In 20s Paris, there was a large demand for American negro culture. Josephine Baker became the poster child for these types of shows, as French audiences were fascinated by her dances, the likes of which they had never seen before. Many have termed this “negrophilia,” which many would take to mean “love of black culture.” However, in the readings, I see more of a fascination and amusement for black culture, rather than love and respect for it.
Josephine Baker, for some of her dances, carried over the racist traditions of minstrelsy and blackface from America. This is essentially a form of exoticism, which is really a type of exploitation more than anything else. While audiences were certainly amused by the spectacle, they did not see this as a form of “high art” which ought to be respected. This is evidenced in Levanson’s writing, when he compares negro dance to ballet, arguing that ballet is more refined and developed, and negro dance is less developed and more primitive. He also makes the distinction between silent and noisy dance, saying that this is a distinguishing factor between sophisticated and primitive dance.1
This idea of black primitiveness is best exemplified by the Danse Sauvage. This dance used primitive elements such as “jungle music” and costumes (or lack thereof) consisting mainly of feathers. Also, the movements of this dance, such as the one shown on page 7 in the photograph, were very much out of the ordinary from normal dancing.2 All of these suggest a certain lowness of black culture – unfit for sophisticated music or clothing, but fitting of strange, contorted movements.
Ultimately, this sort of dismissal of black dance and culture from the level of French high culture amounts to a sort of racism and dismissal of African American culture as good for entertainment only. Furthermore, the dances and shows that the French had them do for their entertainment were meant to be primitivizing, thus amounting to a rejection of serious African American art. It is for this reason that negrophilia is more of an indicator of amusement than respect for African American culture.
(1) André Levinson, “The Negro Dance: Under European Eyes,” in André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties, ed. Joan Acocella and Lynn Garafola (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1991), 72.
(2) Henry Louis Gates and Karen C. C. Dalton, “Introduction,” in Josephine Baker and La Revue Nègre: Paul Colin’s Lithographs of Le Tumulte Noir in Paris, 1927 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998), 7.