(Smithsonian) – My father, a bookish black man old enough to be my grandfather, grew up in Texas while it was still a segregated state. As soon as he could, he got himself far enough away from there to cover the walls of his study with photographs of his travels to destinations as exotic as Poland and Mali. As far back as I can remember, he was insistent that the one place in the world truly worth going was Paris. Being a child, I accepted the assertion at face value—mostly because of the way his eyes lit up when he spoke of this city that was nothing but two syllables for me—I assumed he must have lived there once or been very close to someone who had. But it turned out this wasn’t the case. Later, when I was older, and when he was finished teaching for the day, he would often throw on a loose gray Université de Paris Sorbonne sweatshirt with dark blue lettering, a gift from his dearest student, who had studied abroad there. From my father, then, I grew up with the sense that the capital of France was less a physical place than an invigorating idea that stood for many things, not least of which were wonder, sophistication, and even freedom. “Son, you have to go to Paris,” he used to tell me, out of nowhere, a smile rising at the thought of it, and I would roll my eyes because I had aspirations of my own then, which seldom ventured beyond our small New Jersey town. “You’ll see,” he’d say, and chuckle
And he was right. My wife, a second generation Parisian from Montparnasse, and I moved from Brooklyn to a gently sloping neighborhood in the 9th arrondissement, just below the neon glare of Pigalle, in 2011. It was my second time living in France, and by then I was fully aware of the pull this city had exercised throughout the years, not just on my father but also on the hearts and minds of so many black Americans. One of the first things I noticed in our apartment was that, from the eastfacing living room, if I threw open the windows and stared out over the Place Gustave Toudouze, I could see 3 Rue Clauzel, where Chez Haynes, a soul food institution and until recently the oldest American restaurant in Paris, served New Orleans shrimp gumbo, fatback, and collard greens to six decades of luminous visitors, black expats, and curious locals. It fills me with pangs of nostalgia to imagine that not so long ago, if I’d squinted hard enough, I would have spotted Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, or even a young James Baldwin—perhaps with the manuscript for Another Country under his arm—slipping through Haynes’s odd log cabin exterior to fortify themselves with familiar chatter and the larded taste of home.