This article is adapted from Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, which has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.
Angela Davis first arrived in Paris in the summer of 1962. She lived with two other American women in a chambre de bonne, six flights up, with a skylight view of the elevators ferrying tourists up and down the Eiffel Tower. The following summer Davis returned to Paris on a formal, yearlong academic program. It was the golden age of study abroad that began in the aftermath of World War II and continued for three decades, sending thousands of American students into French homes and universities.
There’s barely a book or article about Angela Davis that doesn’t mention that she majored in French and studied at the Sorbonne. But that period of education and adventure is always overshadowed by the dramas to come: Davis’s association with the Black Panthers; her dismissal from UCLA’s faculty in 1969 for being a member of the Communist Party; her appearance in 1970 on the FBI’s list of ten most wanted fugitives; her acquittal in the kidnapping and murder of a California judge; her research on the prison-industrial complex.
Yet a phenomenon as powerful and versatile as the American romance with France has played a vital role in Davis’s story, as it has for women as radically different as Jacqueline Bouvier and Susan Sontag. All three were transformed by studying in France in such a way that they would, in turn, transform the cultural and political life of the United States. Bouvier and Davis were French majors in college, and Sontag had schooled herself in French literature and cinema. Each woman crossed the threshold of the Sorbonne between 1945 and 1964, during the period known in France as les trente glorieuses, the thirty-year quest for affluence and modernization—glorious for some, violent for others—stretching from the postwar recovery to the mid-1970s. Bouvier was in Paris from 1949 to 1950; Sontag arrived there by way of Oxford, on a fellowship from the American Association of University Women in 1957–58; Davis lived in the city while enrolled in Hamilton College’s junior-year study abroad program. They were affected differently by the great political changes of the postwar decades—France’s emergence from four years of German occupation, its loss of a colonial empire and, most dramatic, its long, bitter “war without a name” in Algeria and the return of Charles de Gaulle to manage various political emergencies.
All three women dreamed about France long before they would cross the Atlantic. Paris, and the French language, existed in their imaginations, and even in their parents’ imaginations, and so they went abroad accompanied by the ghosts of ancestors and echoes of public conversations. Bouvier arrived with impeccable upper-class connections; Sontag, the self-invented European, with her opinions and curiosity; Davis, with her fearlessness and sense of justice. They were in their 20s, at the existential threshold where you start to see what you can do with what you’ve been given. France was the place where they could become themselves, or protect themselves from what they didn’t want to become, as products of their families, their societies. Their Paris years offer a glimpse of them before they became public figures, when they still had the luxury of being students, though not exactly ordinary ones. Bouvier had a discerning eye for beautiful things; Sontag, her diaries packed with lists and observations on movies seen and books read; Davis, her analytic tools, her understanding of politics and language.
What happened to them during their Paris years was an alchemy of discipline and distraction. The deep history of their transformation involved smells and tastes and visions—fleeting sensual experiences not easily captured in a conventional life story. Imagine Jacqueline Bouvier in her red traveling skirt, joking with her women friends about the hat-pin device she’d perfected for protection from strangers on trains; or Susan Sontag in a tiny Paris movie house or a favorite cafe, recording slang in one of her journals; or Angela Davis taking pleasure in a new suede coat, in the taste of couscous in the Latin Quarter, even in something as simple as taking notes on index cards printed with grids instead of horizontal lines. Imagine, too, the way the French saw these young women, for if there is anything common to all three, it was beauty, a theatrical manner of self-presentation that was a shield as well as a greeting. Where else but Paris is there so much space designed simply for being seen, so different from the isolating private spaces of American highways and suburbs.
The men came too. Norman Mailer, Chester Himes, William Styron, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Arthur Miller, S.J. Perelman, James Baldwin, Art Buchwald, James Jones, Irwin Shaw and George Plimpton came to France on GI bills, on Guggenheims, on Fulbrights; they explored their demons, went native or not, got rich or stuck it out in maids’ rooms and cheap hotels. They produced an expatriate literature that is gritty, irreverent, macho, frequently alcoholic and vastly different from the experience of women abroad. The postwar odyssey of American men in Paris, from Hemingway to Wright, is as familiar as a ride on a bateau mouche.
For the women of the same generation, no matter what their ultimate destinies, the traces of their experience are harder to convey. Sometimes they resonate with the grand houses and marriage plots of Edith Wharton’s novels, or with the everyday language play of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Like Patricia Franchini, the study-abroad student in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless who betrays her gangster lover, they want to know what dégueulasse means. They don’t necessarily want to “embrace irresponsibility”—James Baldwin’s vision of the expatriate student—but instead to immerse themselves in a language and to master a highly coded way of life. They can also be defined by what they were not: veterans studying on the GI bill, world weary, restless, older than their years. During their time abroad they may have looked demure and regimented, “swaddled in sweaters and woolen stockings, doing homework in graph-paper cahiers,” as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis remembered, but the experience was life-altering. Their oeuvre consists of diaries, letters home, snapshots and word lists fading in countless attics. In the great American tradition of expatriate literature, their stories deserve a place.
* * *
Only rarely has Angela Davis evoked her roots: “I have looked for my history in the story of the colonization of this continent and I have found silences, omissions, distortions, and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations,” she wrote in a foreword for the American translation of Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1992).
She was born in Birmingham in 1944, the daughter of Frank and Sallye Davis, African-Americans who had migrated to the industrial hub of Alabama from the countryside. Marengo County, Frank’s birthplace, was named by French expatriates after the Italian village where Napoleon won a decisive victory over the Austrian Army. Sallye had grown up a foster child in Talladega County, where, since the 1760s, the Creek Indians had intermarried with Spanish and French settlers.
The Davises were community leaders in Birmingham. Frank, a teacher and graduate of Saint Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, owned a service station; Sallye taught school. She was a person of great courage who had run away from her foster parents when they wanted her to work rather than continue going to school. She lived at the YWCA until the school principal took her in, and she changed her name from Sally May to Sallye Marguerite because, as her youngest daughter, Fania, surmises, it was more sophisticated. She graduated from Miles College in Birmingham and earned a master’s degree at New York University. It’s hard to say what that French middle name meant to her. She wanted the world to be bigger than Talladega County, bigger than Birmingham. She gave Angela a French middle name as well—Yvonne.
Sallye Davis was an activist as well as a teacher. She worked with the Southern Negro Youth Congress, which had organized for voting rights in the South since the 1930s. She lobbied her landlords for running water and toilets in the apartment complex where Angela was born. The Davises were among the African-American families who bought homes bordering on a white neighborhood; their neighborhood earned the nickname Dynamite Hill because of the bombs planted there by segregationists. (There were some fifty unsolved bombings in Birmingham between 1957 and 1962.) Angela, Frank and Sallye’s eldest daughter, attended a segregated school that she credits with giving her the rudiments of black history missing from the curriculum of white Alabama schools. She knew early that she wanted to learn French, and as there was no French instruction at her school, she got a grammar book and studied on her own, teaching the other children by staying a lesson ahead.
In the mid-1950s, Sallye Davis attended NYU summer school to pursue a master’s degree and took her daughters with her. Angela tasted new privileges: zoos, parks and beaches open to her; Puerto Rican, white and black children to play with; seats on the bus behind the driver. The return to Birmingham was a terrible awakening. She heard about a mixed-race couple who couldn’t find a place to live, and watched, confused, as her friend Harriet’s father, James Jackson, disappeared. He was forced to live underground because of his work for the Communist Party. The simultaneous pressures, in her parents’ world, of race, political activism and Jim Crow segregation created a situation in which Davis became an exquisite reader of signs; of “blond-haired children with their mean-looking mothers…always crowded around the ticket booth” of the theater she was barred from entering; of the words “Colored” and “White,” deciphered well before the elementary sentences in the Dick and Jane reader; of the strict line of demarcation between her house and the white neighborhood across the street. Segregation, she said years later in a television interview in France, was not one among many memories of childhood––it was her memory of childhood.
The young Davis was a reader of signs, an inventor of rules and principles for living, a cerebral person who valued orderly, rational thinking. In such a world, for such a person, a counter-life of dreams and imaginary travel was an absolute necessity. In her autobiography, Davis explores the state of mind of a black child growing up in the segregated South. It was one thing to learn to deal with rage; survival required it. Dealing with envy, with wanting to be white—the equivalent of wanting to be your own worst enemy—was another thing entirely.
Davis’s first act of resistance was an act of imagination designed to control her identity:
I constructed a fantasy in which I would slip on a white face and go unceremoniously into the theater or amusement park or wherever I wanted to go. After thoroughly enjoying the activity, I would make a dramatic, grandstand appearance before the white racists and with a sweeping gesture, rip off the white face, laugh wildly and call them all fools.
A writer who would later become important to Davis, the Martiniquan psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, explained a similar emotional temptation in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), an analysis of racial psychology in the Antilles. He described a girl in Martinique who emptied a pot of black ink over the head of anyone who dared to insult her but who, as an adult, surrendered mentally to the desire to turn white. In Angela’s imagination, there was a theater where she could move in and out of her black self, put on a white mask, but always rip it off in the end. Her mask was only temporary, and strategic.
When she was a teenager, she was able to put her fantasy into action. Davis went north, where she was educated at two institutions compelled by their particular histories to foster progressive education: Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City, many of whose faculty had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era, and Brandeis University, which had been named, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, after a Jewish Supreme Court justice, and was committed to social justice and the welfare of the Jewish community. At Elisabeth Irwin, which she attended on a Quaker scholarship, Davis found her mask. She had begun intense French classes with a native Frenchwoman named Madeleine Griner, who was a battle-ax, a Women’s Army Corps veteran and a disciplinarian who specialized in examinations by dictée—a cornerstone of French pedagogy, requiring students to write down sentences exactly as dictated, with every point of grammar and spelling correct. Any student who didn’t have an ear for French risked incurring Madeleine’s wrath. Davis had only her self-preparation in the language, and now set herself the goal of excelling in the hardest subject of all.
On one of her visits home from Elisabeth Irwin, the adventure took place. Angela was 17, a senior, and Fania was 13:
My sister Fania and I were walking downtown in Birmingham when I spontaneously proposed a plan to her: We would pretend to be foreigners and, speaking French to each other, we would walk into the shoe store on 19th Street and ask, with a thick accent, to see a pair of shoes.
The plan worked:
At the sight of two young Black women speaking a foreign language, the clerks in the store raced to help us. Their delight with the exotic was enough to completely, if temporarily, dispel their normal disdain for Black people. Therefore, Fania and I were not led to the back of the store where the one Black clerk would normally have waited on us out of the field of vision of the “respectable” white customers. We were invited to take seats in the very front of this Jim Crow shop. I pretended to know no English at all and Fania’s broken English was extremely difficult to make out. The clerks strained to understand which shoes we wanted to try on. Enthralled by the idea of talking to foreigners—even if they did happen to be Black—but frustrated about the communication failure, the clerks sent for the manager…. He asked us about our background—where were we from, what were we doing in the States and what on earth had brought us to a place like Birmingham, Alabama?… After repeated attempts, however, the manager finally understood that we came from Martinique and were in Birmingham as part of a tour of the United States.
The arrival of a foreigner in Birmingham in the late 1950s was cause for amazement, which temporarily suspended the strict racial codes of the day. Disguised as black foreigners, who didn’t threaten the social order, the Davis sisters had a temporary pass to participate in white society, at least in that particular shoe store. Class and exoticism trumped race.
The make-believe ended just as in Davis’s daydream, with ripping off the mask, with social revenge. The gesture is so theatrical, so dramatic, it is important to remember that the theater in question was real, and the reaction potentially perilous. A few years earlier, Emmett Till had been kidnapped and lynched in Money, Mississippi, for whistling at a white woman—and it’s not even clear he whistled. What Angela and Fania did was much more deliberate and more daring:
We burst out laughing. He started to laugh with us, hesitantly, the way people laugh when they suspect themselves to be the butt of the joke. “Is something funny?” he whispered. Suddenly I knew English, and told him that he was what was so funny. “All Black people have to do is pretend they come from another country, and you treat us like dignitaries.” My sister and I got up, still laughing, and left the store.
* * *
“All Black people have to do is pretend they come from another country,” Davis writes in her autobiography. Or go to another country. Davis visited Paris after her first year at Brandeis. She had worked on campus and in New York City to fund a trip to the World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki, and was meeting friends in Paris first.
By 1962 her political education was advancing. At Elisabeth Irwin, she had stayed in the home of the Rev. William Howard Melish, who was engaged in a long battle with his Episcopal diocese to retain his right to the pulpit after defending victims of McCarthyism and leading a Soviet-American Friendship organization. Davis also joined a study group called Advance, which included Bettina Aptheker, daughter of Herbert Aptheker, the historian and intellectual dean of American communism. She had chosen in Brandeis a college renowned for a faculty in social theory that included the political philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the more conservative Philip Rieff, Sontag’s former husband. But nothing she had studied in her freshman year, including the work of Sartre, Camus and Beauvoir, could have prepared Davis for those first few weeks in Paris.
Like Sontag, Davis found her first Paris lodgings in a hotel in the Latin Quarter. A strike at the Gare du Nord scuttled her rendezvous with her Birmingham friend Harriet Jackson, but they finally made contact through the American Express office, which since serving as a mail drop for Americans abroad before World War I had blossomed into an informal youth embassy. Jackson had a friend in Paris who rented a chambre de bonne and was away for the summer, and she and Davis decamped there next. Davis and Jackson shared the tiny space with Florence Mason, a friend from Elisabeth Irwin and a member, with Davis, of Advance.
Algeria’s official independence was celebrated on the streets of Paris on July 5, 1962, with free couscous in the cafes and the new Algerian nation’s green and white flag flying just about everywhere. The French government tried to ban the day’s joyous demonstrations for fear of violence between
Algerians and supporters of the Organisation de l’armée secrète, or OAS, a secret army of French generals who had vowed to keep Algeria part of France. Algerian independence only fortified the OAS’s sense of mission. In the weeks preceding Algeria’s Independence Day, the Herald Tribune reported that Muslim cafes in Paris had been “raked with pistol and machine gun fire from slow moving cars” traced to the OAS. The previous May, a 20-year-old man dressed in full paratrooper camouflage had stood at his window on the rue de Sontay, not far from Davis’s chambre de bonne, spraying the street with bullets.
In the summer of 1962 people were flooding into Paris from Algeria: French soldiers returning from duty; Algerians of European descent who had been fleeing the country for over a year at the rate of some 5,000 a day; and Algerian workers, arriving by the hundreds of thousands even as their country emerged from its war for independence, and straining to eke out a living in the city. Some workers hoped for full integration, others for an education or a nest egg to take back home. Davis was aware of Algerians in the street, but the first immigrants she came to know were a single mother newly arrived from Martinique with her four grown children. The family lived across the hall from Davis and her friends in a room as tiny as theirs.
Unlike Muslims living in Algeria, who had to petition for full French citizenship even when Algeria was still a French colony, the people of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana were French citizens of three overseas départements. France’s intellectual and literary prestige in the first half of the twentieth century owed a lot to a small elite group of Caribbean émigrés. They included novelist and colonial administrator René Maran (1887–1960), born in Martinique and schooled in Bordeaux, who won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 1921, and the poet Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), born in Martinique and educated on scholarship in Paris’s best schools, who founded the Négritude movement and became the leading critic of colonization in the French National Assembly.
The poor of Martinique migrated to France in the 1950s at a slow but steady rate, escaping the agricultural misery that accompanied the mechanization of plantations and the decline of the sugar industry. Their numbers spiked when the French government created an office to encourage migration from the overseas territories in order to provide the booming postwar economy of metropolitan France with cheap labor. The mother across the hall from Davis was part of the wave of migrants seeking to fill the lowly jobs in the service sector being abandoned by French women.
It’s often claimed, with a touch of wishful thinking, that Caribbean francophone blacks living in France consider themselves entirely French, with no sense of a racial identity—as if their citizenship were protection enough from discrimination. Citizenship is not a negligible privilege, but discrimination functions in complicated ways, modulated by class, context, social bonds, color itself, even with citizenship in place. The Algerian War had produced in France such visceral hatred toward the Arabs and Berbers from Algeria that “Algerian” became a default identity, a stubborn label of hate flung indiscriminately at any person of color. Many Martiniquans have the light brown complexion common to Algerians of Arab ancestry, and the Martiniquan woman living across the hall from Davis would return home at night with “horror stories of being mistaken for Algerian women.”
The situation was a rude awakening to a young African-American woman who, in her freshman year at Brandeis, had attended a lecture by James Baldwin, known for finding his freedom in Paris. Indeed, to understand Davis’s relationship to France as a woman, student and later as a philosopher and theorist of revolution, it is important to recall the mythical power that France held for black Americans. After both world wars, African-American soldiers stayed on and remade their lives in a place they found far more welcoming than the United States. France held black writers and artists in special regard; and Paris, in the 1950s (as it had been in the 1930s), was home to Baldwin, Wright, Himes and Josephine Baker (who had become a French citizen in the 1930s and participated in the Resistance). Saint-Germain-des-Prés swung to the sound of bebop, and under the auspices of existentialist trumpet player and poet Boris Vian, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie starred in the city’s basement clubs. It was Wright who taught Simone de Beauvoir the basics of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the double consciousness” of racial self-awareness, which became a reference point in The Second Sex. Beauvoir talked about a screen—a woman’s sense of performing for men—the way Du Bois discussed the veil, or Fanon and the young Angela Davis talked about the white mask. Yet black artists in Paris were irritated by how the French fetishization of black American culture had created another mask. Baldwin used to joke that he wanted to write a story for French readers called Je ne joue pas la trompette—“I don’t play the trumpet.”
Black American expatriates debated these issues in the same cafes where Burroughs, Sontag and others had gathered a few years earlier: the Monaco, near Wright’s apartment on the rue Monsieur le Prince, and the Café Tournon, Baldwin’s spot near the Luxembourg Gardens and the first port of call for African-American intellectuals in Paris. Davis, on her first summer trip to Paris, had just finished her freshman year of college, and her connections to this world were a decade away. But what disturbed these writers and intellectuals was as evident to the Brandeis student as “the racist slogans scratched on walls throughout the city threatening death to the Algerians.” “I lived mainly among les misérables,” Baldwin wrote about his first expatriate years, “and, in Paris, les misérables are Algerian.” No one who knew both national contexts could ignore the obvious analogy: the struggle of Arab Algerians for independence from France, after generations of living under separate and unequal conditions, was comparable in myriad ways to the situation of black Americans struggling for their own liberation in the American South. About the pro-Algerian demonstration she attended on the Place de la Sorbonne in July 1962, Davis wrote, “When the flics broke it up with their high power water hoses, they were as vicious as the redneck cops in Birmingham who met the Freedom Riders with their dogs and hoses.”
* * *
The People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria was a year old in the fall of 1963, when Davis and forty-five other students embarked on the Hamilton College junior-year program in France. After what Davis had learned about French racism that summer, it might come as a surprise that she elected to return to France for a full academic year. Perhaps the shattered myth of France as the definitive escape from American racism had been superseded in her mind by the sense of France as a defeated empire, a place where new battles for liberation could be fought, where she would have access to the work of thinkers analyzing the phenomenon of decolonization from an international perspective. Since 1956 Sartre, her favorite author, had been writing articles for Les Temps modernes about torture, colonialism and Algeria’s right to autonomy. In 1961 he had written a foreword to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and his apartment on the rue Bonaparte was bombed by the OAS in one of its last desperate attempts to keep Algeria French.
Davis had a more fundamental reason to return. She had, at 20, just declared her French major. She was a reader of philosophy and literature, quiet, self-sufficient, disciplined in her studies. It was not the politically engaged Sartre she was drawn to as much as Sartre the novelist and playwright, and especially the philosopher. On her own, she had worked her way through Being and Nothingness, in addition to his plays and novels. At Brandeis she’d met a German exchange student, Manfred Clemenz, who had introduced her to more philosophy. They had become engaged, and he was back in Germany. Some of the girls on the program remember that Davis had traveled to France to be near him.
As for her own political education, it was still in process—she was, as yet, on the theory side of praxis. To her friend Howard Bloch, an Amherst student in the Hamilton program, she was an intellectual model—a serious student who wore her learning lightly. Christie Stagg, a Wells College student from a small town in Vermont, wrote to her parents about the roommate who had been assigned to her, after a member of the Hamilton staff asked if she would object to rooming with a Negro:
She is an extremely exceptional girl—speaks French better than I can ever hope to, reads “vociferously,” is learning German because her fiancé is German, and carries a most interesting conversation. She is much more mature than the rest of us, probably because she went two years in New York to school before going to Brandeis, and this is her second trip to Europe.
Before settling in Paris, the Hamilton students began their year with six weeks in Biarritz, the resort and casino town on the Atlantic coast. In the era of Napoleon III, Biarritz had been a favorite summer watering hole of wealthy English and Russian families. Now, with the wild popularity of the Côte d’Azur, Biarritz was out of fashion, a stop for tourists en route to Spain. For the Hamilton group, Biarritz meant home stays and grammar review. Stagg and Davis lived with a warmhearted widow, Madame Salerni, who drove them to Spain for a shopping expedition and fed them multicourse meals twice a day. Before dinner, she would carry a tureen into their room for them to taste and approve.
On September 16, 1963, Davis picked up a copy of the Herald Tribune. The newspaper was as much an American institution in France as the American Express office or the English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Co. Reading the Trib was a way of going home from abroad. What Davis read that day, in the front page headlines and the wire service story that followed, was branded on her consciousness forever. Four 14-year-old girls had died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Of the four—Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins—Robertson was a close friend of Davis’s sister Fania, and Wesley lived in the house just behind the Davises’.
The first Herald Tribune article, from the United Press wire service, begins with the fact of the bombing and the death of the four girls and notes in the second paragraph that “thousands of enraged Negroes poured from their homes into the area around the shattered 16th Street Baptist Church.” The article then reports that city officials feared trouble at night and called for help, that Governor Wallace rushed state policemen to the city and ordered the National Guard to stand by, that it took the police “two hours to disperse the screaming surging crowd of 2000 Negroes who ran to the church at the sound of the blast,” and that the incident sent fear through a city where bombings had become a common occurrence. Nowhere does it say that the targets of those earlier bombings were always blacks. Not until the eleventh paragraph are the four dead girls mentioned by name. Not until the very last column of the article is there any discussion of possible perpetrators. Finally, a police officer’s account is paraphrased: “A call went out on the police radio for a 1960-model car occupied by two men. The officer said the men were dark skinned and could be either white men or Negroes.”
In hindsight the article seems idiotic. Was it really suggesting that the Birmingham church bombing could have been perpetrated by black men? A man is quoted whose granddaughter is among the victims; he says he would like to blow the town up. There is a description of a preacher wandering through the crowd, asking people to go home. When Davis wrote her autobiography a decade later, she recalled the moment she picked up that issue of the Herald Tribune, the devastation and her feeling that her white friends on the Hamilton program were incapable of understanding it. She remembered walking away from them to be alone with her grief. She doesn’t quote the newspaper accounts, but reading them today gives a visceral sense of how deep white incomprehension went, especially in the mainstream press.
French newspapers were more sensitive than the Herald Tribune to what had happened in Birmingham. L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party, set the tone with a teaser on its front page on September 16: “Racist terror still reigns in Alabama.” The headline of an article inside the paper focused on the criminals. The article itself described men and women running out of the church covered with blood and collapsing on the sidewalk, and pointed out that the church had served as a meeting place for civil rights groups. It also noted that two whites had fled the scene, and concluded that after the bombing, Governor Wallace ordered the area encircled by soldiers to prevent demonstrations.
The popular illustrated weekly Paris Match—a favorite of American teachers of French because of its accessible language, its gossip and big black-and-white photos—sent a reporter to Birmingham in the wake of the bombing. Its lead article presented George Wallace as a menacing figure: at a Baltimore press conference on racial problems he had quipped that “everyone was talking about attacks but there had been no deaths.” Paris Match ventured a reaction: “Our correspondents who heard Wallace, governor of Alabama, pronounce these words on television had the feeling he was practically deploring the terrorists’ lack of efficiency.” The Birmingham deaths, it added, “occurred only seventy-two hours later.” This was interpretation; it was political writing, imputing motives from facts, and it appeared in the most middle-of-the-road, pro-American, mass-market publication in France. Like the Herald Tribune, Paris Match emphasized the danger of escalating violence by running a huge photograph of a burly white policeman, blood running down his face. But in the story it told, the perpetrators of the violence were not in the black community; they were on the side of the forces of order: “les chiens policiers, les aiguillons électriques et les bombes” (police dogs, electric prods and bombs).
A teaser at the top of the Paris Match report conveyed the extent to which the French were making sense of the violence in the American South, in part by projection of their own situation: “Our own special correspondents in the States where an Algerian War seems to be starting.” The irony is that under French government pressure, many mainstream French newspapers and magazines had whitewashed the massacre of Algerian demonstrators by the Paris police on October 17 and 18, 1961. The French press—and the Herald Tribune as well—would report only two or three deaths in the Algerian demonstration and remain silent about the rest. The reason wasn’t only that it was less painful for the French press to locate racism in the exotic American South than it was to name it down the street. It was also a matter of literal repression––French newspapers had to worry about censorship or even seizure if they reported police or army violence against Algerians. But there was nothing to prevent the French press from reacting critically to American racial violence.
* * *
When the Hamilton students embarked on their studies in Paris, they were tracked according to their fluency in French; Davis was in the most advanced group, taking her courses directly at the Sorbonne, along with other international students. She was one of only six students out of the group who were advanced enough for the most difficult program of all—an intensive course in contemporary literature at a special Sorbonne institute. Twelve years later, during a television interview, she could still recite the institute’s full name, “L’École de préparation et de perfectionnement des professeurs de français à l’étranger,” smiling as she let the familiar phrase roll off her tongue. The mission of the institute, which was affiliated with the literature departments at the Sorbonne, was to train educators who would be teaching French abroad, whether they were themselves French or had learned French as a second language. Along with the six Hamilton students, there were about sixty other students in the lecture course, who came from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. They attended two hours of lecture each week on poetry, fiction and theater, for a total of six hours.
One of Davis’s Paris housemates, Jane Chaplin, who had taken an intensive immersion track in French in high school, chose a class at the Institut d’études politiques, where the young Jacqueline Bouvier had studied international relations with Pierre Renouvin. Chaplin took a course in contemporary ideas, but she skipped the lecture, inaudible in the big amphitheater. Instead, she concentrated her work in the sections, taught by 30-year-old Pierre Joxe, future minister of the interior, and Alain de Sédouy, who in 1969 produced Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, a film often credited with undermining the myth of global French resistance to the Nazis. Joxe and de Sédouy were bright young Frenchmen, the best that Sciences Po had to offer, and in 1963 the questioning of France’s wartime behavior was just beyond the horizon.
Davis, Chaplin and Christie Stagg lodged with a family by the name of Lamotte on a quiet street in the sixteenth arrondissement just off the Place de l’Étoile. The Lamottes occupied three floors of an apartment building. Davis was in the mother-in-law’s apartment on the first floor, sharing a room with Stagg; Chaplin lived several floors up, in the Lamotte family apartment. Micheline Lamotte, their host mother, was born in 1919 in Auteuil, a wealthy district on the western edge of Paris. When I interviewed her in 2010, she was 90. Though she complained that she had slowed down, she seemed little diminished by age. She told me that she had always been a spirited woman who, along with her future husband, had been drawn in her youth to the anti-parliamentarian movements of the 1930s, especially the Croix-de-Feu, a nationalist movement of World War I veterans. On February 6, 1934, a date that has become synonymous with right-wing revolt, veterans groups and right-wing militias demonstrated against the National Assembly on the Place de la Concorde, and a riot broke out. Monsieur Lamotte was there, Madame Lamotte told me proudly.
Micheline Lamotte had been a restless student who was thrown out of the Lycée Molière the year before the baccalaureate exams. She considered herself an athlete and an activist, and her hero was the French aviator Mermoz, a Croix-de-Feu leader. “All my children had a rebellious spirit,” she explained, in the presence of her son, “and all of them were dunces.” She joined the Resistance as soon as France was occupied by the Nazis. Her granddaughter Camille grew up hearing the tale of her grandmother’s arrest at the Brasserie la Lorraine for independent acts of resistance, and how she was imprisoned for four months at La Santé, until she was released to make room for communists. Davis, Stagg and Chaplin never heard about her arrest for resistance, but they did hear often about the war and about the German enemy—a concept that by 1963 must have seemed somewhat abstract to them. Chaplin remembers Madame’s barbs against Germans, against workers, against the North Africans (“les Nordasses”).
Micheline Lamotte presents a dizzying set of ideological paradoxes, though she was not unusual for her era. There were other right-wing nationalists in the Resistance—including Jacqueline Bouvier’s host mother, the Comtesse de Renty. But how to reconcile her fierce anti-communism with her esteem—then and now—for her most famous foreign boarder, whose views were always clearly on the left? Chaplin attributes Madame Lamotte’s respect for Davis to “Angela’s exquisite French, her magnificent fluency.” Madame would say, “Angela a toujours le mot juste” (Angela always finds just the right word). In my interview, Madame Lamotte uttered the very same sentence. And she was convinced that Angela Davis had a French grandparent. It may have been a nationalist fantasy: if Davis had such a perfect mastery of the language, didn’t she have to be, at least in part of her being, one of them?
To this day, Madame is proud of her house rules for dinner: No English spoken. Come to the table on time. Do not wear rollers in your hair. The American students, Madame explained, were so unaccustomed to the multicourse sit-down dinners that she had always considered a regular feature of everyday life that they often took out their brownie cameras to capture a blanquette de veau, a strawberry tart or an assortment of cheeses. Stagg and Chaplin remember that the Lamottes’ traditional midday meal was copious, but it wasn’t included in their room and board. The meal they did share with the family was the minimalist French supper––leftovers from the family’s grand lunch, a salad and an occasional egg or portion of cheese. Afterward, they relied on the jars of yogurt they kept in their rooms to appease their hunger.
Chaplin was born Jane Kaplan. She was a year old, in 1945, when her parents changed their family name to something less recognizably Jewish. She had blue eyes and blond hair, and so, as she told me, “she could pass.” But she wanted to know what Madame Lamotte’s attitude would be once she knew her boarder was Jewish. At Hanukkah, she decided to buy a cake and ask the Lamottes to celebrate her people’s holiday with her. From that point on, she remembers, her relations with the family degenerated. “It was an important discovery for me that being Jewish meant something in the world, and that I was experiencing being Jewish through the reactions of other people.”
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Davis’s return to Brandeis for her senior year was a turning point in her intellectual life. She had discovered Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization as a sophomore, when Marcuse was on sabbatical from Brandeis. Now he was back, and under his guidance Davis worked on the equivalent of a second specialization, in philosophy, beginning with an independent study of the pre-Socratics and moving steadily forward through Plato and Aristotle. She audited Marcuse’s undergraduate course on European political thought and his graduate seminar on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. But she maintained her official specialization in French, and in 1965 completed a senior thesis about the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet.
In Robbe-Grillet, Davis had chosen the writer most closely associated at the time with the avant-garde of contemporary French fiction. Robbe-Grillet’s publisher was Éditions de Minuit, a press that began underground during the Resistance and had since become renowned for its commitment to experimental writing. Robbe-Grillet rejected the generation of writers who had reached their pinnacle of glory at the Liberation—message-bound existentialists like Sartre, Beauvoir or even Camus at his most absurd, who believed that literature was the result of a situation and a struggle. By 1965 Robbe-Grillet had published six novels as well as a collection of critical essays in which he contested every received idea about fiction since La princesse de Clèves. Literature, he argued, was a world apart, and the revolution that interested him took place in the writing itself.
If there were any need to confirm what Davis’s fellow students said about her intellectual powers, and how they seemed to surpass theirs, her Robbe-Grillet thesis would suffice. At 21, Davis already possessed the analytic rigor and the sense of the urgency of critique that would characterize her future work. In the thesis she writes not merely as an attentive reader of Robbe-Grillet but as a fierce advocate of a cause: the New Novel and its revolutionary potential for understanding contemporary reality. By “reality” she meant the atom bomb, the growing anonymity of contemporary man—it was always “man” in those years, rather than human or humankind—defined by a registration number in a vast bureaucracy and the machines that fragmented his existence. This reality, she argued, meant that the traditional novel with its willful characters and straightforward plot no longer corresponded to the world as it existed. What Davis valued about Robbe-Grillet was what she called his “phenomenological attitude,” a quality she defined in reference to Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, who had come to philosophy through Husserl and Heidegger, just as she was doing.
Though she does not mention political issues in her thesis, Davis reached a conclusion that expresses her struggle to balance the life of the mind with political action. She pointed out that Robbe-Grillet’s novels, owing to their experimental character, were inaccessible. Robbe-Grillet had published no novels since In the Labyrinth (1959) and had turned instead to film scenarios. Davis’s explanation of the shift was that film had replaced the novel “in its capacity to create and to destroy myths of society.” Film, she suggested, had become “the most widespread means of communication with the masses of men today.” She had great hopes for the future of this novelist turned filmmaker: “Perhaps it is by the intermediary of the film that [Robbe-Grillet] will firmly launch a movement dedicated to the purpose of teaching man to see the world and to see himself with eyes liberated from the constraints of outmoded and ineffective myths.” “Masses,” “movement” and “liberation”: the important concepts for her in evaluating this literature were already political.
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Even before becoming a public figure, Davis had left the field of French literature behind. Her teachers, especially Marcuse, expected her to make an important contribution to philosophy. While she never abandoned French thought, her relationship to France expanded to accommodate her growing curiosities and passions. It is easy to imagine how it might have gone differently, how she might have lived a rather private intellectual life as a political philosopher. In 1965 she moved to Germany to study with Theodor Adorno, the most difficult and revered surviving member of the Frankfurt School.
By now her engagement to Manfred Clemenz was off. She took up residence in Frankfurt in a communal living space called The Factory with like-minded left-wing German students, most of them sociologists. The closer she got to the community of German radicals, the more they wanted to hear from her about the various African-American liberation movements taking shape. As she read about political developments on the American left, and especially among African-American activists like the Black Panthers, she felt the same tug she had felt in Biarritz when she read about the church bombing in Birmingham. After two years in Frankfurt, she returned to the United States to finish her PhD with Marcuse, who had moved from Brandeis to the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation topic was Immanuel Kant’s theory of violence, one based in large part on Kant’s reaction to the French Revolution. News of the taking of the Bastille, the story goes, thrilled him so that he forgot to take his customary afternoon walk.
In the late 1960s, that time of intense interest in revolutionary thought, many of the key texts were French: Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi and Jean-Paul Sartre on colonialism and postcolonialism; Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Henri Alleg on torture; Henri Lefebvre and Louis Althusser on Marxist theory; Daniel Guérin on anarchism. Because of her training in French and German, Davis had access to political and cultural analyses that hadn’t yet circulated in English: her sense of radical politics was informed by French and German political philosophers, and her understanding of their thought was in turn informed by the political climate around her.
Like many graduate students of her generation, Davis began working as an instructor after completing her oral exams. Yale and Swarthmore offered her jobs, but she decided to accept a lectureship at UCLA because it would allow her time to finish her dissertation. Her trajectory toward the PhD was swift, and it looked like she would finally be able to combine political work in her community with academic work at her university in a meaningful way.
Political groups that looked beyond American boundaries and approached the struggle against racism as an international issue were rare in those years. Traditional Marxists hadn’t thought enough about race; Black Power movements were taking a nationalist turn. Davis had to search for several years before finding an organization that corresponded to her intellectual affinities. The Che-Lumumba Club in Los Angeles, which she joined in 1968, was composed of African-Americans affiliated with the Communist Party who had named themselves after Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba, the fallen revolutionaries of Cuba and the Belgian Congo. Their political work and their analysis focused on race, and they were sympathetic to the work of the Black Panthers, though skeptical about black power without socialism. Their working models for society were postrevolutionary Algeria and Cuba.
It was in part through her connection to the club that Davis appeared on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in August 1970. There had been a shootout in the Marin County courthouse, which resulted in the death of a judge, two prisoners and the gunman, an African-American high school student named Jonathan Jackson. The guns Jackson used, registered in Davis’s name, had been taken from the Che-Lumumba safe house, and in his knapsack were several of Davis’s French texts, including a sociology journal on post-independence Algeria and Daniel Guérin’s L’anarchisme. One of the first things the authorities thought significant about Davis was that she had spent a year in France. The FBI interviewed every student on the Hamilton program. They contacted the French Ministry of the Interior, which sent out a bulletin forbidding her entry into the country: “Angela Davis, American communist, member of the Black Panthers, now wanted in the United States for accessory to murder, might have found refuge in France, according to the American press…. We are keeping a lookout for her name in hotel and boardinghouse ledgers.” French police conducted a preliminary investigation, gathering the only relevant documents they could find on French territory—Hamilton College’s Paris files.
Meanwhile, whatever their differences and quarrels, intellectuals in that large ideological swath known as the Parisian left found in the cause of Angela Davis a symbol for their own aspirations. Several groups rallied to support her. One was led by Jean Genet, through his work for the Panthers (Davis had served as his translator on his 1970 visit to the UCLA campus). The French Communist Party, which until the Mitterrand era had routinely won more votes than any party on the left and wielded more political clout than the Socialists, sent an official observer to her trial. A third support group was led by Michel Foucault, through the Group for Information on Prisons. As a result of their combined efforts, and in an astonishing twist of fate, the same writers Davis had read and written about as a 20-year-old student abroad in 1963–64 and as a French major at Brandeis—men and women she would never have expected to meet—had now come to her defense.
While Davis was still in prison in New York after her capture by the FBI in October 1970, 400 French intellectuals sent an appeal to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, protesting her inhuman treatment and demanding her release. They included Daniel Guérin, who didn’t yet know that his book on anarchism had been found in Jonathan Jackson’s knapsack and would figure in Angela Davis’s trial; the poet Jacques Prévert, who wrote a poem for Davis; and the editorial board of Cahiers du Cinéma. In July 1971 Genet circulated a petition calling for a committee in support of black political prisoners; his statement quoted Davis, arguing that “repression will only cease if a mass movement intervenes to make the enemy back off.” Signing for the cause were two of the New Novelists Davis had studied, Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras. Another signatory was Juliette Greco, darling of the postwar Saint-Germain-des-Prés jazz scene and a former lover of Miles Davis. Actress Maria Casarès, Camus’s great love, and the daughter of the last prime minister of republican Spain, signed as well. Robbe-Grillet, the subject of Davis’s senior essay and the man who believed that his total commitment to literature had only an “obscure and remote” connection to revolution, signed a letter to Governor Ronald Reagan with Louis Aragon, Foucault and Picasso, among others. It was a demand for bail, written in English in sentences whose intricate syntax was a rare sight in the California governor’s office:
So that there may be at least a minimum certainty that Angela Davis’ fight for life will take place in an open court and not in the obscure depths of some prison cell block beyond the scrutiny of those for whom her fate is inevitably linked with the fate of dissent in the United States, we the undersigned urge that Angela Davis be set free on bail at once.
It must have seemed as though her own education were parading before her, reaching out in solidarity. Support for Davis was not confined to intellectuals. Rank-and-file communists along with thousands of others on the left, who, since the revolutionary events of May 1968, were accustomed to gathering in the streets around social issues, wrote to her and marched. L’Humanité estimated at 60,000 the number of supporters who, in October 1971, followed the two-and-a-half-mile path from the new Communist Party headquarters on the Place du Colonel Fabien to the Place de la Bastille, the city’s revolutionary heart. At the head of the procession was Aragon, poet of the Resistance and dean of literary communism, arm-in-arm with Fania Davis Jordan, who was touring Europe in Davis’s defense. Fania evoked France’s revolutionary traditions and expressed her gratitude for a show of support that was like no other she had seen on her world tour. She called for her sister’s liberation, for a halt to prison assassinations, for the unconditional return of American troops from Vietnam. Her speech was broadcast on French national radio. She spoke in what the radio announcer described as “more than correct French.” Like her big sister, Fania had majored in French.
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France has a long history of female icons who represent revolt and revolution, for whom passion is revolutionary passion: Jeanne d’Arc, the Catholic martyr and voyante; Madame Roland, the revolutionary; Louise Michel, heroine of the Paris Commune; Marianne, symbol of the French Republic; Djamila Boupacha, successor to Djamila Bouhired, painted by Picasso; and, finally, Angela Davis, the girl who read the anti-Algerian graffiti on Paris walls in 1962, who befriended a family of Martiniquan immigrants in a Paris chambre de bonne and who continues, beyond the specific events of the 1970s, to haunt the imagination of French writers and artists.
Daniel Maximin, a Guadeloupean novelist, has constructed his national epic, L’Isolé soleil, around three characters named Angela, George and Jonathan who reappear in two incarnations. In one, the story of Davis’s imprisonment is made to echo the slave rebellion that took place on the island in 1802. In the other, Maximin takes pieces of language whole cloth from the French translation of Davis’s autobiography, including the letters she quoted from George Jackson, the brother of Jonathan Jackson. Jonathan, the “man-child,” the boy who had to grow up before his time, becomes ti-mâle.
In 2010 Rachid Bouchareb, the Franco-Algerian filmmaker known for his films about racism in the French Army (Indigènes) and the massacre of Algerians at Sétif (Hors la loi), announced his intention to make a biopic about Davis. In an interview in the Algerian newspaper El Watan, he said that what had drawn him to Davis’s story was his vision of the African-American student in Paris, conversing with Algerians in Barbès-Rochechouart. Even Yannick Noah, the tennis star turned pop singer, has celebrated Davis with a song called “Angela,” about “the angel who protests.” In multiracial Aubervilliers, a suburb of northeast Paris and still a communist stronghold, a nursery school has been named L’École Maternelle Angela Davis—a school for the France of tomorrow.
When she was a child, Angela Davis found a way to be free by speaking French. Today, French speakers see her story as part of a myth of freedom made from a few essential elements: African-American girl studying in France acquires revolutionary wisdom from the decolonization struggles and returns home to challenge the powers that be and triumphs over her enemies. A story told by Daniel Maximin and Rachid Bouchareb; by taxi drivers and secretaries and thousands of ordinary French citizens. The details change; their power remains.