Monique Y. Wells: The Furthermuckin Expat Q
Chester Himes wrote his first detective novel, The Five-Cornered Square, at the Hôtel Rachou (the so-called Beat Hotel where Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs also took up residence); Richard Wright used to live at 14 rue Monsieur-le-Prince and lounge at the nearby Café Tournon, Moleskine journal in hand; James Baldwin scammed Marlon Brando out of enough bread to return to the States once up in the Hôtel des Beaux-Arts, right near the café where me and writer Karen R. Good had drinks a few months back. I don’t just know all this shit. I read it all years ago in Paris Reflections: Walks Through African-American Paris.
I’ve owed author Monique Y. Wells a solid for quite a while now then. It was my pleasure to introduce her to my beloved Queen Ann café and their heavenly soupy hot chocolate last Friday. I’d never before written an Expat Q on someone I hadn’t met personally before, but her Entrée to Black Paris gave me an edge into her aesthetic via Facebook. I won’t be here trampin through Paris forever—I’ve got a foot back in NYC already—but Monique’s been here since 1992, and she’ll likely be here long after I’m gone. Please, get to know her. She’s wise beyond my years.
Tell me the origin story of Discover Paris.
My husband and I created Discover Paris. It was his idea. His name is Tom Reeves. He actually came to Paris with me; we were not married at the time, we got married here. He was unable to find work in his field. He was a civilian, but he worked for the Navy. He was a cost-control analyst. When we moved here, unemployment was like 13%, and he didn’t have the right to work. So he was already way behind the eight-ball. If you’re over 35 here and you need a job, you’re in bad shape. That’s even if you’re French. Looked for work a long time, then decided, “Okay, let’s forget trying to get back into the corporate anything—do something entrepreneurial.”
We took a trip to Italy with a service called Insiders Italy. I don’t know if it exists anymore. But it was the first time we had ever heard of the self-guided itinerary. And we went on this trip, it was fabulous. Eleven days, we did Venice, Florence and Rome. We did nothing that we did not want to do. It was not any of this, “You’re in Florence, go to the Duomo” or whatever.
Later, the woman who put the trip together invited us to her place and we had dinner. She was living in London at that time. We were having a conversation and she said, “You know, I think you guys would be good to do an Insiders France.” And my husband said, “Well, you know, I’ve been thinking about this a long time”—this is new to me. [laughter] “I think we should do an Insiders Paris. France is too big, we don’t know it. And Paris is infinite anyway.” That’s really how it started.
It really was to discover Paris from any and all aspects people wanted to discover it from. My husband is white American, so it wasn’t conceived to do black Paris. That only came a couple of years later. We started out just wanting to do what we had done in Italy: ask people, “What is it that you want to discover in Paris? What do you like? Are you into photography? Are you into food and wine? Are you into history? Are you into architecture?” And we’ll write up an itinerary based on those interests. This was in 1999.
When I moved here, I didn’t even realize there was a black Paris or anything like that. With the exception of Josephine Baker, I didn’t know anything about this. So I learned about it. Eventually, I said, “We’re doing this Discover Paris. Obviously, it will be interesting to include an African-American component in what we’re offering.” So that’s how what we used to call Discover African-American History in Paris Tours began. That was the emphasis for writing Paris Reflections. It was partly a way to promote the fact that we also had expertise—
So the tour came first then?
And Discover Paris morphed into Entrée to Black Paris?
Entrée to Black Paris is sort of a rechristening of our Discover African-American History in Paris Tours. We’re rechristening because, one, we want to let people know that there is a contemporary African-American Paris and there is a contemporary black Paris that encompasses so much more than our little part of it. And also, well, I guess those are the two components. One, that it’s more than African-American. And two, it is contemporary as well as historic. So we just thought, in order to promote the fact that we’ve expanded our scope, we wanna give it a new name.
How did you come to collaborate with Paris Reflections co-author, Christiann Anderson?
If I remember correctly, we met through Sisters. [Sisters is] an organization—it actually still exists, but is not functioning anymore—the official name is Sisters: An Association of African-American Women in France. It started a couple of years after I got here. I met a woman named Pamela Grant; she was married to a French man, she had a small child. She was starving for company. She was suffering from culture shock and she needed some Americans, you know, some reinforcements. She would go around and any woman who she saw on the street who she thought might be African-American, she would just walk up to them. She was starved for it. And she eventually founded this organization, and I was on the first board of directors. That’s how I met Christiann.
Christiann’s an artist, a writer and an editor. She was doing all that kind of stuff freelance when I met her. We hit it off and decided to work on this project. Actually, she was the illustrator of my cookbook, which is called Food for the Soul. That was our first book project together, and it was at that time that we were talking about doing something about black Paris. We toyed with the idea of doing a calendar and this and that. I said, “I’ve already done all of these walks. I can just do some abridged versions of them and we can put together a book.” And she would do the illustrations. It was her idea actually to do the book. But the walks are abridged versions of walks that Discover Paris supplies to clients, and the illustrations in the book are hers.
Expat Ricki Stevenson invited me to take her Black Paris Tour this year, and Julia Browne launched her Walking the Spirit Tours in Paris long ago. I know there are a million tours of “white Paris,” so so what? But tell me how you three differ.
Julia had the first tours. Julia was part of Sisters, she did her first two Walking the Spirit tours for Sisters. And that was my sort of eye-opening… “Oh! I’ve been walking by all of these places!” and, “Oh, that’s what happened there.” So Julia is sort of the grandmother if you will, or the pioneer or whatever you want to call it. Ricki came, and Discover Paris was not doing black Paris tours or anything. Discover Paris didn’t exist when Ricki came. She put together her tour. And we actually took her first, we were one of her guinea pigs and went out with her. This was many, many years ago, like 10, 11 years ago. My husband and I went with her. She put together something entirely different than what Julia was doing. Then when we decided to start our tours, we weren’t doing any guided tours at all. Ours were self-guided, so we were not really in competition. Same subject matter perhaps, but the format was different.
So nowadays, Julia isn’t living here anymore. She has someone here doing tours for her. Ricki, of course, is here on the ground doing her stuff. And we—I can’t remember if it was after 9/11 or after the second Gulf War—we stopped getting so many inquiries for self-guided stuff and started getting more for guided walks. So we started our own guided walks. Now all three companies do guided walks.
Still, I think the approach is fairly different. Our walks are always private, as compared to the Black Paris Tours, which are public—you can go on any day of the week. We work a lot more with universities and groups that are coming over. That’s not to say that the other two don’t, but for example, we’ve been working with Syracuse University’s Paris Noir since the inception of that summer program: 2001. My approach has always been with regard to all of Discover Paris’s offerings, tours, activities: we’re very rigorous and almost academic. I don’t want to scare people away with that. Our approach is very personal and personable. But we are not just skimming the surface. We are researching in depth everything that we do. So the information that you get is going to be… profound sounds almost pompous. [laughter] But we’ve dug, really. We’ve spent a lot of time in French libraries as well as ordering books. We’ve got so many stacks of books we could start our own library at this point. So we’re very rigorous.
Tell me about Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, the organization that raised funds for painter Beauford Delaney’s tombstone in France.
I had never met Beauford Delaney, I’ve never met any of his family. I became involved with his story because last summer, I was doing an article on African-American gravesites in and around Paris, and I knew that he was buried somewhere near. I knew he wasn’t in Paris, he was somewhere outside. I contacted a personal friend of his who also couldn’t remember exactly. He contacted some other people who he had visited the tomb with. And he came back with the information, the exact location in the cemetary, etc. And the question, Is Beauford still buried?
The question “Is Beauford still buried?” is relevant because in France, you only have your grave for a limited amount of time. You have to renew your space or else you’re dug up. It depends on the cemetary and it depends on the era. When Beauford was first buired, his grave was for six years. Nobody paid at the six-year mark. Americans don’t know this, and I knew this would be a shocker for people. And so it is very rare to see a grave that will say “in perpetuity.” That’s extremely rare.
Beauford died in 1979. In 2009, that would have been 30 years, nobody had ever paid his renewal. And these friends of his were really afraid that he was gonna be exhumed. So they asked me to go to the cemetary and find out how much it would cost to keep him in the ground. They raised the money and I went out there and I paid it.
They were just so overwhelmed. Because they had wanted to move Beauford back to the United States, but none of them was family, so none of them had the right to touch the body. And I don’t know, all kinds of conniptions, I really don’t know the whole story. They were so relieved that I paid this. They said, “Okay, he’s there. We wanna place a marker on his grave.” By then, this is no longer just a story. Now I’m talking to these people. And so I said, well, I can at least go out there and find out how much it would cost to get a tombstone. I don’t want anything expensive. Beauford was a simple man. He doesn’t need anything expensive, but something that’s gonna last. ’Cause I had seen Henry Ossawa Tanner’s grave and it’s in deplorable shape. And he died in 1937. His grave is in deplorable shape, and he has family here.
I went to a place, one of these funeral parlors, and got an estimate. It was gonna cost several thousand dollars. I said, “Money has to be raised to do this. And in order to raise money, we need an organization.” Because these people had just given me the money to pay for the renewal of the concession. But no one’s gonna be giving me—and I didn’t want the responsibility of collecting thousands of dollars or euros. So I started Les Amis de Beauford Delaney. I started it last November. And we commemorated the tombstone on October 14th of this year. It was fantastic. He’s in Thiais Cemetary, which is south of Paris. He’s in Division 86, and it’s the only new tombstone in there.