Thursday, September 29, 2016

NMAAHC Inaugural Ceremony Live Streamed at the Musée Dapper

The U.S. Embassy and the Musée Dapper partnered to present the inaugural ceremony of the Smithsonian's newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

U.S. State Department representatives Randianina Peccoud and Sophie Nadeau welcomed invitees in the vestibule and directed us up to the auditorium. Scenes from the new museum greeted us upon entry - Angelique Kidjo on stage, views of the crowd queuing for admission and shots of those already having been admitted chatting and laughing.

Angelique Kidjo on live stream
© Discover Paris!

Aurélie Leveau, General Administrator of the museum, greeted the audience and briefly presented the museum and the current exhibition, Chefs-d'oeuvre.

Aurélie Leveau, Administrative Director of the Dapper Foundation
© Discover Paris!

She was followed by Philip Frayne, Minister of Cultural Affairs and Communications at the U.S. Embassy; who also spoke briefly and, in turn, introduced Daniel Yohannes, U.S. Ambassador to OECD.

Philip Frayne, U.S. Cultural Affairs and Communications Minister
© Discover Paris!

Ambassador Yohannes spoke for only a few minutes, sharing that he was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17. He expressed his pleasure that the museum is finally a reality and took his seat in the audience so we could all continue watching the ceremony.

Daniel Yohannes, U.S. Ambassador to OECD
© Discover Paris!

We were able to view the entire proceedings, including President Obama's entire address and the ringing of the Freedom Bell by the Bonner Family and President and First Lady Obama.

President Obama addresses the crowd
© Discover Paris!

Ringing the Freedom Bell
© Discover Paris!

Then, we were treated to a panel discussion moderated by Rokhaya Diallo, a French-Senegalese journalist, writer, award-winning filmmaker, and activist for racial, gender, and religious equality. The panel consisted of Raina Lampkins-Fielder, Artistic Director of the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art & Culture in Paris; Curtis Robert Young, Professor of Literature and historian; Doudou Diène, Chair of the Board of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and Jake Lamar, award-winning novelist and playwright.

Panelists on stage
© Discover Paris!

All panelists expressed their sentiments about the discourse delivered by President Obama from a professional and / or personal perspective. Perhaps the most poignant of these was a personal statement by Lampkins-Fielder, who pointed out that her eight-year-old twins have only ever known a black president and that this is "normal" for them.

Moderator Rokhaya Diallo, left; panelists (top to bottom) -
Jake Lamar, Doudou Diène, Curtis Robert Young, and Raina Lampkins-Fielder
Images and collage © Discover Paris!

Because the hour was growing late, Sophie Nadeau invited us to retire to the lower level of the museum and take up the conversation about the inauguration and the panel discussion over wine and cheese. It was a spirited end to an historic day!

Chatting at the reception
© Discover Paris!

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Making a Comeback - Le Bal Nègre

Le Bal Nègre at 33, rue Blomet in Paris' 15th arrondissement, was the most popular Antillean dancing nightspot in Paris for decades.

Bal Nègre advertisement

Though the establishment was officially named Le Bal Colonial, it was commonly known as Le Bal Nègre. It was created in 1924 in the French tradition of the bal-musette. The club featured music and clientele from the French Caribbean; a Martinican named Jean Rézard des Wouves led the orchestra. According to another Martinican musician named Ernest Léardée, who took over the orchestra in 1929 and remained its leader until 1931, “banjos, horns, and drums” provided the sounds that moved the crowd, and a dance called the biguine ruled the day. Josephine Baker made the biguine popular with a broader public when she performed the dance in Paris Qui Remue at the Casino de Paris in 1931.

African Americans were frequent visitors at Le Bal Nègre; Countee Cullen was a repeat customer during his visits to Paris in the late 1920s and 30s. These interactions represented a significant means of exposure of African Americans to the culture of other people of African descent. Then whites became enamored of the club, particularly the Surrealist crowd and American expats such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Their patronage changed the atmosphere of the club and it was reportedly never the same again.

Palmer Hayden captured the spirit of the Bal in his c. 1927 watercolor on paper Le Bal Jeunesse.

The Bal Nègre suffered great decline after the Second World War and became a café in 1962. In 1989, a jazz club called St. Louis Blues took over the space and operated there until 2006.

St. Louis Blues in 2004
© Discover Paris!

The building was slated for renovation into office space in 2010, but the project was abandoned. In 2012, approval was granted for the restoration of the Bal Nègre in its original spirit, complete with dance hall. An architectural and cultural reconstitution is now underway. It will consist of a multi-level performance hall and a multimedia art cabaret dedicated to the alignment of art and popular culture in music, film, musical theater, and the fine arts for the public’s enjoyment. It is scheduled to reopen in 2017.

Mailbox at Le Bal Nègre construction site
© Discover Paris!

Read the detailed history of the Bal Nègre here: http://www.lebalnegre.fr/ (an English translation is available on the Web site).

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dining "à l'Ethiopienne"

When Tom and I welcomed Wells International Foundation summer intern Sojourner Ahébée to Paris in July, we were delighted to learn that she loves Ethiopian food. We told her about Les Saveurs d'Abyssinie, a restaurant very near our home. And then we realized that there are three Ethiopian restaurants within walking distance of us! All are quite good, so I decided to share information about each of them in this post.

Godjo

We last wrote a review of Godjo in 2011, as the "food" part of the Art and Food Pairing™ that began with a visit to Galerie Philippe Lawson. We've eaten there since then, but the 2011 posting is my last recorded memory of the experience.

Godjo façade
© Discover Paris!

We enjoyed our food but the restaurant was quite busy and there were a couple of missteps with our service.

Ater, Key Wot, and Ye Feseg
© Discover Paris!

We would not hesitate to return to Godjo. But it is the farthest away from our home, so if we're setting out from there with the intent to dine on Ethiopian food, going there would take the greatest amount of effort.

Ase Theodros

Tom and I dined at Ase Theodros in March 2015 and I published a review of the restaurant on this blog.

Ase Theodros façade
© Discover Paris!

Our meal: Upper right - peanuts and toasted barley; Middle right - avocat exotique;
Lower right - Beyayenatou; Lower left - mango/coconut sorbet sundae;
Lower middle - injera; Large image - serving dish
Collage and individual photos © Discover Paris!

We loved our meal of samossas, "exotic salad," and Beyayenatou, and we ate too much. In my review, I commented that the dinner we had here was the best Ethiopian meal we had ever eaten!

But Les Saveurs d'Abyssinie hadn't opened yet.

Les Saveurs d'Abyssinie

Les Saveurs d'Abyssinie façade
© Discover Paris!

We visited Les Saveurs d'Abyssinie in September 2015, a few short weeks after it opened its doors for business.

Beyaynetou
© Discover Paris!

Determined not to overeat, we decided to split a starter of samossas. Then we ordered Beyaynetou, as we did at Ase Theodros. We quite enjoyed it and we appreciated the bright, uncluttered interior there as well. It is markedly different than the decor at Ase Theodros and Godjo.

But which establishment makes the best Beyaynetou?

Tom and I loved both versions of this traditional dish. Why not visit these restaurants and make your own decision?

Godjo
8, rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique
75005 Paris
Tel: 01.40.46.82.21
Metro: Maubert Mutualité (Line 10)
Open Tuesday through Sunday: 11 AM to 4 PM; 6 PM to 11:30 PM
Monday: 6 PM - 11:30 PM
Internet: http://www.godjo.com/

Ase Theodros
7, rue de la Collégiale
75005 Paris
Telephone: 01.43.37.70.60
Metro: Censier Daubenton or Les Gobelins (Line 7)
Open Monday through Friday: 12 noon to 3 PM; 7 PM to 10:30 PM
Saturday: 7 PM to midnight
Closed Sunday
Internet: http://asetheodros.vpweb.fr/

Les Saveurs d'Abyssinie
1, rue de l’Arbalète
75005 Paris
Telephone: 06.21.36.56.21
Metro: Censier Daubenton (Line 7)
Open Tuesday to Saturday: noon - 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Sunday: 11:00 AM - 3:00 PM

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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Gwendolyn’s Song: A Comparative Essay on Gwendolyn Bennett

By Sojourner Ahébée

As the weeks of Sojourner Ahébée’s internship with the Wells International Foundation have unfolded, I have learned much from her about the contemporary poetry/spoken word scene in Paris. It occurred to me that she might want to know about a female poet who came to Paris almost a century before her, at about the same age, and with similar creative aspirations. So I gave her an assignment to compare her budding career as a poet and her time in Paris to those of the Harlem Renaissance figure, Gwendolyn Bennett.

Sojourner Ahébée at Paris Soirées
© Discover Paris!

As I write this essay during my last week in Paris, I am pleased to contemplate the time that Gwendolyn Bennett (1902 -1981) spent here almost 100 years ago. Bennett was an African-American poet, fiction writer, painter, and educator. A student of Fine Arts at Columbia University and the Pratt Institute, she had numerous poems published by African-American journals during her undergraduate career. These marked the beginning of her literary rise within the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1924, Bennett received a scholarship that allowed her to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. She continued her study of visual art at the Academie Julian and École du Pantheon for an entire year. She also wrote a considerable amount while in the city.

Of Paris, Bennett wrote:

My first impressions were of extreme loneliness and intense homesickness. . . My second impressions were of hometies, stirred by my American friends who were visiting Europe this summer.

I was deeply moved by this depiction of her time in Paris, as it overlaps with my own. Bennett’s love for the city’s physical beauty resonated with me. But more important was the sense of loneliness she felt here, which was alleviated by interaction with various expat artist communities. Meetings with Joyce and Hemingway at the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore and time spent with Essie and Paul Robeson served as powerful reminders of home and the capacity for human connection, even across an ocean.

I also felt lonely during my first weeks in Paris as I attempted to find my place in the city, especially as a woman of color. Like Bennett, I quickly connected with young expats. I met them as they performed at spoken word open mics, passed through the city on literary tours, or attended events that I learned about through an online Meetup page. I also found that the people I’ve encountered here allowed me to forget my homesickness, if just for a moment.

Because I am a poet, I was excited to read Bennett’s work in preparation for writing this article. I learned that her poems celebrate the themes that characterized the Harlem Renaissance movement: black pride, rediscovery of Africa, racial uplift, and the African-American musical tradition.

Portrait of author and artist Gwendolyn Bennett, circa 1920s.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1920-1929).

Retrieved from
http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/370048f0-0c0f-0131-bd26-58d385a7b928

My most striking observation about Bennett’s poetry is her obsession with form, song, and rhythm. She was a great formalist, writing countless sonnets and quatrains throughout her career. Though these forms are often thought of as belonging to “white” or European literary traditions, Bennett brilliantly navigated their challenges while documenting black life, hopes, and fears.

Consider the poem “To A Dark Girl”:

I love you for your brownness
And the rounded darkness of your breast.
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eye-lids rest.

Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.

Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow's mate,
Keep all you have of queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!

It is a kind of quatrain, as each stanza is composed of four lines and the first two stanzas have an abxb rhyme scheme. The quatrain has a long and established history in the African-American music tradition – it is found in Negro spirituals, gospel music, and blues ballads. So Bennett's use of it here is more than likely intentional.

What I find compelling about this poem is its reverence for black women and its affirmation of them as they navigate their trauma. In the way that the African-American musical tradition was often about developing a language for black resistance and pain, Bennett gloriously appropriates the quatrain to do the same.

Bennett felt moved to speak on behalf of the collective suffering of Black women and girls and I find that a similar force haunts my own practice as a poet. Though I write in free verse poet as opposed to “in form,” my poem entitled “valentine for Sally Hemings” reminds me of Bennett’s “To a Dark Girl.” “valentine for Sally Hemings” is an ode to Sally Hemings, but also an acknowledgement of the sexual violence she was victim to at the hands of President Thomas Jefferson. While it does not participate in any formalist tradition, my poem is guided by the same rhythm the quatrain hunts and wears for itself as if to resist all the darkness in the world.

Though Bennett is largely overlooked in our study of American literature, the stories and poems she left behind will continue to push us to be our bravest and freest selves. I aspire to accomplish the same with my poetry.


Sojourner Ahébée is a 2016 BOSP Continuation International Fellow for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. She is currently serving as the Paris intern for the Wells International Foundation.

Read more of Sojourner's work at Sojourner Ahébée.


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