Upon first reading about “Negrophilia”, I didn’t find it particularly problematic. If anything, it seemed to me that the French were embracing African culture, a refreshing idea given the racism happening in US and other areas on Europe. However, Andre Levinson makes a crucial mistake by attempting to compare “Negro dancing” to European ballet. After pointing out the many differences between the two, he mentions that the African dancers seemed to be assimilating into European art, saying, “as their white admirers tend to retrograde toward the primitive, the Negroes themselves seem to progress, as we understand the term.”1 Here, Levinson demonstrates that he clearly does not understand the term. The entire problem of Negrophilia seems to be caught up in this issue of ignorance. By comparing their European art to that of the African community (a comparison that was not even fully authentic as much of their idea of African culture was mixed with American culture), the Parisian audience began to use terms such as “progress” and “retrogression” to describe art, with French culture being the ultimate “goal” that other cultures should be striving towards. The idea of progress being a straight line with a goal that will eventually be reached is incredibly problematic because every culture will have a different idea of what that end goal should be. Who’s right? The Europeans? This seems to be the assumption in Levinson’s review.
This problem is equally prevalent in dealing with other cultures today. Oftentimes there is an attempt when dealing with “World Music” to compare it with the the rhythmic ideas and tonality that we are familiar with in Western music. There is no problem with comparison itself; the problem arises as soon as we refer to other music as more simplistic and primitive just because it has not evolved in the same that Western music has. Any suggestion of difference as inferior demonstrates a failure to truly understand the music that other cultures bring to the table. Even if we are presented with music that we don’t understand, or don’t even like, we need to be careful to avoid those terms because the same exact terms could be used to describe Western music by other cultures.