Syracuse University Magazine


Poet James Emanuel reads to Paris Noir seminar students at the renowned Café de Flore.

Discovering Paris

When students arrive in the City of Light for the Paris Noir study abroad program, African American studies professor Janis Mayes greets them at their hotel. Then, she gives them the address of a restaurant and tells them to meet her there in 20 minutes. "They look at me for a few minutes as if to say, 'Are you serious?'" says Mayes, a literary critic and translator. "But I've never had a group not find the way."

For the past decade, Mayes has helped students challenge themselves through an academically rigorous seminar, Paris Noir: Literature, Art, and Contemporary Life in Diaspora. The five-week summer program brings together undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of universities, nationalities, and disciplines to explore the influence black (noir in French) cultures have had on Paris and the world. The program covers a large slice of history and many themes, from the 18th-century slave trade, to such writers as Richard Wright and James Emanuel, to contemporary hip-hop artists and immigration issues. "She brings to students a program that, as far as I know, does not exist anywhere else," says Robert Mitchell G'75, assistant dean of diversity relations and communications at Harvard University and vice president of the SU Alumni Association, who helped organize a panel discussion for alumni and the public about Paris Noir last winter in Boston.

Mayes compares the course to a jazz composition; students interpret, experience, explore, and explain the overall theme of Paris Noir from many different perspectives. "They see that Paris Noir is not any one thing," Mayes says. As part of her approach, Mayes teaches at the Café de Flore, where James Baldwin wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain. In addition, students talk with artists, activists, politicians, and writers, walk the streets of Paris, visit museums, and interact with French students. "We met people from all different walks of life," says Kishauna Soljour '13, an African American studies and television, radio, film major who participated in Paris Noir this summer. She says the seminar helped her think independently and question ideas she had previously taken for granted.

As students immerse themselves in Paris life, they strike up impromptu conversations with living legends and pursue opportunities tailored to their interests. For example, students have sung at a Paris club, met leading chefs, and interviewed employees at a French television network. Once, a student approached jazz musician Archie Shepp at a concert after one of his sets. Shepp invited the Paris Noir group to stay after the show and talk with him about the importance of jazz in France. "I think it's such a unique program that people want to contribute," Mayes says.

Paris Noir influences students both academically and personally. Program alumna Timeka Williams '10 knows it helped her in these areas. She used her Paris Noir research for her graduate school application. Now, she pursues questions that grew out of her summer in Paris in her communications studies doctoral research at the University of Michigan. She also began to see herself as a leader and a scholar in Paris. Looking back to her first week, Williams remembers feeling as if she had been dumped into a different, overwhelming world where she was expected to find her own way. "You don't think you can do that at first," Williams says, "but then you realize that you can, and that Professor Mayes has given you the tools you need to thrive not just as a visitor or as a tourist, but really as an intellectual." —Sarah Jane Capper