Black Writers and the Allure of Paris

During the 1920s and 1950s, Paris played a key role in the lives and artistic production of African American artists. Many writers looked to Paris for inspiration and included the city in their poetry, short stories, and novels. Paris had an important role in the Harlem Renaissance, and for many artists their French experience became a touchpoint for exploring questions of race, equality, and artistic experimentation.

The influence of Paris on Black authors was the focus of the course “Black Writers and the Allure of Paris,” taught by professors Lena Hill and Michael Hill of Washington and Lee University. As experts in English literature and Africana studies, they led their students to Paris for a three-week program aimed at exploring the city that spurred Black writers to examine modern racial identity.

For this faculty-directed program, Accent organized several experiential activities that contributed to the learning goals of the course. To explore contemporary Black art in Paris, students met with Malik Ameer Crumpler, an African American poet, rapper, composer, and editor, who has been involved in over sixty albums, seven books of poetry, and countless anthologies. After twelve years working in New York, Crumpler moved to Paris in 2016, and his experience gave him a unique point of view on French and American artistic movements. During the first part of the meeting, Crumpler lectured on African American artistic experimentation and expression in Paris, beginning with W.E.B. Dubois and ending with Toni Morrison. He then had students participate first-hand in a freewriting exercise to imitate the surrealist trends of experimentalist writers such as Aimé Césaire.

In addition to this meeting and writing exercise, students also took part in other activities aimed at complementing their in-class learning. Cécile Coquet-Mokoko, professor of U.S. Cultural History, African American Studies, and Gender Studies at the Université Versailles-St Quentin, offered a lecture on postwar Paris, with a particular focus on the great migration of African Americans to Paris following WWI. Given the influence of Paris’ urban landscape on African American writers, Accent also helped organize several walking tours around the city, such as “Retracing the steps of Langston Hughes,” “James Baldwin in Paris,” and “Black History in and around the Luxembourg Gardens.”

Thanks to the combination of coursework and these experiential learning opportunities, students left Paris with a better understanding of the influence of Paris in the Black literary imagination.

Accent partners with U.S. colleges and universities to provide fully customized support for faculty-directed summer programs, thanks to its extensive local network of speakers, institutions, and experts. Experiential learning activities often include guest lectures, workshops, and study tours to locations of academic relevance.