Spurred by unfortunately abundant reasons, headlines today posit, “Is racism alive in today’s culture?” Often, though, the question is purely incendiary. The answer itself is not unknown; rather, the question’s purpose is to examine why and how racism exists. The debate often turns to questions of appropriation and to varying definitions of “cultural respect.” Similarly, equipped with the benefit of hindsight, we are able to ask a similar question regarding 1920s French negrophilia. When critics such as Andre Levinson assert that “the undeniable rhythmic superiority of these Negro dancers is nothing less than an adjunct of their irrepressible animality,” our stomachs clench – how racist, we think. Was racism embedded in negrophilia, and did potential racism stem from ignorance, from hate, or from something else entirely?
The question is not whether Levinson’s opinions are racist – yes, they are. Even if Levinson’s comments are rooted in misunderstanding, his words expose a judgment of black worth based on black heritage alone. The question, without excusing the racism itself, is to ask why and from where racist negrophilia critiques arise. I believe that the fundamental lack of respect toward La revue negré, and the racism inherent in the critiques, is evidence that while the French reveled in the intrigue and natural authenticity of the performances, they viewed it through a lens not of cultural celebration but of desperation to identify French culture as superior.
The critiques we have read present interesting dichotomies of perceptions. Certainly, they testify to the shock that La revue negré induced in Paris. Some interpreted the exoticized performances as primitive, while others saw them as modern and innovative, but everyone was intrigued and curious. However, the newness itself of the intrigue was also questioned, as people began to assert that the shows really just followed the “age-old fantasies about exotic negré otherness swirling in the French cultural imagination” (Jordan 104). Rene Bizet also alluded to this role-filling phenomenon, describing the negré revue as a “manifestation of white-people fantasies” about the animalistic and the savage. Thus arises the question: Did people see what Josephine Baker intended? Did they see what they expected to see? Or did they see what 1920s Paris wanted them to see?
Jordan’s essay asserts that although La revue negré became described in terms of French sensibility, critiques became formed in terms of the way the spectacle was constructed to arouse responses throughout the public. Jordan asserts that ultimately, La revue negré “was fabricated to give audiences and critics the ‘authentic’ negre they wanted and the modern feel of jazz” (Jordan 108). I agree – while Josephine Baker and her contemporaries were celebrated and marveled over, the excitement was never chiefly about loving and respecting their artistic offerings. Rather, it seems that La revue negré was essentially used to create a foil for true Frenchness, to create a contrast to incite active definition of the French sense of self. Some critics, such as Rene Bizet, used this foil as a call to action to recommit to French refinement of taste. Other critics embraced this foil to indicate France’s new exciting audacity to push against repressed Frenchness, to move into a progressive and modern identity.
Perhaps the most telling statement is Levinson’s closing critique in his article: “The really devil-ridden today are those European idlers who passively give themselves up to an enjoyment of the Negro dance without setting up any barriers to its atavistic, demoralizing appeal” (Levinson 75). Repeatedly, even complimentary critics paint La revue negré in a light that, even while praising it, renders it inferior to French culture. Clearly, Josephine Baker’s art is intended for something other than artistic enjoyment. This relationship is not one of love and respect; it is a manipulative relationship indicative of 1920s French post-war desperation for superiority in some form.
While it would be too easy to vilify 1920s Parisians as racist and as ignorant, it is useful to understand that La revue negré was both loved and hated because of the role it played in shaking French identity. It was fabricated to highlight French superiority, but it also exposed French identity as a fixed ideal. This example is a reminder that, as musicians and as members of a society and a culture, we too can easily allow ourselves, often unconsciously, to interpret the new or strange or “otherness” in music as reflections, affirmations, or threats to the ideals that we have built and honed throughout our education. It is healthy, and indeed exciting, to have our own perspectives with which we listen and interpret, but we ought to be aware of positioning music’s worth or presentation to serve our purposes.