I write in one of the cafés, the Delmas, at the Place de la Contrescarpe on Rue Mouffetard, Paris. On the west side of the square, there is a sign high up on the side of a building. I am not the first to find the sign objectionable. It reads Au Nègre Joyeux, “(The place of) the Joyous Negro.”
That’s only part of it. A large, old painting on wood hangs below it, showing a muscular young black man with a wild looking grimace meant to show his joy. Or perhaps below that, his essential diabolical nature. With a little research, we learn he is supposed to be Zamor, christened Louis-Benoit 1762–1820, from Bengali, who was taken from Chittagong, Bangladesh by slave traders when he was eleven years old. Louis XV of France bought him and gave him as a gift to his principal mistress Jeanne Bécu (Countess du Barry). She took a liking to him and oversaw his upbringing and education—as her personal servant. She died in 1794, the year that slavery was abolished in France, although Napoleon reinstated it in 1802 until it was abolished again in 1818. Napoleon died three years later. As a way to measure the present against the past, every day I walk past an enormous plantain tree in the Jardin des Plantes. It was planted in 1785 and is still doing very nicely. George Edward Dupré was born in Rouen, France in 1798, and he is still my great-great grandfather.
The lettering and the painting below it continue to advertise a chocolate factory that was established in 1748 and is now long since gone. As I mentioned above, not everyone is happy with the lingering artifacts. Someone has tried to protect the painting with a plexiglass shield, and subsequent stone throwers have already managed to smash it in two places. A window next door has taken a direct hit and no one seems in a hurry to fix it.
The anger likely has to do with both the wording and the painting. Zamor is shown with all the usual racist features: his grimacing mouth—to show he’s something of an idiot or crazed or both—and his eyes are of the same bright white to emphasize a darkie blackness that may date the painting to the period of the American blackface minstrel shows of the early 19th Century. He wears a large, hanging napkin around his neck, as if he were about to eat, and appears to be holding a phallic-looking carafe high in his left hand. Madam du Barry, seated, seems to be holding a silver tray that holds chocolates or small cakes. Is the idea that she is offering him things? Things in addition to sweets? It’s hard to tell through the reflected images from the Place de la Contrescarpe just opposite, but I think that was the intent.
The painting is not a particularly good one. There is a far better one from the same date as the plantain tree, 1785, by Jaques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine, currently at The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida. It shows a thoughtful man, elegantly dressed and someone whom Louis XV made the governor of Madam du Barry’s chateau and the secretary of her private affairs. The person who contracted the sign and painting seems to have had his own agenda and may have asked that the painting be sexually suggestive in all the usual racist ways, portraying the young black man as phallus-slave without full or maybe any personhood having his way with a white woman of standing, and she with him in a reverse, exciting, racial and social slumming—all ideas appealing to the racist mind.
Were these ideas associated with eating chocolate? Or perhaps other things made of chocolate. There is in fact an old French delectable still called the Nègre en Chemise which is a dab of rich chocolate cake with a thick whipped cream companion covering. Descriptions of it usually include remarks by the cooks explaining how the name is not politically correct but that they’re going to keep using it anyway.
Madam du Barry may have been something of a courtesan, but she was highly thought of by some. She was a name people knew. Perhaps for that reason the person who contracted the painting wanted to associate his chocolates with her, just the way others at one time wanted to associate their products with Victor Hugo. Who knows how much of her bawdier reputation was apocryphal. When Louis XV was dying, he is said to have asked her to come to him one last time with her breasts bared. That sounds like a snippet of history written by a man. At the same time, Madam du Barry admired Voltaire’s work and near the end of his life sent him a note saying it enclosed two kisses. He supposedly wrote back in verse:
Quoi, deux baisers sur la fin de la vie !
Quel passeport vous daignez m’envoyer !
Deux, c’est trop d’un, adorable Égérie,
Je serai mort de plaisir au premier.
What? Two kisses for the end of my life!
Such a passport you deign to send me!
Two (kisses) is one too many, adorable Égérie [a muse for a person of letters, out of Roman mythology],
I would die of pleasure from the first one alone.
Zamor and du Barry are far more humanly complex and interesting than what one sees in the painting. If you raise a child, Zamor, there is likely to be affection involved but probably not trans-generational sex, although one writer claims that she liked to kiss and fondle him. But at what age? Zamor probably cared for her, but historians suggest he was later also disapproving, even angry at her for many of her excesses, perhaps for a patronizing attitude. All this makes rich ground for a novelist to add to the already present fictions. Here are three: Gérard Saint-Loup’s Le Nègre de la du Barry, Paris 1997; Eve Ruggieri’s Le Rêve de Zamor, Paris 2003; Joan Haslip’s Madam du Barry: The Wages of Beauty.
Zamor read Rousseau and learned there—as if he didn’t know already—about liberty. It is said he tried to persuade the Duchess to reign in her extravagances. As the Revolution raged, she took trips to England to recover jewels stolen from her. Zamor and others advised against the trips. He cautioned her not to support or shelter nobility on the run from the purges. At the same time, he was an active member of the revolutionaries, passing information to them. When du Barry discovered this, she fired him, or kicked him out, the verb depending on what his standing was: slave, freeman, servant, friend, ward or mixture of all these things. One can speculate that Zamor’s thoughts were complicated. Since history is seen and written through the eyes of the local, dominant race and culture, we have to assume he was not simply a traitor, giving her up to save his own skin—although that is a possibility. If only he had left a journal.
Things did not end well for the duchess. The illegitimate daughter of a priest and a seamstress, she came from poverty—as did Zamor—and rose to wealth and importance. Her husband, the duke, was captured by a French Revolutionary guard and dropped off at Versailles, where he and his troop were murdered by a mob and their bodies torn to pieces. When du Barry returned to France, after the execution of Louis XVI, January 21, 1793, she was arrested as an agent for the English, a theme we see in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, thrown in prison, and tried before the Tribunal Révolutionaire. Zamor is said to have denounced her twice. But it may be too easy to see her as victim and him as villain. We need the journal. Denounced a second time, she went to the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde and was beheaded there on December 8, 1793.
Petitions to highest levels have asked to have the painting removed from the building at Place de la Contrescarpe, on Rue Mouffetard, one of the most frequented pedestrian streets in Paris. The petitions have been unsuccessful. The position of the person who is supposed to decide these matters apparently doesn’t exist. Or, as I’ve read, the person and position do exist, and still the matter doesn’t move forward. Some report the artifacts are not included in the registry of historic paintings and monuments. Others say they are.
The painting is not that good. It is racist and probably lewd, as well. It should hang in a museum to show various stages in the history of French racism. The lettering and the painting are part of larger lingering issues having to do with French anti-Semitism and racist feelings about immigrants. The lives of Zamor and du Barry were far more than what we can see in the painting. Ironically, one could argue that the sign and painting should stay right where they are because they open up an important discussion. All that is missing is an enormous plaque that could give all the background information. But that might not go over so well with the square’s merchants, who want the strollers to enter their stores and cafés and not just stand in front of the painting, gawking, readying the plaque which isn’t there, and feeling troubled.