Black Girl in Paris wends its way around the mythology of Paris as a city that has called out to African-American artists. Like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Josephine Baker before her, Youngblood's heroine leaves her home, in the American South, nurturing a dream of finding artistic emancipation in the City of Light. She experiments freely, inhabiting different incarnations - artist's model, poet's helper, au pair, teacher, thief, and lover - to keep body and soul together, to stay afloat, heal the wounds of her broken heart, discover her sexual self, and, finally, to wrestle her dreams of becoming a writer into reality.
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Shay Youngblood is author of the novels Black Girl in Paris, Winter Prophet, a graphic novel, Black Power Barbie and a collection of short fiction, The Big Mama Stories. Her plays, Amazing Grace, Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery, and Talking Bones (Dramatic Publishing Company), have been widely produced. Her other plays include Flying Blind, Square Blues and Communism Killed My Dog. An Edward Albee honoree, and the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Pushcart Prize for fiction, a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, several NAACP Theater Awards, and an Astraea Writers' Award for fiction, Ms. Youngblood graduated from Clark-Atlanta University and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University. She has worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the eastern Caribbean, as an au pair, artist's model, and poet's helper in Paris, and as a creative writing instructor in a Rhode Island women's prison. She was a 2011 Japan U.S. Friendship Commission, Creative Artist Fellow. Currently she is a writer in residence at the Dallas Museum of Art. "My interest in architecture has been fueled by my travels. I have lived on the East Coast, in the Deep South, Japan, Hawaii, France, Spain and the Caribbean, traveled to Australia, Canada, Mexico, Sweden and Denmark and once took a three month road trip across the United States. I have a particular weakness for shoes and my guilty pleasures are spa vacations and 72 hour reading orgies. I will try almost any cuisine or any activity once, more if I like it. My art practice includes writing and painting, sometimes I combine the two. Among my creative goals are collaborations with a composer on an opera, an illustrator on a graphic novel and to develop an interdisciplinary work for the theater that integrates video animation."
Read an Excerpt
Paris. September 1986. Early morning. She is lying on her back in a hard little bed with her eyes closed, dreaming in French. Langston was here. There is a black girl in Paris lying in a bed on the fifth floor of a hotel in the Latin Quarter. Her eyes are closed against the soft pink dawn. Delicate maps of light line her face, tattoo the palms of her hands, the insides of her thighs, the soles of her feet like lace. Jimmy was here. She sleeps while small, feminine hands plant a bomb under the seat of a train headed toward the city of Lyon.
James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Gabriel García Márquez and Milan Kundera all had lived in Paris as if it had been part of their training for greatness. When artists and writers spoke of Paris in their memoirs and letters home it was with reverence. Those who have been and those who still dream mention the quality of the light, the taste of the wine, the joie de vivre, the pleasures of the senses, a kind of freedom to be anonymous and also new. I wanted that kind of life even though I was a woman and did not yet think of myself as a writer. I was a mapmaker.
I remember the long, narrow room, the low slanted ceiling, the bare whitewashed walls, the spotted, musty brown carpet. To my left a cracked porcelain sink with a spigot that ran only cold water. On its ledge a new bar of soap, a blue ragged-edged washcloth shaped like a pocket, and a green hand towel. A round window at the foot of the bed looked out onto the quai St-Michel, a street that runs along the Seine, a river flowing like strong coffee through the body of Paris. The quai was lined with book stalls and painters with their easels and wooden plates of wet fall colors.
I am there again. It's as if I have somebody else's eyes. The Paris at the foot of my bed looks as if it were painted leaf by leaf and stone by stone with tiny brushstrokes. People dressed in dark coats hurrying along the narrow sidewalks look like small black birds. Time is still when I look out at the pale, gray sky, down to the silvery river below, which by midmorning will be crowded with double-decker boats filled with tourists. In the river, on an island, I can see the somber face of Notre-Dame cathedral and farther down, an enormous, block-long, turreted, pale stone building that looks like a castle, but which I am told is part of the Palais de Justice, which houses in its basement the Conciergerie, the prison where Queen Marie Antoinette waited to have her head chopped off and the writer James Baldwin spent one night after being accused of stealing a hotel bedsheet. Even the prisons here are beautiful, and everything is so old. Back home you can see the bars on the windows of buildings and houses, so you know that they are prisons. Sometimes bondage is invisible.
The first time I woke up in Paris I thought I'd been wounded. My body ached that first morning. My eyes, nose, and lips were puffy, as if my face had been soaked in water. My skin was dry and ashy. My joints were tight. When I stretched the full length of my body, bones popped and crunched like loose pebbles in a jar. The dream I woke up with was like a first memory, the most vivid of all the old movies that projected themselves onto the me that was. I woke up with a piece of broken glass clutched in my left hand. There was a small spot of blood on the sheets underneath me.
Before I left home I cut my hair close to my scalp so I could be a free woman with free thoughts, open to all possibilities. I was making a map of the world. In ancient times maps were made to help people find food, water, and the way back home. I needed a map to help me find love and language, and since one didn't exist, I'd have to invent one, following the trails and signs left by other travelers. I didn't know what I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to be the kind of woman who was bold, took chances, and had adventures. I wanted to travel around the world. It was my little-girl dream.
I woke up suddenly one morning, at dawn. As the light began to bleed between the blinds into my room, the blank wall in front of me dissolved into a colorful collage by Romare Bearden of a naked black woman eating a watermelon. Against the iridescent blue background lay the outline of the city of Paris. The woman was me. This was my first sign of the unusual shape of things to come. By the time I came back to myself I was booked on an Air France flight to Paris. Paris would kill me or make me strong.
In 1924 at the age of twenty-two, Langston Hughes, the Negro Poet Laureate of Harlem, author of The Big Sea, arrived in Paris with seven dollars in his pocket. He worked as a doorman, second cook, and dishwasher at a jazz club on rue Pigalle. He wrote blues poems and stories and lived a poet's life. He wrote about the joys of living as well as the heartache.
My name is Eden, and I'm not afraid of anything anymore. Like my literary godfathers who came to Paris before me, I intend to live a life in which being black won't hold me back.
Baldwin's prophetic essays . . . The Fire Next Time . . . No Name in the Street . . . Nobody Knows My Name . . . were like the sound of trumpets in my ears. Baldwin knew things that I hoped someday he would tell me. The issues in my mind were still black versus white, right versus wrong, good versus evil, and me against the world.
The spring before I arrived in Paris, the city was on alert. I cut out an article from a news magazine that listed the horrible facts: April 2, a bomb aboard a TWA plane exploded over Athens, killing four Americans; April 5, an explosion in a West Berlin disco killed an American soldier and a Turkish woman, 230 people were wounded; April 15, in retaliation, President Ronald Reagan bombed Muammar Qadaffi's headquarters in Tripoli, killing fifteen civilians. Three American hostages were killed in Lebanon in response. April 17, a British woman was arrested in London's Heathrow airport, carrying explosives planted in her luggage by her Jordanian fiancé, who had intended to blow up a Tel Aviv-bound El Al flight. Terrorism was so popular that there were full-page ads in the International Herald Tribune offering hijacking insurance to frequent flyers.
I was no stranger to terrorism . . .
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where my parents witnessed the terror of eighteen bombs in six years. During that time the city was nicknamed Bombingham. When the four little girls were killed by a segregationist's bomb at church one Sunday morning in 1963, I had just started to write my name. I still remember writing theirs . . . Cynthia . . . Addie Mae . . . Carole . . . Denise . . . Our church sent letters of condolence to their families. We moved to Georgia, but I did not stop being afraid of being blown to pieces on an ordinary day if God wasn't looking. I slept at the foot of my parents' bed until I was eleven years old, when my mother convinced me that the four little girls were by now colored angels and would watch over me as I slept. But I didn't sleep much, and for most of my childhood I woke up each morning tired from so much running in my dreams-from faceless men in starched white sheets, from policemen with dogs, from firemen with water hoses. I was living in two places, night and day. In the night place I ran but they never caught me, and in the morning brown angels kissed my face. I woke up with tears on my pillow.
I was no stranger to terror . . .
When I was thirteen years old and living in Georgia I was in love with a girl in my class named Rosaleen and with her older brother, Anthony. Rosaleen and I played touching games in her bedroom, games she'd learned from her brother. We never spoke when we were naked and lying still on the carpet waiting for a hand to move an arm, bend a knee, for lips to kiss, for fingers to caress like feathers. We created still-life compositions with each other's pliant limbs, we were corpses, and for a few moments, a few hours, death seemed like something beautiful I wanted for the rest of my life. The fear of being caught heightened the sensations she awakened in me. Once when Anthony was home from college he sent Rosaleen downstairs to watch television, and he and I played the touching games. In Anthony's eyes I was a pretty brown-skinned girl. He whispered a continuous stream of compliments about my strange narrow eyes, my soft, still tender new breasts that filled his hands. He called me "Sugar Mama." His hands were rough, his smell musky and rank. I didn't struggle against the thick fingers that pushed between my legs, but let the hardness search the stillness inside of me. My feelings about Rosaleen and Anthony created a confusion in me, a terror of choosing. Anthony touched my body, but Rosaleen was the one I wanted to touch me inside. I was afraid to lose Rosaleen, but eventually I did. She got pregnant by a boy she met at the county fair. The baby was sickly and soon died. Rosaleen was sent away to live with relatives in Philadelphia. I never saw her again, but I had been touched by her in a way that would make all other touches fade quickly. After Rosaleen and Anthony I was terrified that no one would ever love me again, that desire was a bubble that would burst when I touched it. Years later I met Leo, who loved my body for a while, then left me when I felt I needed him most.
A bomb can kill you instantly, love can make you wish you were dead.
Within days of my arrival in Paris four separate explosions killed three people and wounded 170. There was an atmosphere of paranoia. The tension was visible in people's eyes. Everyone was suspicious. Every abandoned bag standing alone for more than a few minutes could be filled with explosives set to kill. Anyone could be a terrorist. Bombs were exploding all over the city the fall I arrived, and that made tickets to Paris cheap and suicide unnecessary. I would become a witness. I left my body and another me took over, someone who had no fear of bombs or dying.
It is 1986. I am twenty-six years old. I have 140 dollars folded flat and pressed into my shoes between sock and sole. It is what's left of the 200 dollars I arrived with two days ago. I have no friends here and barely remember my two years of college French. I think that my ticket to Paris will be the beginning or the end of me.
In 1948 James Baldwin, author of Another Country, then twenty-five years old, arrived in Paris with forty dollars. During the Sixties civil rights movement he led marches, protests, and voter registration drives. His angry, articulate essays on race shocked France and compelled witnesses to action. He was awarded the medal of Legion of Honor by the French government. I was a witness.
Josephine Baker arrived in 1925, at age eighteen. She danced naked except for a string of bananas around her waist, sang the "Marseillaise" in beaded gowns, and was decorated by the French government for her efforts during World War II. She created a new tribe in her château with children from every ethnic group. Like the character she played in the film Princess Tam Tam, she represented to the French the exotic black, sexually independent woman who could learn to speak French and pick up enough manners to dine with royalty.
I was transformed.
Bricktop arrived penniless and taught Paris how to dance the Charleston. Richard Wright was already a celebrity; he joined the French intellectuals and gave voice to the Negro problem in America. There were others and there will be more. My heroes. They dared to make a way where there was none, and I want to be just like them.
I was born again.
This is the place where it happened, where it will happen again.
For once I slept without dreaming. I woke up when the plane touched down on the runway and heard the entire cabin clap and cheer the pilot and crew for our safe landing. As we taxied along the runway I pulled my small French-English dictionary out of my bag to look up in the phrase section how to take a cab. Across the aisle from me was a young woman who had slept through most of the flight. She was blonde with olive skin and had a long face and pretty features. She wore jeans and a black sweater and held a Museum of Modern Art gift bag in one hand and a large Louis Vuitton satchel on her lap. The satchel looked real, not like the imitations everyone at home wanted. I assumed she was American.
"It's my first time in Paris. What's the best way to get to the city? Is there a bus?"
From Black Girl in Paris, by Shay Youngblood. (c) December 8, 1999, Shay Youngblood used by permission.
Table of Contents
|3.||Artist's model I: paris||59|
|9.||Artist's model II: vence||219|
Reading Group Guide
Black Girl In Paris
Shay Youngblood's debut novel, Soul Kiss, received accolades from reviewers and writers alike. The Washington Post hailed it as "intelligent and erotic immensely engrossing and satisfying, " while The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it "exquisite." Tina McElroy Ansa described it as "extraordinary lyrical, intimate, funny, unsettling, enthralling." Now, in her second novel, Youngblood explores the endeavor of a creative coming-of-age, and infuses her story with the same mesmerizing, lush language and impressionistic style that won her so many fans the first time around.
Black Girl in Paris wends its way around the mythology of Paris as a city that called out to African-American artists. Like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Josephine Baker before her, Youngblood's heroine leaves the American South nurturing a dream of finding artistic emancipation in the City of Light. She experiments freely, inhabiting different incarnationsartist's model, poet's helper, au pair, teacher, thief, and loverto keep body and soul together, to stay afloat, heal the wounds of her broken heart, discover her sexual self, and, finally, to wrestle her dreams of becoming a writer into reality.
Youngblood's lyricism, as effortless as an inspired improvisation, and her respect for the tradition she depicts create a natural tension between old and new, reverence and innovation, and tell a story that feels at once timeless and immediate.
ABOUT SHAY YOUNGBLOOD
Shay Youngblood is a playwright and the author of The Big Mama Stories, a collection, and Soul Kiss, a novel. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and a nominee for QPB's New Voices award, she lives in New York City.
- Paris of the 1920s-'50s saw a substantial number of American artistsmany of them outsiders, many of them African-American or gaywho fled prejudice and persecution for a more tolerant home. How is the Paris of the 1980s different than the one James Baldwin knew? Does Youngblood's depiction of Paris still seem like an ideal city for artists? For African-Americans? Why or why not?
- Eden begins her story by saying she's "not afraid of anything anymore." Do you think this is true? Do you find Eden brave, or naïve, or both? Can you cite examples from the text where Eden seems particularly courageous, and when she seems vulnerable?
- There's much food imagery in Youngblood's novel, and Eden often compares herself and others to different foods. How might Youngblood be using food as a metaphor for Eden's own uncertainty? What might this imagery say about Eden's relationships with the people she meets and interacts with in Paris? What is Youngblood saying about how Eden sees other people, and how they see her?
- Youngblood's Paris is peopled with artists and dreamers who've escaped constrictive environments (or obligations) for the romance of the city. Indeed, Eden leaves for Paris to both follow her dreams and to escape her small hometown. What other sorts of escapes does Eden make throughout her journey? What might the other people Eden meetsIndego, Ving, Professor May Day, and Charlotte, for examplebe escaping? What do you think they hope to find in Paris?
- It's a truism that a good artistbe they writer, musician, or painterneeds to expose herself to different cultures, places, and people in order to grow artistically. Indeed, Eden travels to Paris as much to gain experience as find her literary forebears. Do you agree that artists need to take risksbe they physical or emotionalwhich make them uncomfortable in order to develop? Why or why not?
- The city of Paris is as much a character in this book as Eden herself. How does Eden's own conflicted relationship with Paris echo that of a love affair? Do you think Eden will return to the United States? Why or why not? Compare Eden's feelings towards Paris at the beginning of the book versus the end: how have her feelings changed?
- How has Eden changed by the end of the book? Do you think the ending is a hopeful ending, or do you think Eden has become disenchanted?
- Black Girl in Paris is a highly sensuous bookwhat techniques has Youngblood borrowed from other artistic mediums (music, say, or art) to evoke a dreamy picture of Paris, and Eden's own adventures?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Eden's character is extremely underdeveloped. Therefore, the events of the entire novel are questionable. I find it hard to believe that someone would choose to move to Paris without any money, without taking care of immigration issues, and without knowing anyone there - just to find James Baldwin, who Eden idolizes. Youngblood takes care of the points I've raised by making Eden out to be an opportunist, who sleeps with whomever she meets in order to have a place to stay, and who works in a variety of odd jobs - (from nude model, to nanny), to obtain the money she needs to continue living in Paris. Eden clearly does not know what she wants or who she is. She falls in love with a man who loves to dress as a woman, and later falls in love with a woman. My thoughts are that Eden had suppressed lesbian tendencies before she traveled to Paris, and finally accepted them when she met Luce. In any event, Youngblood portrays Eden as a moron who bounces all over Paris doing all kinds of crazy things, which does not inspire the reader to take her seriously. The search for Baldwin is a joke. Eden never really meets him. She only sees him from afar and feels as though he is talking to her when he looks her way. Although Black Girl in Paris is lyrical, I feel as though the content is sacrificed at the expense of bringing forth this literary style.
Youngblood has written a provocative novel of a young black girl 's adventures in the city of France. The story is clearly defiNed with realistic characters.
This book was amazing, after I finished the novel, all I could do was feel . . . just feel.
this is some piece of work. i wish i could pack it away and move to paris to be an artist. youngblood writes with such sweet lyric it makes you sway.
This book is amazing and keeps you on your feet. I have never had a dull moment when reading this book. My fingers have a mind of its own and won't let me stop. I have to force myself to put the book down.
In 1986 after graduating from college, Eden decides to follow the literary roots of many African-Americans who lived in Paris in the twenties. She knows about Hughes and Baker after hearing about their bios from her adopted parents. Like her heroes who lived in France before her, Eden plans to earn some income by performing menial tasks beneath most of the natives even as she seeks her freedom to write the great novel. However, though the tasks for the most part could be performed by anyone, Eden finds her employers constantly giving her demeaning instructions. Freedom seems buried under an avalanche of bureaucratic nonsense. However, the employer bureaucracy consists of ordinary people such as two parents and an artist. Eden finds a bit of freedom when she turns to minor thievery after meeting and falling in love with a West Indian expatriate. Turning desperate to at least meet the great Baldwin, Eden wonders if freedom is just another seven-letter word. BLACK GIRL IN PARIS is an intriguing examination of the twentieth century African-American history in the French capital through the dreams of a young expatriate. Though the tips on being an American in Paris slows down the tale, the look inside at the rich heritage is a far cry from Gene Kelly in this interesting and fun to read novel. Eden is an intriguing character as she struggles between the wonderful dreams of the free life that her family painted to her about American Blacks in Paris and her own inability to taste any of it. With novels like this one and SOUL KISS, Shay Youngblood provides readers with an exciting look inside the heart of African-Americans. Harriet Klausner