Kévi Donat is a self-proclaimed “history nerd” from Martinique, currently living in France. Founder of Le Paris Noir, he’s using his background in political studies and his passion for history to create walking tours dedicated to the black history of Paris.
You grew up between France and Martinique. Tell us about your experiences and the differences living between the two.
I mostly grew up in Martinique but from six to nine I lived in Bordeaux, France. I was very young but I remember trying to understand and decipher the differences between both cultures that were supposed to be the same country (Martinique is a French ‘Department of Overseas’, which is technically part of France but life there is very different…). I think that living in France for a couple of years as a child helped me when I came back as an adult because everything was not entirely new to me.
What prompted you to return to France as an adult?
It’s a bit confusing but France kept a part of its colonial empire (Overseas France), divided between overseas territories, regions and collectivities. These places are spread all across the world. Everyone living in these territories is taught French history, has a French passport and has to consider Paris as their capital. It’s quite a unique situation…
Like many people other from Martinique, therefore, I had the opportunity to study in France. When I was accepted in Rennes in an Institute of Political Studies I immediately decided to try my luck. Martinique is great but it’s a small island so going to France was a way for me to try an exciting challenge.
How do race relations and black identity differ or are similar between Martinique vs France? What do you think the nuances are of being black in Paris?
In Martinique people of color are the majority so it reverses the situation on many levels. It is still technically France but with a different point of view/angle on some parts of French history; especially when it’s connected to French colonial history. For example, people from the French Overseas are concerned when conservative French politicians make very narrow minded comments about our ‘national identity’ (i.e. when former prime minister Francois Fillon stated, “Colonisation was just a sharing of culture”).
It’s hard to compare racial identities between the two places but I would say that people in Martinique are more blunt about race than most ‘Metropolitan French’ are. Nobody pretends to be colorblind in Martinique, whereas in France it’s almost a rule to be colorblind.
What is Le Paris Noir tours and what prompted you to create it?
With Le Paris Noir tours, I offer walking tours following the legacy and the stories of writers, musicians, politicians from Africa, the Caribbean and the USA who all lived, studied, worked and loved in Paris. From James Baldwin to Aimé Césaire.
I think it has been a way to use both my academic background and my passion for my job (I was a tour guide already before I started Le Paris Noir). There was a lack of attention for the colonial French history in the offer of walking tours in Paris. Doing tours about that history was a way (my way) to tackle the invisibility of PoC’s in many Parisian cultural events and symbolic places. It was also a way to answer the (simple but sometimes awkward) question: “Why are there so many black people in France?”
What has been the response to your tours? What do you hope people gain from participating?
The response has been very positive. I do tours for both American tourists in English who are looking for another vision of Paris (there is a lot African-American history in Paris) and in French for locals who want to know more about this hidden history of France. I just want to give people an opportunity to see Paris with a different viewpoint: it is bigger than France, it used to be the capital of a gigantic empire and there are still traces of that story (for better and worse).
You are conducting tours both in English and in French. How has that played an important part in transmitting your message, history and culture?
Doing the tours in two languages brings two really different types of people with different approaches on history and culture. The way the French talk about race is very different than the way Americans do. Therefore, the reactions and the questions too. I have to be prepared for both and it’s very stimulating. On one Sunday I might have a group of senior white French people and the next African-American millennials. It’s both challenging and rewarding to have both groups’ attention.
How has conducting these tours had an impact on your identity?
Well, it did have some impact of course. I’m much more aware of political issues. I try to always learn more and it is both a job and a passion. I’m literally always working, digging to find out more about black identity. With some friends, we are starting a podcast (in French) about black identity and pop culture in France!
What’s one thing people must experience when they visit Paris?
It’s difficult to recommend only one thing but I have a weakness for the Luxembourg garden on the Left Bank. Very chic!