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Saturday, February 10, 2024

Stroll Through An Unusual Paris Neighborhood

"EVERYTHING is jazz:

snails, jails, rails, tails, males, females,
snow-white cotton bales."
- James Emanuel, poet

Paris has so many cool neighborhoods, but an unusual and unofficial neighborhood resides inside the walls of Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Paris has so many cool neighborhoods, but an unusual and unofficial neighborhood resides inside the walls of Père Lachaise, the city's biggest and most visited cemetery. We have gone two out of the three times we've visited Paris and are always in awe of the gorgeous tombs. And yes, while you can visit Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, and Jim Morrison, you can also visit some of history's most notable Black authors and artists there.

Père Lachaise is so large, you can pick up a map showing you where everyone is buried. It has streets and I was even able to use Google Maps to find gravestones I was particularly interested in. We stayed for several hours on each of our visits and didn't cover the same steps, nor did we see the entire cemetery. If you want to see particular resting places, it's important to make a bit of a plan, because you probably won't just stumble upon them while walking around. You can also join a tour, including one entitled Black Paris Pilgrimage by Entrée to Black Paris.

Black history is around every corner, so here are some notable names you might want to pay a visit to while you're there:

Richard Wright - An American who moved to Paris and called it home, Wright wrote novels and short stories with racial themes. He began writing at 15 years old and was an influential writer, especially for other young Black men. Critics believe he helped change race relations in the mid-20th century. You won't find him on an elaborate tomb or even a not-quite-as-fancy headstone. Wright was cremated and entombed in the cemetery's columbarium in niche 848.

William Gardner Smith - An American novelist who was thought to have written the first Black militant protest novel was born in Philadelphia and moved to Paris, just like Richard Wright. He, too, was cremated and placed in the columbarium, but his family did not renew the lease on his resting spot, so his ashes were exhumed and scattered in the Jardin du Souvenir, Division 77. 

Victor Séjour - Born Juan Victor Séjour et Ferrand in New Orleans, Victor spent most of his career in Paris, where his fiction and plays were written in French. He is credited as being the first African-American to publish a work of fiction. You'll find him in section 15, where a book is sculpted at the foot of his tomb.

James Emanuel - Known by some as one of the best and most neglected poets of the 20th century, Emanuel was born in Nebraska and wrote and published more than 300 poems, alongside books, an anthology, and an autobiography. He created the new genre of jazz-and-blues haiku, which was often accompanied by music. You can find him in the columbarium in niche 16412.

Patricia LaPlante-Collins - A traveler of the world, Patricia finally settled in Paris, where she hosted African-American Literary Soirées, introducing like-minded people  to each other and notable French figures, like Black poet and filmmaker Sojourner Ahébée. Her ashes were scatterd in the Jardin du Souvenir of the columbarium. 

Patrick Kelly - Born in Mississippi, Kelly was a fashion designer that infused exuberance, humor, and Black folklore into his pieces. He was the first American to be admitted into the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, the governing body overlooking the French ready-to-wear industry. In his short decade of commercial design, he dressed a myriad of famous people, including Goldie Hawn, Bette Davis, and Cicely Tyson. You can find his tomb in Division 50, where a Black caricature and a red heart button artwork decorate the top, with the sentiment "nothing is impossible".

If you're looking for more Black artists in Paris, outside of Père Lachaise, you can find jazz trumpeter James Arthur Briggs in Montmartre Cemetery, the master painter Henry Ossawa Tanner in Sceaux Cemetery, Sidney Bechet - one of the greatest soprano saxophonists - can be found in Garches Cemetery, painters Beauford Delaney and Hugh Lawrence Potter can both be found at Thiais Cemetery (Potter's ashes were scattered in the Jardin du Souvenir). 

Jardin du Souvenir

I can't speak for the beauty of the other cemeteries, as I never made it to Montmartre and I had not heard of the other 3. I'm also positive that you will find even more notable Black artists and historical figures in each of these if you do a bit of research, but I wanted to give you a good starting point for a place that can double as a romantic day out and also allow you a look into American and Parisian Black history through figures who may have even been influential to you.

Have you ever taken a romantic stroll through a cemetery? Which one? (We actually first visited Père Lachaise on our honeymoon while we were in Paris for a few days.)

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