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.