The Furthermuckin Expat Q: Tannie Stovall

My first and last Parisian night of hangin so hard that I had to worship at the porcelain alter afterwards was back in 2006, an evening at chez Tannie Stovall. Every Friday night for almost 15 years, Tannie hosts a BYOB(B for “bottle of wine,” not beer) affair strictly for black men—a rare occasion for male bonding that sisters have often tried in vain to crash. Politics, sex, sports: any topic is up for grabs while washing down our hors d’œuvres with pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, merlot and the like.

Tannie Stovall, born in Atlanta, graduated Morehouse at 19 years old, earned a physics Ph.D. by 25, and moved to Paris two years later working as a research assistant at the École Normale Supérieure. It was 1964; he was 27; he knew no French. Tannie helped organize the March on Washington that year before arriving in France, meeting Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, the widowed fam of Richard Wright and others during his decades in the French capital. Tannie even relocated to Nigeria briefly, bought a home in Spain, and has authored novels like Leroy Something That Rhymes.

Cantankerous in the way of your average 73-year-old black man, Tannie and I met minds in his apartment sans spirits last Friday afternoon for a lively convo.

(Note: Tannie’s in no way related to Tyler Stovall, author of the seminal Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light.)

Tell me about the origin of your Friday nights for black men.

It started at the time of the Million Man March. I learned about the Million Man March about a week before it happened. Here in Paris, I did not know that it was going to take place. If I would’ve known six weeks or maybe a couple of months [earlier], I would have seriously considered going. I was really disappointed that I didn’t. I thought that the cause that was being talked about at that time was very important, and I wanted to somehow or ’nother continue along that line.

So I started giving dinners once a month. These were actually dinners, from soup to nuts. I did this until my wife divorced me. Naturally, she kept the apartment. [laughter] The apartment was very conducive to receiving; I could feed 25, 30 people. Whereas here, I couldn’t do it, so I changed the format and started having sandwiches, but doing it once a week.

When did it begin as a weekly?

Around the year 2000, 2001.

I’d heard Melvin Van Peebles came by once.

No, Melvin Van Peebles, never. He was invited several times. But I can tell you this. A friend of mine that knows him very very well, she told me recently that she talked to him about me and he said he didn’t remember me at all. But actually, I didn’t see him after the 1960s. He left here, I think, before the 1970s. In the sense of the black community that you kind of had that hang out at the Quartier Latin at that time, he never came back there.

Give me a sense of the tight-knit black expat community from back then.

Well, they weren’t tight-knit. Tight-knit perhaps wasn’t the word. But there were many more, I think, African-Americans that were not home types, like I imagine you are, you’re home with your children. But I have to describe Paris a little bit in those days. It was much cheaper than it is now. Someone that received $100 a month from the States could live here, could survive off of it. In fact, one of the most popular travel books was written by somebody named Frommer, I think it was called Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. And really, you could do it in those days. You had lots of people—artists, musicians, writers, adventurers, hippies and whatnot—that came to Europe, and particularly to Paris. I think one of the things was that it was relatively inexpensive.

You always leave Paris for Saint-Tropez half the year. Diddy, Jay-Z and Beyoncé put Saint-Tropez on the map for the hiphop gen, but it’s been the place to be for ages.

Yeah, we usually spend about six months in Saint-Tropez and about six months here. That’s what we do, my partner, wife, girlfriend, whatever you want to call her, and myself. It’s on the ocean. There are some places on the southern coast of France that are very much appreciated by tourists and French people to live: Nice, Monaco, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Saint-Tropez was very much in vogue maybe 30 years ago. It still is, of course. I think what brought it to the world’s attention was a film, And God Created Woman.

Brigitte Bardot.

With Brigitte Bardot. Brigittte Bardot, she lives right next to Saint-Tropez. You could almost say she lives in Saint-Tropez, but actually she lives in Ramatuelle, which is a town adjoining Saint-Tropez. And there are a lot of wealthy people who come there. It still has a kind of 19th century aura to it. It’s not something that’s built up where you have these tall buildings and balconies that look out over the ocean. It’s not that. It’s still kind of small. There’s long beaches and lots of beach clubs and places like that, some of them kind of exclusive, others less so.

I’ve had French people tell me there are no beaches, and there’s no point in going unless you can get invited to fashionista or celebrity yacht parties.

Anyplace is somewhat more agreeable if you have contacts, if you have somebody that you can meet there. Saint-Tropez is no different from this. I think that perhaps people who go to Saint-Tropez, I think that you have a significant proportion—and I’m not saying majority by any stretch of imagination—but still, a noticeable number who go there with the hope of making relations with prominent, important, wealthy people. I think this is true also for Monaco. People I think go to Monaco, the idea is there are lots of very wealthy people in Monaco and if you go there, who knows, you might be able to make your hand with some of ’em.

I think a lot of people go to Saint-Tropez with this notion, but, oh, I don’t think it’s very important. I think most of the people that actually visit Saint-Tropez don’t even stay a day. They don’t even spend the night there. They come in, they walk around the town, they go out to one of the beach clubs or something like that. Have lunch, spend the day there, and they don’t spend the night. It’s kind of expensive in Saint-Tropez.

I’ve heard. So you’ve met James Baldwin? I went to college with his nephew, Trevor.

Yeah, I knew James Baldwin. I received him also in my home. I saw James Baldwin over a period of years. He was here for a long period.

How’d you meet?

In the street basically, I don’t remember exactly how. But he was very often in the cafés and bars and stuff like that. He was often seen.

[Poet] Ted Joans was in and out of Paris for a very long time, and in fact, he was one of the very first people I met when I arrived. I suppose I’m honored to say that the last place he lived in Paris was here in this apartment. I wasn’t here, I was in Saint-Tropez. And then the time after that, he lived in an apartment that belonged to my wife in the 18th. I’m happy to be able to say that.

You’d met Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I never met MLK.

And Malcolm X?

Yes. And I knew his daughter, he had a daughter that lived here. I remember her very well: Kibby. I don’t know if that was her real name or not. She lived here more than five years, I’m sure.

And the daughters of Richard Wright, Julia and Rachel?

I met Julia when she was a little girl, yeah. She’s still here in Paris someplace. I haven’t seen her or her sister. The last time I actually saw Julia was when she and James Forman came here to speak, and that must’ve been in the 70s or something like that. I think she moved to England for a while. She married a Nigerian I believe, or something like that. I don’t really know the story. I knew her mother, Ellen Wright. Like I say, I knew them pretty much as children.

Richard Wright?

Richard Wright died in ’62, so he was dead when I got here. Chester Himes, one of my great regrets is that I never met him, and I really could have. Just laziness, I suppose. He lived in Spain, and I had a home in Valencia, which is only about 60 kilometers away. All I had to do was drive down and I’m sure he would’ve said, “Hey, how’s it goin’, bro?” I don’t think that was any problem. That’s something that I regret, though I’ve heard lots of things about Chester Himes, and I’m not sure that I would’ve been able to get along with him. [laughter] But I would love to have met him.

Baldwin and I didn’t hit it off particularly well. We were cordial, I think, but I can tell you an incident for example that maybe started it. Somebody that I did know here also, Eldridge Cleaver, he lived here for a while. He wrote a book called Soul on Ice, and in Soul on Ice, he made some very critical remarks about James Baldwin.

I remember. About homosexuality.

That wasn’t the crux of Cleaver’s objection. I think what he said in the book Soul on Ice was that, up until then, the books that he had read of Baldwin’s… In some point in the book, you had a black man who, the highlight of his life was being fucked in the ass by a white man. You remember that?

Yeah, that’s why I said homosexuality.

Yeah, well, but I think the racial part of that might be the most poignant. I asked him about that. And I think that that sort of put a damper on relations between he and I.

What was his response?

He didn’t respond. He said something, but he didn’t respond to that. He started talking about how devious and sneaky Cleaver was, and what a big liar he was, and this type of thing. And finally I told him, The things that you’ve been talking about is not what he accused you of. Plus also, I think there was something else. I was a bit different from, I think, most of the blacks that you had there in the Latin Quarter at that time. I had a regular, steady job, a prestigious job, you might say. And I suppose they considerd me a conservative.

Believe it or not, one of the things that many of them in that area, the blacks of that time, reproached me was that I was very much in favor of Martin Luther King, Jr. I very much approved of what he was trying to do and how he was trying to do it. I think most of the other blacks at that time were more inclined to Malcolm X, towards the Nation of Islam kind of an approach much more; black nationalistic approaches to the problem.

And so I was one of those that they were saying, basically, I’m trying to get solutions to our problems by praying. Which that wasn’t my case at all, I wasn’t particularly religious. But they thought that unless you talked bad… Even some of them were going around talking about the Underground and this sort of thing. And it’s an interesting note, and this is in one of my books, one of ’em, actually maybe two of ’em, one of ’em I didn’t know about at that time, were CIA informants.

I just watched Malcolm X this week again, and was reminded about how the FBI was infiltrating the Nation of Islam, agitating the situation between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

“Agitating the situation between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X?” What are you talking about?

John Ali, national security of the Nation of Islam at the time, was identified later as FBI. Malcolm told a reporter Ali was instigating tensions between him and Elijah Muhammad, trying to convince him that Malcolm wasn’t about spreading his word, that he was only in it for himself.

Well, I am sure that Elijah Muhammad had people that were telling him that, whether they were FBI or not. I think that there were people inside the Nation of Islam that would’ve told him that. As I see it, and I did meet Malcolm X on occasion, I met Stokely Carmichael on occasion, I met James Forman on occasion. I helped organize the March on Washington in 1963, etc., so I knew some of these personalities that you’re talking about. I believe, as I understand it, Elijah Muhammad was very upset Malcolm X made his “chickens come home to roost” statement and told him to shut up. And that was the break right there. Malcolm refused, and left.

He was also disillusioned about the children Elijah Muhammad had with the secretaries, I suppose.

Let me say this: that’s a lot of bullshit. Everybody knew he had those children. Everybody knew. I mean, you ask any of those guys they used to have on the street selling the Muhammad Speaks, they all knew about this.

So in your opinion, Malcolm wasn’t disillusioned by him sleeping with the secretaries and it had nothing to do with that.

Yeah. If he didn’t know… Malcolm was a very knowledgable, intelligent man. He knew what was going on. Something like that, and he wouldn’t know about it? To me, it’s unbelievable. Have you ever read Haley’s book, The Autobiography? In the very last chapter of that book, he was very critical of Malcolm X. Have you read the book?

Have I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? Every black man has read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Basically, he was a real black nationalist, and then suddenly he becomes an internationalist. He’s saying white men are the devil, he said it all the time: “White folks are the devil.” And then suddenly he changed his mind, they weren’t the devil anymore. And I did get the impression also that he was in fact trying to establish a movement of his own. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

How did you meet Malcolm X?

Oh, I think the first time was sorta just like that, in Washington. And I met him again in Paris a few times.

There’s a famous story about how he was turned away at the airport and barred entry into Paris. But he’d been here before.

He had been here before. At that point, he had come to make a speech and he was refused entry at Orly Airport. Charles de Gaulle [Airport] didn’t exist at that time. There’s a guy who’s a teacher at Stony Brook college in New York that was handling that at that time, he knows all about these.

I’ve written that Sean “Diddy” Combs should open a Justin’s restaurant here. All the different Parisian soul food restaurants over the years have disappeared. Like Percy’s Place—

I don’t think you would’ve called Percy’s Place a soul food place. I would say it was a little more classier than what you would call soul food. But you’ve had black entrepreneurs here, I mean, lots of ’em. You don’t have very many now. There was a fella named Bill Dawsey that had a restaurant-bar for a few years.

Haynes was there for a very long time, until he died. Then after that, his wife took care of it all. Everybody went to Haynes at one time or another. I saw lots of people in the movie industry there, for example, on occasions. Peter O’Toole and lots of others whose names I don’t remember. And then there was Conway’s, she must’ve been there for 10 years or so.

And way back now, when I first arrived, there was Buttercup’s. I don’t know if she called her restaurant Buttercup’s or not, but there was a long article in Ebonymagazine by a fella named [Charles L.] Sanders about Buttercup’s. The title of the article was “Big-hearted Buttercup.” Buttercup was either the wife or the girlfriend or the mistress of Powell.

Adam Clayton Powell?

No, no. The musician.

Oh, Bud Powell.

Bud Powell. And there’s a lot in the article about their relationship. She had a restaurant in Montparnasse, near where the Tour Montparnasse is constructed now. Right there, that was where Buttercup had her restaurant. And there were others also.

Had you been to Bojangles?

Yeah, I went to Bojangles. I was at Bojangles and Buttercup’s and Bill’s place and Haynes.

Who had the best cornbread? Did you enjoy one restaurant over the others?

I’m not into that kind of thing. If it’s edible, it’s good enough for me. There’s Randy’s, of course. Randy [Garrett] had his place [The Rib Joint] for 10 years or so, maybe more than that, I’m not really sure.

There’s one other person who should be mentioned, and that’s Johnny Romero. There was a prize-winning play written about Johnny Romero, it’s called No Place to be Somebody. It ran off-Broadway for years, and in fact, I think it was sort of being renovated a couple of years ago. I don’t know what finally happened to that. But Johnny Romero had a place called Les Nuages. Les Nuages was a bar-nightclub, if you like. But he was one of the most important personalities in the black community in Paris. Google him, I think you’ll find a lot about him. But Les Nuages was very close to the Church of St.-Germain-des-Prés.

Why do you think there are less black American businesses here now?

I don’t think that the crowd of the people that they catered to exists now nearly as much now as it did then. I think that one thing very important was the United States Army. The United States Army was here until about 1968, they were stationed. The NATO headquarters was just down here in Brussels, right outside of Paris. And the fact that you had the US Army here, you had huge amounts of Americans here associated here with the Army. And when the Army left, many of these people trickled away.

Then you had also the business community. American companies at that time, a lot of ’em brought people from the United States to work in their companies in France. And as time went by, I think most of these companies came to think that it’s much cheaper to get somebody in France. You don’t have to pay for them to have a place to stay, you don’t have to pay for their children to go to school, on and on. So I think that quantity of people that were associated with American business enterprises that were stationed here has gone down dramatically.

At one time, you had about 15 African-Americans who worked for American banks here. And I don’t think that you have any now. But I don’t think that it’s just that the African-Americans no longer hold these positions; I think that these positions now are held by French people, because the companies find it cheaper. So that means that the population has gone down. By 1975 or so, the quantity of the black Americans that you saw hanging around in joints like Haynes and certain cafés in the Quartier Latin, they dried up like mad.

You’d never consider living in America again?

I would consider living anyplace. I could move to Spain, where I had a home for about 30 years. I could move back there. I like Spain.

Yeah, but America specifically.

America’s like any other place.

You were born in America. It’s not just like any other place.

The fact that I was born there, I don’t think that—

You have family there still, presumably.

I have lots of family there.

So, that makes it a bit different.

I talk to ’em two or three times a week practically, on the telephone. I don’t feel that I’m that distant. I just left America about a month ago. I was back three times last year to the United States. I don’t know. There’s nothing that attracts me, I’ll put it that way, that makes me want to, let’s say, go live there, no more so than any other place. There’s nothing that makes me want to go live in China, for example. [laughter]

I still consider myself an American, very much so. I’ve been very active in the Democratic Party for years. I gave a maximum amount of money to Obama that was allowed by law when he was running for president. I went to Morehouse College like yourself, I gave them a substantial amount of money also when I went back for my 50th anniversary. So I feel that I am American, put it that way. But where I want to live, that’s something else.

I personally feel that life is in a sense sweeter in France than in the United States. A lot of people do in the world, it’s not just… You know, in Germany, they say, “Happy as a Frenchman in France.” When I see people that I grew up with, and my family also, I think that, well, they work maybe harder than I would like to. That’s one thing. [laughter] I think that for most of ’em, life is more stressful than my life here in France. Maybe my life wouldn’t be stressful in the United States, I don’t know.

But I do know this: that if I went back to Atlanta, I would change a lot of my habits. For example, here, I don’t think about where I’m going. I can wander anyplace, basically. And I wouldn’t do that in Atlanta, especially at night. To me, it’s worse now, because the economic situation is very bad, especially in the black community. People are talking about 20% unemployment among black men, and even higher among young black men. This creates a situation where people become desperate.

My last time in Atlanta, I saw a fight break out at a gas station between some teenage black girls. One was handing her baby off to a friend so she could box.

Something that also turns me off a little bit when I’m there: going to fill the gas tank and there’s the guy behind this thing with the bars and the heavy glass.

To protect them against gunshots, yeah. It’s common.

I rather prefer the situation here. In fact, sometimes some of my relatives have come here; they see things like the open market and say, “I don’t understand. You could just pick up something and not pay! You could just walk out of here without paying!”

I have not gotten over my youth in the United States. You graduated 12 years ago, you say, from Morehouse College?

Almost 20, actually. Class of 1993, 18 years ago.

Eighteen years ago, okay. The situation in 1993 was much better at Morehouse in Atlanta for blacks than it was in ’57 when I graduated. In ’57 when I graduated, black people were oftentimes deliberately treated with disdain. Plus, the social etiquette, if you can call it that, demanded that blacks be obsequious to whites. Even things like yielding space on the sidewalk. Whites were served first if you go into a store. Little things like this which I found annoying. And also, being deprived of a great deal of the cultural life in Atlanta was not something that I appreciated. There were films that came to Atlanta that I never got a chance to see because they never came around to the black theaters. There were a few theaters that had black and white sections, but there were films that came to theaters that only had white sections. And they never came to the black theaters.

I remember one such film, Christopher Columbus. This was about 1955, ’56. It played at the Realto Theater. There’s nothing there but blacks now, but in those days, it was an all-white movie house. And that film never came to the black community theaters. I finally saw that film maybe 30 years later, on Spanish television in Spain. [laughter]