized as well that she was seen as somewhat of an ‘exotic bird’ in Paris in those days. It should be noted that this is and has been the standard reception reserved for black American women visiting Paris since Bricktop, a feat accentuated and cemented by Josephine Baker, and extended and parlayed with much fanfare by later generations such as Jamaican Grace Jones. (The simplicities or complexities that have driven such a ‘regard’ in the French, are entirely a different matter but it is without doubt that for more than a century, the black American woman in Paris was simply an exotic being).
Maya became friends with the likes of dancer Bernard Hassell, singer Nancy Holloway, and often congregated at Gordon Heath’s LAbbaye cabaret with other black entertainers. She also moonlighted as a singer at the Mars Club. She would later reveal in her autobiography, her happiness at finding economic opportunities and social freedom in Paris, noting her surprise at the cordial treatment she received at the hands of the Mar Club’s pianist who was a white southerner – an experience she could not have enjoyed in the United States. So delighted was she with the atmosphere in Paris that she considered living there in order to raise her son Clyde, in a more egalitarian society.
“I could rent an apartment and send for Clyde. He was bright and would learn the language quickly. He would be freed from racial prejudice that occasionally made every black childhood sunless. He would be obliged to be good for his own sake rather than prove to a disbelieving society that he was not a brute” (‘Singing’)
But this would change on experiencing ‘la France a deux vitesses’ – the double standard in treatment of native and colonial Africans and that which is reserved for those recognized to be black Americans.
She was invited to sing at a posh Parisian event. On arriving with her two handsome and impeccably dressed Senegalese male friends, the hostess greeted them and flirted with the men believing they were black American members of the Porgy and Bess troupe. When Maya properly introduced the men to the hostess as local Africans, the woman stuttered, “Africains? D’Afrique? D’Afrique?” (Africans from Africa? from Africa?) In ‘Singing’ Marguerite described the French hostess as having looked at her as if she had betrayed her. She immediately saw another side of France and concluded that Paris was not the place for her Clyde after all.
“The French could entertain the idea of me because they were not immersed in guilt about a mutual history – just as white Americans found it easier to accept Africans, Cubans, or South American blacks, than blacks who has lived with them foot to neck for two hundred years. I saw no benefit in exchanging one kind of prejudice for another.”
Wishing you a superbly happy 85th birthday Dr. MAYA ANGELOU
Happy Birthday Ms Marguerite!!
Read more at the life of Dr. Maya Angelou
Note: As a side bar, some half a century later, a famous French comedian, Muriel Robin has brilliantly parodied the French double standard to native and colonial blacks, to which Marguerite Ann objected back in the 50s. A daughter reveals to her mother (who harbors hidden racist opinions) that she is marrying an African named Felix. The comedy starts when the mother’s inner compartmentalized racism kicks in. She starts by telling her daughter that if Felix is really black, then he must have a good reason to be so (si’l est noir, il a une bonne raison de l'être). The mother then interrogates the daughter: “Is he black, black black? (i.e. really black or ‘African black’) or does he have a little color in his skin”. As she continues her discussion with her daughter the “N” word slips in. On being reproached by her daughter, the mother backtracks and retorts, “Cherie, I am having a discussion with your father later. I think I will just tell him that there are already enough whites in the family. Everyday white people, pure white people in the family. I am tired of seeing all these white people in the family. Everyday, I am going to tell your father, long live the blacks (vivre les noirs)”
For the French speakers amuse yourself, a really funny sketch…
Muriel Robin, “Le Noir"