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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

Ex-Patriations, Diasporic Motions

In the Steps of the Griots: Traveling Bards in Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris

Delphine Gras


This paper explores the figure of the griot in Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris (2000). More precisely, it traces how the protagonist Eden becomes an itinerant bard, historian, and exhorter who retraces Black Atlantic routes while proudly asserting her roots as member of the African Diaspora. Through her mental and physical journeys, the heroine creates cartographies of experience that seek to better express one’s feelings and grow as individual and as artist, attesting to the need to maintain a sense of imagined community to fight the lasting effects of racism as a global phenomenon, a discrimination that she feels doubly as a Black woman. Following her predecessors James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, the protagonist comes to embody a new generation of bards who encourage us to look at the past and learn not to declare too quickly a ‘post-race’ era. She represents a new generation of griots, those Jean Ouédraogo fits under the category of ‘griot novateur ou explorateur’ (86), because their roles go beyond upholding tradition and keeping a record of history. But while Ouédraogo focuses on works set in West Africa, I expand this definition to include writers like Youngblood who also carry on the legacy of the griots, their art outliving colonialism and slavery. In fact under the pen of a writer like Youngblood, who answers Amiri Baraka’s call to offer ‘what the Griot/Djali provided, information, inspiration, reformation, and self-determination’ (Suso 82), the griots’ art finds a new breath in the Americas.

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  • 1 Though this essay focuses on Black Girl in Paris, the concept of the griot permeates Youngblood’s w (...)

1This essay explores the figure of the griot in Shay Youngblood’s novel Black Girl in Paris. More precisely, it focuses on how the protagonist Eden becomes an itinerant historian, a teacher, and an exhorter who retraces Black Atlantic routes while proudly claiming her roots as a member of the African Diaspora.1 Throughout the narrative we follow Eden’s mental and physical journeys to accomplish her initiation into the art of storytelling, leaving her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama for Paris, France. The friendships she makes in the city of lights and the difficulties she experiences as an expatriate exemplify the need for her to maintain a sense of belonging in order to fight the lasting effects of racism as a global phenomenon, a discrimination that she feels doubly as a Black woman. In this novel, Youngblood demonstrates how Eden becomes a griotte who honors her predecessors while rewriting historical and literary accounts to find a voice for herself, ultimately encouraging her own contemporary readers to reevaluate idealized representations of the state of racism and sexism in the United States and in France.

  • 2 Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined community, though referring to the rise of nationalism, pro (...)

2A successful and innovative writer, African American Shay Youngblood is relatively unknown to large audiences and deserves more scholarly attention. By focusing on the griotte as a figure that at once serves to uphold past traditions, provide a strong female character, and denounce racial discrimination as a global phenomenon, this essay builds on the few recent works that exist on Youngblood’s writings. In particular, I draw inspiration from Joni Jones’s focus on African Diasporic conjuring in Youngblood’s plays, Mary Deming and Maria Valeri-Gold’s exploration of strong female characters in Big Mama’s Stories, and Suzanne Jones’s study of U.S. expatriates in Paris and the parallels between Southern U.S. and French racism. Black Girl in Paris stands out for the ways Youngblood combines all the aforementioned themes thanks to the figure of the griotte, a female musician-historian who maintains historical records and fosters an imagined community.2

  • 3 Youngblood’s ‘Telling Stories at Friday Late Night’ at the Dallas museum of art exemplifies her own (...)

3Moreover, Youngblood’s style is as engagingly provocative as her many themes. Her work testifies to her desire to enter public discourse through writing—what is deemed proper and official—while continuing to celebrate the verbal and musical art of the griot—a millennial tradition that has been central in sustaining a sense of belonging throughout the African Diaspora.3 Youngblood documents how this African art has emerged in transcultured ways among members of the African Diaspora. In her quest to address the double-burden that the protagonist and numerous others face, Youngblood mirrors this reshaping of traditional modes of expression by offering a collage of visual, oral, scriptural, and typed texts, expanding the possibilities for contemporary writers who take on the role of the bard. Youngblood offers an eclectic text that combines a plurality of narrative voices, lines drawn on the page, as well as various mementos of her heroine’s journey that adorn the first page of each chapter: a boat ticket, pictures of Notre-Dame, of the Eiffel Tower, of a café; maps of the Louvre Museum, of Paris, of the École des Beaux-Arts, of the Jardin des Plantes, of the Cimetière Montparnasse, of Versailles, of the Bibliothèque Nationale; museum, train, bus, and metro passes; and many more visual representations of her protagonist’s travels. The result is a highly hybrid text that defies genre boundaries.

4As we follow Eden’s training as a female griotte, it becomes clear that she too has to redefine this tradition and create cartographies of experience to grow as a Black woman artist. Eden’s journey sheds light on the need for griottes to recuperate and retell stories that center on Black female experiences. She learns to write in-between the lines in order to uncover silenced voices and to find her own. The reader can actually visualize this throughout the novel, for each chapter begins with the narrator’s words written in-between lines, a graphic representation of Eden using her guide to Paris as ‘a dream journal, writing between the lines’ (14). And it is quite telling how the first-person narrator first identifies herself as a woman gathering the skills to become a writer: ‘I wanted that kind of life even though I was a woman and did not yet think of myself as a writer. I was a mapmaker’ (2). Eden recognizes the difficulties facing her as a foreigner and as a woman. But rather than presenting herself as a victim, she describes herself as an explorer who has to learn to navigate the city as well as the discourses that surround it, even if that means taking a critical distance from her predominantly male predecessors. Her readings of previous texts and contemporary Parisian landscapes are not passive acts of intellectual and sensory ingestion. Instead, as suggested by the mapmaking metaphor, Eden sketches out a new expressive landscape for herself as well as a guide for her future readers to revisit France.

5Focusing on a wandering historian who might be naïve at first, but who increasingly denounces the global nature of racism and sexism, Black Girl in Paris showcases a protagonist who has to travel extensively, literally as well as internally, in order to find her voice. Reinforcing the status of griots as worldwide travelers, this narrative confirms Thomas Hale’s claim that itinerant learning is a necessary step to become master griots (Hale 1998). Tumultuous as it may be, her journey plays an integral part in her growth. Every chapter opens with a new job and new skills to acquire. In fact, her different occupations correspond to the different stages in her training as a griotte: museum guide, traveling companion, artist’s model, au pair, poet’s helper, lover, English teacher, thief, and witness. These jobs constitute progressive steps in Eden’s evolution and they come to organize the book as a whole, with each chapter named after one of them. This original structure departs from traditional chapter organization, reinforcing the necessity to break down accepted literary norms. While this has led some critics like Suzanne Jones to deem the structure of the novel episodic, it is also possible to read the structure as intentionally evoking the necessary phases in the training of bards. In this sense, the list above exemplifies the bard’s widening palette of talents, because her roles are not limited to the ones developed in this essay (traveling historian, teacher, and exhorter) but conjure up the much larger list of attributes traditionally associated with the griots. In what has been an unequalled study of the griots for its comprehensiveness, Hale devotes a chapter of Griots and Griottes to describing in detail the intricacies of the various roles of the griot as genealogist, historian, advisor, spokesperson, diplomat, mediator, interpreter and translator, musician, composer, teacher, exhorter, warrior, witness, praise-singer, and ceremony participant. In Black Girl in Paris, the guide, traveling companion, and poet’s helper evoke the position as advisor, while her employment as an English teacher, a nanny, and a witness suggests her ability to work as an educator. Even her episode as a thief brings to mind the pejorative view held for centuries among European observers of the African bard as a beggar who takes advantage of the members of his audience (See Hale 1998: 59–113; Leymarie 1999: 17–21).

6In each chapter, Eden learns from her guides, teachers, and employers, regardless of her personal relation with them. As she explains about her otherwise haughty and prejudiced employer when she works as an au pair, for example, ‘She is a good teacher, and I am the perfect student’ (97). She then proceeds to write down some of the recipes that she learns with Miss Ann. But she goes beyond repeating the knowledge of others to make it her own, revises the received information, and continues the chain of knowledge. For instance, Eden appropriates the passed down recipes by inserting them in one of the numerous lists of ‘How to’ instructions that she shares with her reader throughout the narrative: ‘seven rules for living’ (44), ‘how to look at art’ (83), ‘how to be an au pair’ (88), ‘how to be a poet’s helper’ (130) or ‘how to be a whore (if all else fails)’ (201). Eden crafts instructions just as much as she receives them, offering personalized guides to her readers based on lived experiences. Part of the larger project to blur genre boundaries and write between the lines, Eden’s lists are meant to teach others. In this sense, beyond teaching revolution to the two girls she babysits, Eden also shares her acquired lessons with a larger audience. With these lists permeating the narrative, the narrator announces her freethinking and verbal skills as a griotte, as indicated by the repeated use of irony and double-meaning. As Eden writes early on, ‘make your own rules and break everyone of them. Every rule is meant to be broken’ (52). Though she receives guidance from others, she wants to remain independent, just as the griot can praise a ruler or a commoner, sing praises or call for war.

7Eden’s first interaction with fellow African American artist Inego officializes her entrance into the family of traveling historians. From a family of musicians, this Texan has acquired his knowledge wandering the world. As a master griot with extensive experience, he immediately becomes her guide, ‘Just like that, I became his traveling companion and he became my teacher my guide’ (42). Accepted by Inego at once as a ‘soul sister’ (42) sent by Hughes, Eden accompanies him on a tour to retrace the steps of her francophone and anglophone forefathers. More than a tourist guide, Inego becomes the oral historian who enables her to reconnect with her past: ‘he lectured me on African history like a griot, a storyteller whose responsibility it is to pass on the history of the tribe’ (52). Inego is the most direct reference to the griot. Eden identifies him as an African bard keeping history and collective memory alive. His lessons connect her back to her roots and give her sustenance, as evidenced by the food metaphor she uses to describe her avidity as a learner: ‘I eat his stories’ (48). Even his name ‘Black-Smith’ recalls the status of griots as wordsmiths whose extraordinary skills fashioning words likens them to blacksmiths and sorcerers. Though referring to another character, Eden gives the reader a key to understanding her as a griotte, who, as we learn later on, takes her ‘responsibility’ to teach and change others very seriously (99, 100, 102).

  • 4 While this is not within the scope of this essay, the intertextuality between Eden and her forefath (...)

8Just like Inego, Eden upholds the West African tradition, whereby the bards learn and refine their art by traveling, often reaching that rank when they are in their forties. She sees her European journey as an integral part of her initiation, as indicated by the epigraph opening the novel. Excerpted from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it states ‘If you go there in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you’. This line, which reappears almost like a chorus only a few pages later, foreshadows Eden’s attempt to emulate ‘her heroes’ James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Josephine Baker, Bricktop, and Richard Wright and to ‘be just like them’ (8). She follows the footsteps of her artistic forefathers and foremothers to France precisely because she attributes their success to their experiences as expatriates: ‘All had lived in Paris as if it had been part of their training for greatness’ (1).4 For Eden, the city of light is more than a vacation destination: it is meant to become the birthplace of her literary and artistic education. In the words of critic Anna Keesey, Eden ‘seeks to grow into a writer in the city of her heroes, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and especially James Baldwin. For them and for her, she believes, Paris is the city of education, of freedom, of dreams’ (Keesey 2000).

9Right away, Eden lists dates and accumulates biographical information about various African American artists. In this way, she begins to uphold the role of the griot as historian from the very first chapter. Before even introducing herself, Eden provides the reader with a short biography of Hughes:

Langston Hughes, the Negro Poet Laureate of Harlem, author of The Big Sea, arrived in Paris with seven dollars in his pocket. He worked as a doorman, second cook, and dishwasher at a jazz club on rue Pigalle. He wrote blues poems and stories and lived a poet’s life. He wrote about the joys of living as well as the heartache.

10She lists the publications that inspired her, details his various occupations, and notes how his economic situation in Paris did not prevent him from being a prolific writer. In his autobiography, Hughes shares his ‘thrill’ of going to France (Hughes 1986: 142), and while he experiences hunger (145, 147, 149, 151), police harassment (146), limited employment (146), bad housing (150), anti-foreign sentiment (154), and inclement weather (164), Hughes also becomes the poet of the Harlem Renaissance during his French sojourn, when Alain Locke comes to visit him and invites him to participate in the special issue of the Survey Graphic (185). It is on French soil that Hughes becomes a central writer of the Harlem Renaissance. After commenting on his social ascent claiming, ‘I was coming up in the world’ (157) and comparing himself to ‘an Alger boy’ (167), Hughes concludes his European rags-to-riches story with those words: ‘Ten months before, I had got to Paris with seven dollars. I had been in France, Italy, and Spain. And after the grand Tour of the Mediterranean, I came home with a quarter, so my first European trip cost me exactly six dollars and seventy-five cents’ (201). Although his Parisian adventures are far from idyllic, the conclusion to this episode is overwhelmingly positive, a complex yet encouraging model to follow.

11Eden draws her inspiration from Hughes’s biography. As a genealogist and historian, she corresponds to what Thomas Hale and Adam Banks call a ‘time binder, ’ a bard who navigates between the past and the present to influence future events. It is only after providing this data that she shares personal information about herself: ‘My name is Eden, and I’m not afraid of anything anymore. Like my literary godfathers who came to Paris before me, I intend to live a life in which being black won’t hold me back’ (4). Looking back at Hughes’s legacy provides the protagonist with the desire to travel, write, and be proud to be black. As she declares her intention not to be held back, Hughes’s 1926 words come to mind: ‘We know we are beautiful. And ugly too [...] We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves’ (Hughes 1926: 30). In more ways than one, Eden pays tribute to Hughes and the New Negro Renaissance as central to the development of Black expatriate griots who uphold African Diasporic traditions.

12In this journey, it is no coincidence that Langston Hughes is one of the central inspirational figures for Eden, because he is representative of a much larger wave of travelers and expatriates to France, which developed during and after World War I. Particularly during the interwar years, France held a special place for African Americans and other members of the African Diaspora. Indeed, World War I brought people of African ancestry together and many decided to stay afterward, either in search of better economic opportunities or for fear of encountering a much more violent strand of racism; such was the case for African Americans, for instance, as the lynching rate was particularly high after the Reconstruction Era (see Edwards 2001; Fabre 1993). As a result, interwar Paris mirrored Harlem as a Black cultural capital, if not in magnitude and population density, at least in the diversity of its participants and its vibrant activities in the music clubs and literary salons.

13Half a century later, Eden visits clubs and literary salons that closely resemble the ones at the heart of the international New Negro Renaissance. In particular, Professor May Day’s Sunday sit-downs that figure in the novel are highly reminiscent of the Clamart salon that the Martinican Nardal sisters organized on Sunday afternoons in the 1930s. There, members of the African Diaspora would gather to discuss the ways to fight against racial discrimination, with, for instance, publications like La Revue du Monde Noir, which marked the premises of Négritude (see Sharpley-Whiting 2002). Similarly, in the novel, Professor May Day’s get-togethers attract people from Haiti, Cameroon, the United States, Guadeloupe, and Mexico, allowing Eden to escape her feelings of being ‘homesick’ (167) and instead to feel a sense of connectedness ‘with soul food and black people’ (168), right along the steps of her predecessors.

14These meetings give Eden a sense of place and belonging, all the more necessary given her turbulent experiences in France as an independent and relatively poor budding artist with no stable job or housing. In fact, Olu-Christophe invites her for the first time to Professor May Day’s at a crucial moment in the novel, when Eden is physically and emotionally exhausted. Instead of finding inspiration and success immediately upon her arrival in Paris, Eden does not even have the time or strength to write because she is merely surviving, with very little money or free time and two employers who overwork her. Far from being free in the city of lights, she is also verbally and physically assaulted for walking hand in hand with Ving, the white American musician she meets in Paris. As Professor May Day rightfully claims, ‘This ain’t no paradise’ (172). But at these meetings, Eden can find an understanding audience and peers who will treat her as an equal rather than as a representative of a group with ‘a history of serving people’ who have to continue waiting on their employers ‘hand and foot, like a slave’ (122). Instead of giving up her hopes to find her voice as a writer or to one day be able to transcend racism, Eden regains her strength and makes her French literary debut, sharing a poem, while the rest of the participants encourage and join in ‘Call and response. Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean’ (173). These expatriates from the African Diaspora give her a sense of imagined community. Though from various countries, each member has experienced a form of discrimination. It is thus by coming together as a group that they can find support and hopefully design ways to overcome racism.

15While Eden comments on Professor May Day’s dramatic gestures not without irony, fully aware of his desire to impress his guests and present himself as a secular preacher, she nonetheless appreciates this formerly poor and hungry musician who struck gold when he wrote a successful jazz novel in the early Sixties. His soliloquies are lectures that each member of the audience thoroughly appreciates, including Eden, who enjoys them just as much for his theatrics as for their content. Insisting on the artist’s responsibility to be proud of his/her African roots, he rekindles Du Bois’ motto that ‘all art is propaganda and ever must be’ (Du Bois 1926). He provides a safe place to share artistic works and ideas on politics, upholding the legacy of the New Negro artists who had debated the role of art and the ways of entering the public sphere half a century earlier. His gatherings sharply contrast with David’s monthly soirée, a pseudo-artistic evening that stands out only for its artificiality and its sexual license or the literary salon organized by one of Eden’s employers and only frequented by rich white ladies who see literature as a distraction in their bored luxurious life. Instead, Professor May Day’s Sunday sit-downs offer the guests an opportunity to discuss the hardening of French immigration policies and the increase in deportations, to honor the work of Hughes, recite poems about terrorism, and play drums while denouncing the abuses of the Duvalier regime. These artists are committed to making their art matter and using it to fight discriminatory practices and abuses, chanting in unison ‘no Freedom, no rest’ (176).

16This motto applies to Eden’s art as well as to her role as a teacher. She considers it her duty to educate and change her future readers and the younger generation, here embodied by Chad and Sudan, the two little girls she babysits. For Eden, her role is clear: ‘educate them’ (99). Just like traditional griots, she becomes the preceptor for the wealthy and decides to create change by using ‘every opportunity to teach the future ruling class’ (100). Her education consists in reading Baldwin, playing dressed-up as Josephine Baker or Sojourner Truth, singing gospel and blues, and teaching the children ‘about slavery and the true history of their names’ (100). She denounces discrimination, provides powerful counter-models of strong female performers and revolutionaries, shares the beauty and depth of Black oral traditions, uncovers erased histories, uses the girls’ genealogies to instruct them about the lasting effects of colonialism, and helps them understand contemporary wars and modern slavery. She has one purpose in mind: ‘to teach revolution’ (100).

17In her narrative, just like in her lessons to the children, Eden does not limit herself to mere description and praise, but instead calls for a reevaluation of the mythic status of France as a haven free of racism. She is an exhorter, a time binder who uses her knowledge of the past to build a better future. Her knowledge of the past is of such importance to Eden that she is at first immersed in the myth of Paris built up from her readings of Hughes and Baldwin among others, looking through ‘somebody else’s eyes’ (2). Retracing her mental journey reveals how she reevaluates past knowledge, incorporates new data, and ultimately promotes social change. The novel tellingly opens with the protagonist dreaming and recalling others’ dreams and recollections of Paris: ‘Those who have been and those who still dream mention the quality of the light, the taste of the wine, the joie de vivre, the pleasures of the senses, a kind of freedom to be anonymous and also new’ (2). Here, the line between real memories and dreams is blurred, hinting at the mythic status of the city of lights and foreshadowing Eden’s future disillusionment. As Eden recalls that Baldwin’s ‘angry, articulate essays on race shocked France and compelled witnesses to action’ (7), it seems as though racial discrimination was specific to the United States, and France arises as a compassionate ally in the fight against racism, awarding Baldwin the medal of Legion of Honor (8). In fact, most of Eden’s short biographies in the first chapter follow a rags-to-riches model, emphasizing how poor African Americans can make a name for themselves and earn a living once they reach this paradisiacal destination: Hughes with his mere seven dollars (4), Baldwin only with forty (7), Bricktop penniless (8) and all seemingly found acceptance and success in France. Eden is a ‘witness’ (8) to Baldwin’s success, is ‘transformed’ (8) after learning about Josephine Baker, and ‘born again’ after mentioning Bricktop and Richard Wright.

18Eden at first tries to cling to her dream and the imaginary map of Paris her Aunt Vic had drawn on her kitchen wall (17). With such imprints of positive familiar and literary descriptions of French tolerance, it takes the protagonist time to understand the different guise of French racism. Despite the strong contrast between the expected and the lived as soon as Eden sets foot in the French capital, she seems to block out the dreary reality of ‘the long, narrow room, the low slanted ceiling, the bare whitewashed walls, the potted, musty brown carpet. To my left a cracked porcelain sink with a spigot that ran only cold water’ (2). Instead of the sense of freedom hoped for, the narrator describes a claustrophobic, dark, and dirty hotel room with broken furniture, no amenities, and no ‘pleasure of the senses’. Not only is there no bottle of wine to welcome her, but she does not even get hot water. Yet, recalling Baldwin’s imprisonment, Eden can repeat what sounds like platitudes about France, as when she declares, ‘Even the prisons here are beautiful’ (3). At first it seems that, rather than questioning the legitimacy of the justice system that sent her idol James Baldwin to prison for supposedly stealing hotel sheets, the narrator merely comments on the beauty of the architecture. However, this is a turning point in her reasoning, as it leads Eden to question appearances: ‘Back home you can see the bars on the windows of buildings and houses, so you know they are prisons. Sometimes bondage is invisible’ (3). While still talking about the prison, this last comment takes on a deeper meaning as the word ‘bondage’ also evokes the limitations and legacy of slavery for people of color, announcing that behind its sometimes more subtle form of racism, France might hide similar discriminatory practices to those more blatant in the United States. This realization is part of her remapping of Paris as a place where racism still needs to be uncovered and denounced.

  • 5 As Youngblood explains: ‘Although he did not romanticize the French, he made Paris seem possible fo (...)
  • 6 Even before Baldwin, though not mentioned directly, the works of Claude McKay and Gwendolyn Bennett (...)

19As she gains knowledge and confidence, Eden comes to embody the role of the griot as exhorter. Not naïve as she might seem at first, Eden wants to change her students and readers to build a more tolerant society. As she says so herself, ‘I hope that after reading my books no one will ever enter a room the same way, that they will look at the world differently’ (102). Retracing the steps of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, she enables the reader to reexamine the experience of various expatriates from the African Diaspora in France. Some are famous like Baldwin, others less so but their take on French racism is just as enlightening for the protagonist, like Olu-Christophe about the Duvalier regime or the criminalizing of people without papers. After claiming ‘Langston was there, ’ ‘Jimmy was there’ (1), referring to the two authors familiarly with their first names, Eden inscribes herself among her models: ‘I am there again’ (2). The protagonist joins Baldwin in his desire for exploring his creative and sexual freedom away from home, and in uncovering and denouncing European postcolonial tensions.5 In a city where the legacy of colonialism is clearly causing a plethora of injustices, Eden constantly witnesses bombings that are designed as retaliation against centuries of oppression. Understanding the demands of the terrorists, though not their methods, Eden is more vocal in her indictment of police brutality, racial profiling, and deportation than she is about her fear of being one of the victims. French discriminatory practices are much more direct threats for her. Passively watched as suspect by some, or directly insulted by others for her interracial affair with the white American musician Ving, Eden realizes on numerous occasions that she ‘wasn’t so far from home after all’ (118).6 Re-read in this light, the epigraph from Toni Morrison’s Beloved mentioned earlier can be interpreted differently. What happens again can be the racism and sexism that need to be faced and perhaps relived in order to construct a better future, a notion central to Morrison’s work and her concept of rememory. The fact that this quotation is from Beloved, Morrison’s central work on rememory and the legacy of slavery, would help confirm this alternative interpretation.

20It can also be an invitation to reread the works of one’s predecessors, ‘waiting for you’ to educate you and help you find your inspiration. In this sense, Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris both interrogates the still current myth of French tolerance as well as encourages its readers to reexamine its history by looking at previous canonical and non-canonical works that paved the way for a complex understanding of racism as a global phenomenon. In this sense, Youngblood encourages her readers to reread Hughes and Baldwin and revisit their experiences in France. Rereading Hughes’s The Big Sea and Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son reveals a much more complex vision of France than what the lasting myth of French tolerance seems to indicate. In fact, there are almost exact parallels between their texts and Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris that show that France never was an idyllic destination, be it in the 1920s, or thirty years later when, as Baldwin claims, ‘It is rather more difficult for an American Negro to become a really successful entertainer than it is rumored to have been some thirty years ago’ (Baldwin 1984: 117). For instance, both Hughes’s arrival and Bricktop’s, narrated in The Big Sea, describe their respective disappointments. As mentioned before, Hughes does not immediately become successful and has a hard time finding a job, a place to stay, or even food, as indicated by the lexical field of hunger that permeates his account. Bricktop’s reaction is even more telling: ‘She looked sad. Bricktop had been used to big bands, like Leroy Smith’s, to back her up, and amber spotlights, and feathered costumes, and all the build-up a New York club gives even to its chorus girls. Here she found a small room, a small band, no light effects, no chorus, and not even a dressing room to make change’ (Hughes 1986: 177). Whereas Bricktop had expected to be received in grand style, her arrival in France undermines the myth of French luxury and finesse. What she sees is the complete lack of amenities, as suggested by the numerous ‘nos’. Everything is ‘small’ and does not live up to her expectations. In fact, whereas she, like many of her compatriots, sought to escape America in search of better opportunities, her first reaction is to look back at what she had in America. Baldwin has a similar reaction when he unjustly gets sent to jail and notes, ‘It must have seen that my flight from home was the cruelest trick I had ever played on myself, since it had led me here, down to a lower point than I could ever in my life have imagined—lower, far, than anything I had seen in that Harlem which I had so hated and so loved’ (Baldwin 1984: 150). Yet, Baldwin chose to live in France for many years, Hughes wrote his Survey Graphic poems there, and in the end Bricktop did find success and became ‘the toast of Montmartre, with dukes and princes at her tables’ (Hughes 1986: 178). Whereas their biographies offer a complex vision of France, their successes take precedence over the hardships they might face. But reread through the lens provided by Black Girl in Paris, their stories encourage a reevaluation of the ‘exaggerated hopes of the French’ (Baldwin 1984: 119).

21Youngblood goes one step further, depicting a protagonist who, as a Black woman, faces a double burden and cannot just follow the footsteps of her predecessors. Eden’s coming-of-age as a griotte requires her to come up with her own style, one that is unequivocally musical: ‘I’ll find a word and sing it like it’s the last song I’ll ever sing’ (36). Clearly her mode of expression is that of song, the art of the bard, and her determination is unflinching, as indicated by the repetition of the modal ‘will’ and the intensity implied by her manner of singing ‘like it’s the last song.’ What seem like Eden’s last words are equally telling: ‘I had discovered something that no one could take away from me. I had found a path on my interior map and learned to follow it. There was power in the pen, I knew it for certain. I didn’t need Jimmy to tell me that. It was there all the time, just waiting for me’ (232). Here Eden experiences an epiphany as a writer, realizing that she does not need to talk to Baldwin, but instead needs to listen to herself, be confident, and start sharing her own stories. She follows the words of encouragement of a fellow Black woman writer like Morrison and uses her own interior map to find her voice and self-confidence as a writer who will use ‘the power in the pen’ to denounce the double burden that Black women face to this day, in France and in the United States. And yet, just like oral tradition, the story does not end there. In what looks like an epilogue, Eden becomes a witness, meeting Baldwin after all, even ever so briefly and without talking, only to reaffirm that she has attained the status of griotte without needing his words. What she receives is a silent acknowledgement, ‘Yes, soul sister, you can do anything, ’ a ‘welcome’ among the griots she so admires (236), but on her own terms and with her unique voice. What starts as a literary filiation, a genealogy paying tribute to her predecessors, turns into a validation of her own credentials, as is common practice among griots, and a departure from their legacy to design a unique creative space.

22In Black Girl in Paris, Youngblood depicts Eden as a modern-day griotte, a traveling historian, a teacher, and an exhorter who operates powerful palimpsests to retell and rewrite the experiences of Black expatriates in France. Just like her protagonist, Youngblood invents her own style to honor those before her and share the experiences of Black women. As Youngblood admits in her interview with Daniel Alexander Jones, she is fascinated by white and black expatriates in Paris and has read their work assiduously (Jones 2000: 15). Following Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, who are her predecessors just as much as Eden’s, she comes to embody a new generation of bards who encourage us to look at the past and learn not to declare too quickly a ‘post-race’ era. In so doing, she offers her readers a hybrid text, which is described as ‘infused with the rhythm of poetic phrasings, music that sings to us lullabies of the heart, and the kind of blues you find in the deepest recesses of your soul’ (Review from Southern Voice). She represents those Jean Ouédraogo fits under the category of ‘griot novateur ou explorateur’ (86), because their roles go beyond upholding tradition and keeping a record of history. Ouédraogo focuses on works set in West Africa, and I have expanded this definition here to include writers like Youngblood who also carry on the legacy of the griots, their art outliving colonialism and slavery. She answers Amiri Baraka’s call to offer ‘what the Griot/Djali provided, information, inspiration, reformation, and self-determination’ (Suso 1996: 82) and under her pen the griots’ art finds a new breath in the Americas. In fact, Youngblood is a master griotte who upholds their traditions and redefines them by portraying a griotte in training from her naïve debut to her confident coming to voice. She carries on their legacy, pays tribute to the writers of the New Negro Renaissance and the Black Arts movement, and creates a new space for Black female expression. Her work serves as a model for innovative ways to merge written, oral, and visual modes of expression for Black women writers to freely express themselves and rediscover their forefathers as well as their foremothers who, like Toni Morrison or Gwendolyn Bennett, offered powerful depictions of the international nature of the double-burden facing women of color.


Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984.

Banks, Adam J. Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.

Bennett, Gwendolyn. ‘Tokens’, in Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology, Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010; 516–519.

Bennett, Gwendolyn. ‘Wedding Day’, in Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology, Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010; 516–519.

Deming, Mary and Maria Valeri-Gold. ’Making Reading and Writing Connections with Shay Youngblood’s Big Mama’s Stories’. Journal of College Literacy and Learning 30 (200-2001): 34–42.

Du Bois, W. E. B. ‘Criteria of Negro Art’ (1926), in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, Winston Napier, ed. New York: New York University Press, 2000; 18–26. See also dbCriteriaNArt.html.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. ‘Three Ways to Translate the Harlem Renaissance’, in Temples for Tomorrow, Geneviève Fabre and Michel Feith, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2001; 288–313.

Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Gras, Delphine. ‘Hearing Voices, Writing Music: Shay Youngblood’s Reconfiguration of the Griot’. Journal of Ethnic American Literature 3 (2013): 96–126.

Hale, Thomas A. Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Hoffman, Barbara G. Griots at War: Conflict, Conciliation, and Caste in Mande Culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1986.

Hughes, Langston. ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’. The Nation 122 (1926): 692–694.

Jansen, Jan. The Griot’s Craft: An Essay on Oral Tradition and Diplomacy. Hamburg: LIT, 2000.

Jones, Daniel Alexander. ‘Shay Youngblood Flying Solo’. Lambda Book Report 8: 7 (Feb 2000): 15.

Jones, Joni L. ‘Conjuring as Radical Re/Membering in the Works of Shay Youngblood’, in Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker (II.), and Gus Edwards eds. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2002; 227–235.

Jones, Suzanne. ‘Black Girl in Paris: Shay Youngblood’s Escape from “the last plantation”’. South Atlantic Review 73: 3 (Summer 2008): 44–60. JSTOR. Accessed on May 10, 2013.

Keesey, Anna. ‘Transformations: Two New Novels Paint Unusual Portraits as Artists as Blossoming Women’. Chicago Tribune, Feb. 6, 2000. Accessed on May 10, 2013.

Leymarie, Isabelle. Les Griots wolof du Sénégal. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 1999.

Mckay, Claude. Banjo. San Diego, NM: Harvest, 1957.

Morrison, Toni. ‘Memory, Creation, and Writing’. Thought: A Review of Culture and Ideas 59 (1984): 385–390.

Ouedraogo, Jean. Maryse Condé et Ahmadou Kourouma: griots de l’indicible. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Negritude Women. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Suso, Foday M. Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond. Roslyn: Ellipsis Arts, 1996.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Waugh, Debra Riggin. ‘Delicious, Forbidden: An Interview with Shay Youngblood’. Lambda Book Report: A Review of Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature 6: 2 (1997): 1. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 18 Aug. 2011.

Youngblood, Shay. ‘Expatriate: James Baldwin’. Black Issues Book Review 2-3 (May/June 2000): 10–12.

Youngblood, Shay. Interview ‘Painting Outside the Lines’. O.: The Oprah Magazine 5: 7 (2004): 127–128.

Youngblood, Shay. ‘Telling Stories at Friday Late Night’. Accessed Feb. 26, 2014.


1 Though this essay focuses on Black Girl in Paris, the concept of the griot permeates Youngblood’s work as a whole, either with direct references to the African bards as in Talking Bones or Black Girl in Paris, or by extension when focusing on orality, songs, storytelling, memory, and rewriting practices (Gras 2013: 96–126). In a private correspondence on 02/18/14, Youngblood confirmed to me the centrality of storytelling in her works, stating, ‘Yes, I believe all my characters are storytellers, keeper of all the history they have heard, remembered and experienced’.

2 Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined community, though referring to the rise of nationalism, provides a useful framework to examine the African Diaspora and the discourses deployed to give a sense of belonging across national boundaries.

3 Youngblood’s ‘Telling Stories at Friday Late Night’ at the Dallas museum of art exemplifies her own role as a modern griotte, collecting and sharing stories. Accessed 02/26/14.

4 While this is not within the scope of this essay, the intertextuality between Eden and her forefathers is a central theme in this work. For a more developed study on American expatriates, see Suzanne W. Jones. Focused on the similarities between European and Southern racism, Jones’s essay also sheds light on the differences between Black and white expatriates, as well as the various degrees of idealization of France among African American writers, isolating James Baldwin as the most acutely aware of French colonial past and its exoticization of Blackness to ultimately argue that Youngblood delivers a more daring and complex, if more episodic, depiction of interracial and homosexual relationships.

5 As Youngblood explains: ‘Although he did not romanticize the French, he made Paris seem possible for me’ (2000: 11). It is important here to note that Youngblood mentions her own admiration for Baldwin and how it motivated the trip to France, which she fictionalizes in Black Girl in Paris. See also Waugh, ‘Delicious, Forbidden’ (1997).

6 Even before Baldwin, though not mentioned directly, the works of Claude McKay and Gwendolyn Bennett come to mind for their early evocation of an appealing, yet not all too welcoming environment during the interwar years. See McKay, Banjo; Bennett’s short stories ‘Wedding Day’ and ‘Tokens’.


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