African Americans were drawn to Paris, France because they could be themselves. Decades before and decades after Ms. Coleman and Ms. Smith’s arrivals and departures Black people of all walks of life found themselves yearning for the simple privilege of being allowed to be comfortable. James Baldwin, the influential openly gay, Black civil rights writer (and junior of both women by 30 years) once said, “this total indifference came as a great relief and, even as a mark of respect.” African-Americans sought Paris to be left alone and left to dream. Bessie Coleman went to the City of Lights because Americans wouldn’t teach her how to fly because of her color and gender, traits that could not be amended. Ada “Bricktop” Smith went on to become a pop culture phenomenon both on and off stage; easily able to allow the poor and wealthy, the white and Black into her club’s doors because there was no super-imposed racial segregation in Pig Alley. We often take for granted the allowance to do what we want for granted, but for Black women this hasn’t always been an option especially in the 20th century. Those who dared to dream past Negro stereotypes and escaped the vigilant watch of Jim Crow did so simply to be themselves and did what made them happy. To exchange, miles, language, and citizenship just to be one’s self is astonishing but it is the legacy of Paris Noir.
Bricktop and Queen Bess:
Examples of African-American Women the Pursuit of Happiness Abroad in the 20th Century