Paris Final Paper
African American Exodus to Paris
Cultures are living and breathing institutions and organisms. There are many pieces and parts that govern the functionality of a culture in various settings. These pieces and parts include parts of the mental framework, actual body parts, but most definitive is the color of the culture’s skin.
Color lines are still prominent today, however in the 1900’s to 1920’s, skin color granted or denied access to every path, specifically in the United States with regards to the African American culture. Such definitive access made the day in the life of an African American difficult and without much mobility. To counter the lack of access, many African Americans fled to Europe in hopes of finding out if the colorblind myth truly existed.
Accordingly, this final project will attempt to better understand the African American culture while inhabiting Paris, France. By exploring the ideas of cultural access, primitivism, and cultural memory, I will attempt to examine the motives of African American Exodus to Paris from the 1900’s and during the Interwar Time period (1920s-1930s). But, most importantly, I will explore the absence of African American memory in Paris. All of this information will synthesize with a trip to Paris to better understand the context of the situation.
During August 2013 I flew to Paris, France to research the African American Exodus for the Special Topics in CCT course. I visited jazz clubs, museums, and soaked in the liberation as a part of my research. In Paris I stayed on the Left Bank, I experienced the culture, interviewed diverse people, ate the food, traveled as Parisians travel and researched. I took multiple tours about the city of Paris. I also took tours that focused on the African American Exodus to Paris.
African American Cultural Access:
At the dawn of the 1900s in American, labor based slavery ended but mental slavery, that started ions prior, had fully developed. When referring to mental slavery, I am suggesting the mental tug of war between being a human being encapsulated in a skin color that does not let your will run free. But, before this study can properly access the ideas that surround the notion of the black self, it is imperative to skim the influencers of the construct.
The universe is connected by nodes of networks that govern hegemony. Every way that a person is connected is governed through the their own existential place in the world. One way of looking at the notion of finding a place in the world is through “cosmopolitanism”.
“’Cosmopolitanism,”” the central term of Color and Culture, was first given expression in the West by the Greek Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century and the Cynic-influenced Stoics of the third century. It meant seeing oneself as ‘a citizen of the world,’ connected in a fundamental way to those outside family groups and conventional polities, yet without precluding the possibility of local connections.” (Friedel 5)
To better understand cosmopolitanism, it can be illustrated by the final Harry Potter film. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part two, there is a glorious scene where people of all walks of being come together to protect the power of good against the Dark Lord. In a scene before the battle is begun, the wizards that are on Harry’s side, flick their wands to the sky and white orbs expel from their wands. Thousands of orbs create a connection, which appears to be a network of protection. This is how I envision cosmopolitanism, having each orb of light, no matter the origin, coming together and creating a collective safe space for creativity.
Accordingly, Immanuel Kant further enhances this positive slant on cosmopolitanism. In Perpetual Peace, Kant adds a layer to the notion of cosmopolitanism. This layer is hospitality. “Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another.” (Kant 20) a neoclassical approach to hospitality spawns from the idea of the protective collective. In this group people are welcoming and connected through fibers of universality.
The universality perspective is also looked at through the Enlightenment. “In Perpetual Peace (1795) Kant, along with many other Enlightenment thinkers, adopts a cosmopolitan perspective when he argues that individuals have rights as ‘citizens of the earth’ rather than as citizens of particular states.” (Friedel 5). Through this lens, it is important to think of the audience and ask: for whom was Cosmopolitanism created?
With regard to definition of a person’s place in the world, Nwankwo, defines the personal place in the world as a place for “Cosmopolitanism, the definition of oneself through that world beyond one’s own origins, was a crucial element of modernity (and the Enlightenment). Imperialism and Orientalism were in fact forms of European cosmopolitanism, and more specifically of the ways Europeans constructed their definitions of self and community in relation to and through their relationship to the broader world. “ (Nwankwo 9). Accordingly, cosmopolitanism is juxtaposed by identity and personal place in the world.
Therefore, it is important to assess the self and the individual psychological cosmopolitanism then the collective cosmopolitanism. Therefore, Friedel mentions that, “A cosmopolitan position implies an overarching concern for humanity that requires an acknowledgement of the important particularities of local identity claims…cosmopolitanism respects difference while asserting a common ground of equality that mediates between the particular and the universal.” (Friedel 6). Identify paired with cosmopolitanism is a very complex paradigm. Therefore, to narrow the idea of cosmopolitanism down, the paper will focus on the African American take on cosmopolitanism known as Black cosmopolitanism.
The idea of cosmopolitanism sounds amazing writhing with endless possibilities of positive interconnectedness. However, at the same time, the idea is very limiting especially during the 1900’s and the years that closely embrace it. On the larger scale, cosmopolitanism was an impossible ideal for people of color.
This was an impossible idea mainly because of descent. “People of African descent’s approaches to public self-representation were born, in significant part, of the Atlantic power structure’s attempts to deny them access to cosmopolitan subjectivity” (Nwankwo 10). Therefore, in a time where cosmopolitanism was popular, it was selectively accessible.
The selection of who could live the ideal was mainly determined by the color of a person’s skin. “…race effectively determining the possible parameters of identity for people of African descent.” (Nwankwo 10) This selection had major ramifications on the ways in which African American people were allowed to physically and mentally move about their country.
The biggest fallacy with cosmopolitanism is the way in which people could assess it. For African Americans in the United States in the 1900’s cosmopolitanism was extremely binary. African Americans had to jump through various hoops and this changed the definition of their world. For instance, for Caucasian people of the time, the world had many continents and various lands. But for African Americans of the time, the world possibly only extended down the road to the local downtown. Yet, when they would arrive to the downtown area, it their world was further deduced to color lines.
These color lines included white only and black only movie theatre seats, schools, water fountains, etc. Plus, the quality was further shrunk as well. The quality of the color coordinated facilities were very black and white in that the black facilities were usually dilapidated and the white facilities were usually of fair condition. Therefore, city life was the first hoop. The second hoop mainly included, state life, in certain states at this time slavery or the institutionalized internalized social constructs of inferiority and superiority based on race were still prevalent. Therefore, states were speed bumps as well. Finally, the country as a whole was so uncertain of feelings for African Americans (and other minorities), that it is too hard to gauge what the national identity or picture of the standard African American.
Even though, we do not know how the nation as a whole thought about African American’s, we can look at how African Americans addressed their strife. Nwankwo provides a glimpse for what the African American standard could have been during this time. “They also sought to free themselves from the concomitant understanding of them as uncivilized beings, and to prove [themselves] part of the civilized (aka modern) world.” (Nwankwo 19). The notion of having to prove one’s self is hard to imagine when there aren’t encouraging bodies outside of your culture.
Byproducts of Comparison
In order to further assess the state of the African American during the turn of the century, this paper will compare the ideas of habitus and double consciousness and the paper will pair symbolic culture with the idea of the black body.
When assessing the idea of capital Pierre Bourdieu says that capital does not have inertia (Bourdieu). He says that, “at each moment anyone can become anything” (Bourdieu). Therefore, in the world of capital, everything is fair game.
However, with regards to symbolic capital, that is not the case. With symbolic capital, “Each field of symbolic capital reproduced the system of unequal relations in the economic field (relations of class and power) and, in doing so, reproduces the fundamental structure of social inequality” (Grenfell and Moore 104). Therefore, symbolic capital creates a divide in the free capital world.
Furthermore, the symbolic actors create “…Symbolic fields, on the bases of their specific principles, establish hierarchies of discrimination (some things are better or more worthy than others).” (Grenfell and Moore 104). Therefore, symbolic capital creates internal and external hierarchies.
Frantz Fanon further explains these internal hierarchies in literature. In Fanon’s idea about the Black body, Fanon argues that the color of one’s skin creates a symbol of inferiority and hierarchy. Skin color becomes away of categorizing people. “Every position of one’s own, every effort at security, is based on relations of dependence, with the diminution of the other.” (Fanon 164). The idea of “dependence” has internal and external ramifications.
The symbolic color of skin becomes a symbol of history of either oppression or dominance. For instance, Fanon says that, “It was on the universal level of the intellect that I understood this inner kinship—I was the grandson of slaves in exactly the same way in which President Lebrun was the grandson of tax-paying, hard-working peasants.” (Fanon 85). Skin color becomes the signifier and it creates prejudices.
Habitus and Double Consciousness
According to the lens of symbolic culture, habitus is an actor in the cognitive realm.
“Symbolic capital, that is to say, capital — in whatever form — insofar as it is represented, i.e. , apprehended symbolically, in a relationship of knowledge or, more precisely, of misrecognition and recognition, presupposes the intervention of the habitus, as a socially constituted cognitive capacity .” (Bourdieu footnotes of the reading). So this definition suggests that habitus is “as a socially constituted cognitive capacity” which could be analyzed as being a way of thinking that is the residue of societal influence.
In addition another adaptation of habitus comes from Grenfell and Moore. They assess habitus as “habitus with reference to inner-consciousness and practice” (Grenfell and Moore 110). This definition stresses the idea of the internal dimensions of consciousness. Therefore, both definitions take into consideration the ability to map out the mind and the way that it works.
Therefore by addressing the definitions by Bourdieu and the adaptation by Grenfell and Moore Habitus is approached as a form of the consciousness that is “socially constituted”.
Accordingly, it fits nicely with the DuBoisian theory of double consciousness. According to W.E.B. DuBois double consciousness is:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.” (W.E.B. DuBois)
This seminal source offers the blue print for double consciousness. It grants depth to the concept of the self.
Therefore, if both definitions of habitus and double consciousness are paired together, then they grant credence to an internal battle for societal acceptance. Habitus is an internal battle for social acceptance because it is “socially constituted” instead of organically constituted. Also, double consciousness yearns for societal acceptance instead of second-class citizenship based on race.
Through each facet through the studies of symbolic capital, the black body, habitus, and double consciousness, they offer a multidimensional approach to the African American Exodus to Paris. Meaning, that symbolically, the Black body is inferior and this changes the mental framework of a Black persons existentialism. As a result, the individual is inherently aware that he or she is inferior solely because of classification. This was the obstacle course that Black people of the early 1900’s had to go through every day if not every hour.
To help illustrate the obstacle of symbolic culture, there is the notion of primitivism. Two examples of de-blackboxing the propaganda of primitivism include W.E.B. Dubois’ Paris Exposition and the Branly Exposition.
Primitivism is typically viewed as less sophisticated. To assess the definition of primitivism, Nwankwo mentions that it was a tactic of dehumanization. He says that:
“Implicit in the Atlantic power structures’ fear of violent uprising and designation of people of African descent as less than a whole (hu)man was the notion that they were primitive savages, that is to say, premodern barbarians. The perception of people of African descent as less than human and not worthy of being seen as equal to those of European descent operated in tandem with the construction of people of African descent as an antithesis of the modern.” (Nwankwo 9)
Therefore, primitivism was an idea used to dehumanize minorities. It can be obscene in nature.
It is necessary to echo the idea about primitivism and the negative aspects because it initiates all of the problems in the paper. In the realm of African Americans, W.E.B. Dubois tried to combat these “savage” ideas not only by theories, but also by photography with many exhibits. One exhibit that stands out above the rest is the 1900 Paris Exposition. The Exposition is a mash-up of culture and the physical nature of the African American:
“Further, while the first images in Du Bois’s 1900 Paris Exposition albums formally recall the photographs that eugenicists and biological racialists used to codify bodies in racial terms, Du Bois’s albums as a whole dismantle the physical coherence of the imagined racial type, disengaging the images of African American men and women from the circumscription of a sliding evolutionary scale.” (Smith 61)
These images are very important because they counter the primitive image. They show the world that African Americans are more than their race, that they are people. Through these pictures, DuBois gives visual depth to the African American race by showing various facets of the race. Du Bois subjects or “types” display “a diverse array of individuals not bound by physical appearance, by the ‘hair and one and color’ that Du Bois rejects as singular signs of racial belonging in his 1897essay ‘The Conservation of Races.’ In Du Bois’s albums, blond and pale ‘Negro types’ are placed beside brunette and brown ones, a juxtaposition that challenges color codifications as markers of racial difference and the body itself as a sign of racial meaning” (Smith 61). This propaganda attempted to chip away at the standard of primitivism.
In today’s world these images might not be as shocking because the world is becoming more diverse. However, in the 1900s race had boundaries such as where people could go, what they could do, and so on. Race was definitive. Also, race was pictured in very demeaning ways. For instance, DuBois created images and postures of sophistication in his photographs and this countered biological racist images where the cultural subjects were pictured naked and primitive (Smith 46-47).
Musée du Quai Branly
Another opinion of primitivism comes from Charles Ratton who collected primitive works of art. However, instead of using the images as a tool for inferiority, he aimed to fetishize the primitive way of life.
“He realised that these arts that we inaccurately term ‘primitive’ obey the same laws and are deserving of the same esteem as the classical arts and those of Asia, the latter being known and appreciated themselves for scarcely forty years. He decided to devote himself entirely to them.” —Charles Ratton about himself. (Art Daily).
He attempted to grant further agency to primitive work.
Both DuBois and Ratton attempted to change a standard so they used visual mediums. They were both a means to the end of misunderstanding just through different lenses. For instance, DuBois showed various depictions of African American’s to breakdown classifications and challenges the ideas of classification. Here are some images from the exhibit that I visited while I was in Paris.
Ratton, wanted to grant more agency to primitive art. This is an interesting concept because it seems difficult to do based on the images and pieces of art. Most of the images in the exhibit are either over sexualized or are extreme from the classics. This is paired with interesting layouts. For instance, there was one room that was an office room with the primitive art as a decoration. The primitive art as a decoration could either be a marketing ploy to show that primitive art can be an office trinket, which could be an artistic way of supporting colonialism. Or this idea could signify the different of economic status and dominance. Either way, it is an interesting dichotomy. Here are some pictures of the movie clips:
However, the most confusing connection was a small screen in the back corner of the exhibit. In this corner, the exhibit displayed an old African American movie. This movie was an all African American cast and the language that was used was very stereotypical of older films (broken English and grammatical errors). I found this to be quite interesting because I wasn’t sure of the connection between the primitive art and the movie.
One can assume that the map of the room was possibly suggesting a connection between the primitive art and the primitive African American stereotype.
However, if both of the exhibits are placed on the same playing field, then it can be deduced that the both contributors are trying to address the boxed in definition of primitivism and trying to create another point of view. DuBois is trying to change the standard of dehumanizing the African American image and Ratton is attempting to enhance interest in primitive art in efforts to make it a high culture medium.
Another approach to assessing dehumanizing views was the Exodus. This means that the people would leave America for Europe.
With all of these roadblocks, it seems as though Paris was the agora for social change. In accordance, many African Americans made the Exodus to Paris to see if the myth of acceptance and change were true. Many influential African Americans like Mary Church Terrill, Bessie Coleman, and Mary Mcloud Bethune. Just to name a few. African Americans from all disciplines visited Paris. There were myths that people could “artists and performers sought refuge from American racism, places to just be themselves and practice their craft.” (Bennefield).
Is there an actual difference? Is the “veil” removed? So I decided to find out. From previous travels to Italy, I knew that there was more of a feeling of acceptance.
In Paris, it was the same living by myself in Paris, France for two weeks opened my eyes to the sights and sounds and goose bumps of acceptance. The first difference was a lack of definition. In Paris, I did not have to define myself by race. No one really asked me and if people asked, it was to find out what country I was from. Even though asking which country a person is from is quite similar to asking what race or breeding a person has, it felt differently.
Another point of definition was my appearance. I didn’t have to define my appearance. I could wear whatever I wanted. I could take risks or I could abide by whatever fashion codes that I wanted to at that moment. I should mention, that Paris of course is a fashion capitol, and I am typically a fashionable person, therefore I imagined that every day while in Paris, I would have to wear pieces of haute couture to go to the grocery store. But, that wasn’t the case. The style that I typically wear which is more of a “dressy casual” was the standard in Paris.
My hair was not defined. As a person of color, my hair is sometimes considered a threat to airspace. All jokes aside, there are plenty of Black hair philosophies with regards to letting the hair go natural or suppressing it with the straightener. In America as an effect of the construct that curly hair is not professional or wild, I sometimes feel the need to straighten it because so I don’t stand out, so that I become in with the mix. However, in Paris, I could style my hair in any way. The curls could get big and frizzy, but that was a norm. Many people in Paris had curly and wavy hair.
Bottom-line, I felt as though I belonged. I do not speak that much French and I actually had a French tutor and read books on how to pronounce French words, and I listened to tape that taught the language before I left, but that wasn’t necessary. People understood that French wasn’t my first language, and as long as I was polite SVP, then the French were polite to me.
Nevertheless, I still love being an American and all of the affordances the country gives me. However, I had to go and experience to better inform my writing.
When I boarded the plane for Paris, I knew that this trip would forever change my life. I knew that I was joining the ranks of the countless African Americans that sought artistic and educational freedom. Similarly, when I boarded the plane to head back to America, I knew that I would take this trip with me in my heart everyday. The opportunity to live, breath, and move within a culture that I innately felt comfortable in is indescribable but extremely important at the same time.
Accordingly, if this trip was and is extremely life changing for me, and extremely life-changing for the African American people of the 1900s and Interwar Paris, then how is this story cultivated?
While growing up, whether during black history month or during my undergraduate African American history class, the idea of African American leaving America for Europe always entranced me. Even though this subject was only covered for a portion of a class or a few paragraphs in a book, I always wanted to know more. This lack of depth in the field of expatriates or even travellers, is a very crucial missing part to African American history. It is only acknowledged briefly and it is only memorialized two times in Paris (Josephine Baker and Richard Wright) (Bennefield). So what does this mean to the African American music culture.
To further explore this area, we must set ourselves into Black Paris. We must imagine the life the longing and the appreciation for a space in which people could freely express their interests in music.
Sounds of Black Paris
“LUMUMBA LOUIS ARMSTRONG
PATRICE AND PATTI PAGE
KING COLE JUKEBOX PAYOLA
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
GOD WILLING DROP A SHILLING
FORT DE FRANCE, PLACE PIGALLE
VINGT FRANCS NICKEL DIME
BAHIA LAGOS DAKAR LENOX
KINGSTON TOO GOD WILLING
A QUARTER OR A SHILLING. PARIS—
AT THE DOME VINGT FRANCS WILL DO
ROTONDE SELECT DUPONT FLORE
TALL BLACK STUDENT
IN HORN-RIM GLASSES
WHO AT THE SORBONNE HAS SIX CLASSES,
IN THE SHADOW OF THE CLUNY
SPEAKS ENGLISH FRENCH SWAHILI
HAS ALMOST FORGOTTEN NEALIE.
BUT WHY RIDE ON MULE OR DONKEY
WHEN THERE’S A UNICORN?
NIGHT IN A SÉKOU TOURÉ CAP
DRESSED LIKE A TEDDY BOY
BLOTS COLORS OFF THE MAP.
PERHAPS IF IT BE GOD’S WILL
AZIKIWE’S SON, AMEKA,
SHAKES HANDS WITH EMMETT TILL.”
—Langston Hughes, ASK YOUR MAMA (Elkin)
In Paris, in the 1900’s artists flocked to find liberation. This community formed into an artist’s dream:
“By the early 1920s a tiny black community had taken root in Paris. It was a diverse assemblage of people, who had come to the French capital by many different roads and for many different reasons. Some had been attracted by the legends of intimate cafes and the bright lights of the Champs-Elysees, whereas others came there as self-conscious refugees from American racism” (Stovall 34)
Paris was the place to experience sites, sounds, tastes, and all of the senses.
“I’m not gonna spend my life being a color” –Michael Jackson “Black or White”
Typically when African Americans made the journey to Paris in the 1920s, they gathered in Montmartre (Stovall 40). The settlement of Monmartre is an interesting dichotomy. On one side, it is in Paris and it is a place where African Americans can feel free to be humans instead of color. However, at the same time, the location of Montmartre was not as empowering.
“Like Harlem, Monmartre was an area with a seedy reputation located north of the places inhabited by the wealthy and genteel, who came to visit it in the dead of night to finish up an evening on the town. Both areas were the centers of the local black population, and places where whites intent on exotic slumming could come to experience black culture” (Stovall 43-44).
Montmartre was a place to go to revel in the promiscuous ways of life. Therefore, this casts a grey shadow of the Parisian experience because of the promiscuity. Having the center of the early 1900s and Interwar Paris a site for promiscuity is an interesting effect because promiscuity is usually linked to describing African American women. Going back to the days of slavery, “…slave owners portrayed enslaved women as promiscuous, immoral Jezebels who seduced their masters. Consequently, there were no legal or social sanctions against raping Black women (West,2002b).” (West 1491). Therefore, was Monmartre just another extension of a promiscuous ownership of the Black body? Even though there were monetary determinants that made Monmartre the center for Blacks in Paris during the 1900s and Interwar Paris, the promiscuity is just accepted in the area.
When I visited Montmartre for the first time, I was shocked. I did not believe that this was the hub for the foundation of Black empowerment in Paris. As I walked by the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets, I was in disbelief. I walked through a market crowded with people clamoring over goods. It was not what I envisioned. It was not what I had in my cultural memory. Instead, my cultural memory alluded to the hub of African American empowerment, on the Left Bank in San Germain-de Pres (which the would happen later). My cultural memory, all of the glamour that was portrayed in the days of Josephine Baker and her colleagues, was not there so accordingly I thought I was lost and that I wasn’t in the right place. Even though Monmartre is an interesting area and the view from the Sacré–Cœur is beautiful, my positive slant was slightly jilted.
Images from tour of Montmartre:
The gilt might come from a positive slant on stories that are ultimately written in books and disseminated to the youth. In the African American culture, stories are created in a legendary way because they piece together the positive parts and create a patchwork for positive memory. “The term African American symbolizes a unique storytelling tradition that is a synthesis of values and rituals rooted in African and American societies (Faulkner, 1977; Hamilton, 1985;Stewart, 1997).” (Banks-Wallace 410). Through the patchwork, negative memories are usually hidden. These aspects are hidden possibly because these stories could be creating a positive standard for the race. Just as W.E.B. DuBois’ photographs illustrated mainly highly sophisticated subjects, African American stories tend to only highlight the positive as a way of conquering images and stories used to negatively categorize the race.
Accordingly, by sifting out negative images to construct a positive image, this bleeds into positive story telling because the image was carefully constructed and would not want to be negatively communicated through story telling. “Many women have been taught that sharing stories about the interiors of African American life is disloyal to ‘The Race.’ Dangerous, or both. To avoid sharing stories, some people become very silent…” (Banks-Wallace 420). Sharing interior stories could be dangerous because they can reveal the underpinnings of the double conscious. As mentioned before, most African Americans walk through life with two senses of self-based on interaction with other races. Therefore, double consciousness is further constructed by stories because the storytellers are forever cognizant of the ramifications.
This leads to the power of the storyteller. Whether the storyteller is a photographer or a historian, there is power in the way that the story is remembered. With regards to bus tours, I took multiple. I rode around the city for days to discover how the history of Paris is disseminated for tour groups. I went to museums to explore exhibits to see how the history was portrayed. I discovered that the tales of the African Americans that travelled to Paris were not told in great detail or at all on the commercial tours. They were only told when I went on cultural specific tours.
Furthermore there is power in the actual infrastructure of the city. For instance, in Paris the myths of Montmatre as Harlem are only for the pure imagination.
While walking down the streets of Montmartre on a tour, the tour guide mentioned the hustle and bustle that happened in the area. The parties that were thrown the Black opulence that overflowed the streets. The music that caressed eardrums into a daze.
Those were the days. The days in the twenties are mere memories constructed by vast storytellers of the African American interaction in Paris. These stories follow similar formats for they are based on other stories from the time. Therefore, the stories are meta stories.
But, no matter the way that the story was told, there is still an absence. An absence in the infrastructure. As the tour guide and I leisurely strolled down the streets of Paris with our snacks and drinks, I was forced to create a synthesis from her words. I was told to imagine the way that the city was. Imagine the hustle and bustle of the empowerment. Imagine seeing Langston Hughes as a busboy. Imagine Josephine Baker strolling and her glamorous outfits twinkling in the moonlight. Imagine.
But, the imagination was stifled by the appearance. Now the area is different. Facades have come and gone. People have moved in and out. The only real marker of the significance of the area is a small square sign that denotes the street name.
In the area, there isn’t a plaque that notes the African Americans that were the legends. There are only shifting buildings keeping up with a new era. Yet, this place is important. This area is integral to the hope of an empowered African American. This place is where people could be free.
To demonstrate the emptiness of the space, there is the story of Eugene Bullard.
Eugene Bullard: “Combat pilot, nightclub owner and manager Bullard was a major player I the night life of Black Paris during the interwar years. He was finally driven from his adopted country by the Nazi invasion of Paris during World War II.” (Anderson and Wells 90). Bullard was thoroughly praised in Paris yet not in his home country. He was known as a French national hero for his commitment in the armed forces (Chivalette).
“At the nightclub, Le Grand Duc, where he was the host and part owner, Bullard entertained the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gloria Swanson and England’s Prince of Wales. He opened his own club soon after his marriage which soon became one of Paris’ most famous entertainment spots for singers and musicians of the time.” (Chivalette) In Paris he was not only successful, but he was also honored.
Yet, when he came back to America the hero received “… work as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center. It was the job he would hold until he retired.” (Chivalette).
Other highlights of his life include that ”…French government requested his presence to help relight the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris…In 1959 at age 65, he was named Knight of the Legion of Honor in a lavish ceremony in New York City. Dave Garraway interviewed him on the Today Show, still America did nothing to acknowledge this honor or acknowledge his place in history. President-General Charles de Gaulle of France, while visiting New York City, publically and internationally embraced Eugene Bullard as a true French hero in 1960.” (Chivalette).
The trend as noted by Chivalette is that America as a whole never acknowledged his accomplishments publicly as France did.
France honored him in life and death. “On 12 October, 1961, after suffering a long illness due to the wounds he received, Eugene Jacques Bullard passed away… On 17 October, with the tri-color of France draping his coffin, he was laid to rest with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers at Flushing Cemetery in New York.” (Chivalette)
Yet, the common denominator is that France remembered Eugene Bullard through actions and not monuments. This begs the question of the importance of physical objects and outward gestures.
Usually power is prominent through infrastructure. This paper will approach infrastructure as different forms of monuments and physical buildings and markers. In Paris, there are a plethora of markers and monuments for the French. Everywhere that a person walks is practically a chapter in a history book.
Accordingly, these chapters or these areas are heavily marked in one way or another by bus tours that discharge busload after busload of tourists at these sites or merely having a statue in an area. The statue signifies importance. Yet, with regards to the African American interwar experience in Paris, there are few markers and it forces a person to be creative. For instance the street sign of Pigalle becomes a monument in a way.
Yet, this leads to the bigger issue of power and the African Americans. “As Foucault (1977) put it, “Since memory is actually a very important factor in struggle… if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism.” (Olick and Robbins 126). Therefore, if power determines what is remembered then it equally determines what is forgotten.
The legends of Pigalle are not formally marked with a memorial. For instance with regards to cultural memory, there isn’t actual marker that signifies the place as there is just down the rad one can find the Moulin Rouge preserved with all of its significance.
Why is it important because as the years go by and people begin to forget the correct stories, what will be left? How will people know that there is such a presence and importance down these streets?
Most of the city of Paris is constructed in an antimodernist way. From an antimodernist perspective, is: “… the disposition of those who felt a discomfort…for the modernity of industrial, urban society. Antimodernists valued the singular artistry of the work of the master craftsman and disdained a modernity that replaced the artisan’s work with mass-produced objects, food, and architecture that antimodernists considered to be neither prettier nor better made” (Hobbs 54).
With the antimodern perspective this could describe why African Americans are not memorialized in Paris, because they came in a modern time after the marvels of the city were already made. But is that true? Who constitutes what is modern and at what time that it is purely modern? However, I’m not sure if that is an accurate reason for the disconnect.
The real question is where are the African American people? In Paris, everywhere I went there was some sort of monument and some sort of historical significance. Every when I would go out for a night on the town in Bastille, even though the places that I went were not historically marked there was still the knowledge of the area and the historical significance. But, I didn’t find this to be true for African Americans. With this specific culture, I did not find many references to their important Exodus. This story of the countless of African Americans is crucial to African American history studies and we learn about it all the time, yet the same markers and significance are not reciprocated.
There are only two African American people that are memorialized in Paris. “Josephine Baker and Richard Wright are the only two African Americans in Paris memorialized with a plaque in the city because they became Paris citizens, according to Ealy.” (Bennefield)
With regards to physical monuments, Josephine Baker has a square, the hotel, and there are hints of Josephine Baker’s influence in many current ad campaigns in current day Paris.
According to the time frame, Josephine Baker represents the whole of African Americans that made the Exodus in the 1900s and Interwar Paris.
Josephine Baker was a “Performer. Baker went to Paris in 1925 with the show La Revue Négre and enjoyed overnight success in her role. She adopted France as he home country, always returning even though her singing and acting career took her all over the world. She died in Paris in 1975” (Anderson and Wells 88). Josephine Baker was a remarkable woman that challenged primitivism, was a French spy, and believed in diversity and the Parisians loved her. When she died, “Josephine Baker’s funeral on April 15, 1975, formed a spectacular finale to her unique career. The French government gave her a state funeral at the city’s impressive Madeline church, the first American woman it had ever honored in this way.” (Stovall 286). This is an incredible honor for Josephine and the state funeral was a first, with regards to an American woman being honored this way. Yet, is this memorialized? How do people know that the first American woman to have a state funeral in the Madeline church was an African American woman? It is not taught so does that mean it’s not remembered.
However, one way that Josephine Baker is remembered is through an area of town that is marked in her honor. “Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi christened ‘La Place Josephine Baker’ after the American-born singer, social activist and French national hero who made the French capital her home for a half-century.” (Cox News Service). This is important.
When I visited this square, after getting lost in the city, I found it to be quiet interesting and up to interpretation. For many people, this square means many different things. For a dancer, this square recognizes the beauty of being different while creating your art. For a person in the military, this square exudes sacrifice and gull. For an academic, this square represents movements for recognizing more African Americans that prized Paris as their home and finally felt accepted as humans.
Being in this square it is clear, that memory is not just for the books, but it is for hope. In regards to hope, or in this case hope of a culture, there are trials and offsets of mental slavery that this square helps breakdown because it remembers a person that represents a people that fled to Paris to escape oppression.
Another way that people are remembering African Americans and the African American musicians is through the jazz club scene and performing standards. On some nights, in Paris, I would travel to jazz clubs such as Ducs des Lombards and Caveau de la Huchette. I would interview the artists and spectators. One night at the Ducs des Lombards the band played originals but the covered the standards like “Besame Mucho”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Battle Hymn Of The Republic ”.
During the intermission, I interviewed the band. The leader of the band did not speak that much English, so I asked a fellow band mate to translate for me. The takeaway from the interview was that most of his inspiration artists were African Americans. At one point, the bandleader said that he “is black”. Even though I’m not sure of the context that he was referring to, but nonetheless there was a connection that he made through the music that honored these musicians.
Pictures from some interviews and conversations:
At the Caveau de la Huchette, I interviewed a lot of people. When I interviewed a man that claimed Geneva and Paris, about race he told me that race does not matter. I asked a young woman why she comes to jazz clubs and she said that the music makes her feel clever it opens her mind. She also commented on that it was a soulful experience. I interviewed a family from Germany as well and they said that this was their first time at a jazz club. As the night rolled on an people filled the dance floor the German family eased into the feeling that they could dance to jazz music. It was great watching their inhibitions dissipate.
Also, I interviewed a man from Pennsylvania that said that I should instead check out Japanese Jazz culture. As the night rolled on and the band took their first break, I chatted with the bass player who identified as a music producer and musician. We chatted about the generational shift between the old wave of jazz and the new wave of jazz. This new wave could be thought of as a different form of jazz culture.
“Gotta have a gimmick” – Gypsy
The new wave audience is changing. Before, the predominant people that listened and performed jazz in Paris were the African Americans. But, while in Paris, I witnessed that all of the musicians were Caucasian and most of the spectators were Caucasian as well. This could be the cause of many things. First it was August in Paris, and during this time the Parisians go on holiday. But, regardless I shouldn’t have been the only African American in the crowd. Another reason could be the generational shift and the commodity of jazz. This commodity recognizes that Paris is known for having the jazz greats visit their town and accordingly, companies or marketing organizations could have aspirations of shifting the audience.
The Main Takeaway: Music Memory
Takeaway from all of the literature boils down to the idea of liberation and memory. Through all of the readings and theories, it can be deduced that African Americans had an extremely trying time in America especially during the 1900’s and Interwar time frame.
However, by using these puzzling theories that, it is easier to access what the role of memory. For instance, in each situation, there seems to be a negative reaction. Yes, it all goes back to Newton. For instance, with regards to cosmopolitanism, the negative reaction is symbolic culture, which spawns ideas about African American’s relationship with cosmopolitanism. These theories lend themselves to the mental struggle of persona. But, in order to avoid these troubles in the future, there needs to be a recollection of said events that are described by the theories. In stead, the culture is left with oral history, which can disintegrate and turn with twitches of the tongue and selective memory. Essentially, in a perfect world, I would open an African American museum in Paris. This museum would be an unbiased museum that would tell the tale of the Exodus to Paris. This is necessary, because awareness of the black self and liberation, are key concepts in the prominent movements. Therefore, someone stretch to say that the “I’m Black and I’m Proud” popular phrase repeated by James Brown could be a remix of countless tales of liberation and realization that being African American, Black, colored or whatever you would like to call it, is not a “veil” rather another color in the palette of life.
Another takeaway is that there are two African Americans that are memorialized in Paris. But what about the thousands of African Americans that journeyed to Paris and basked in liberation? To scale back, what about the hundreds of African Americans that came to Paris and still come to Paris as a way to experience musical freedom. The takeaway is that in the absence of their physical memorial, the music has become a boundless vessel for memory.
However, whatever the reason, this could at least be some form of cultural memory. Through interviews and conversations, it seems as though people go by the music over the memory of where it was. Maybe the music made more sense and will be the memory.
The music knows no bounds and in some cases can be played or sung without documentation. Therefore, through the notes of each street performer, through the pull on each string of the bass, and through the smile of each piano player as he or she gets into the groove, that is a nod to the people that came before and lived in harmony and freedom.
The Mamy for Sale: Tourists shops selling the past
Jazz finds Religion: A religious take on Jazz music and race
Baldwin and the Paris Essays
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