There are almost as many cultural interpretations of negrophilia in the 1920s as there pieces of information available about Josephine Baker and performances of La Revue Nègre in particular. There were some positive responses, a few fence-riders, and clearly very negative things said about her and the show. In “Josephine Baker and La Revue Nègre” by Gates, it states there is “nothing very beautiful about a cross-eyed colored girl.” Derogatory adjectives were used in all of the readings: animalistic, savage, erotic, grotesque, etc. Some people (like Bizet in Jordan’s “Le Jazz”) understandably thought it was leading to the decadence of French culture. Levinson’s “The Negro Dance: Under European Eyes” writes about how this dancing is not a conscious art, but an innate gift that has atrophied in cultivated humans. And just because a Negro has this gift apparently does not mean we should jump to conclusions about whether they should be taken seriously as an artist… Wow.
As the Gates book includes, I think the primary emotion that everyone shared was pure shock. A variety of factors led to the work being received the way it was. The combination of racial tensions, sexual implications, surprising dance moves, and revealing costumes led to the wake of extreme emotions. But the pure success of the performances has to point to some sort of positive reaction or message (or at least popular interest in what was being presented). It became a symbol of the era and some of the fury paralleled the economic and cultural turmoils of the time (we can’t forget context!), as Jordan’s writing mentions.
To say the Parisians of the time actually loved, respected, and celebrated African American artists is a stretch. Obviously, many viewers experienced feelings other than love. However, just because they perhaps did not experience an immediate love for these artists does not mean that their views were necessarily racist. There have been times when I have not instantly liked something when introduced to it (e.g. tone rows), but after ruminating about the concept for awhile, I experience a change of heart/mind. Part of me has a very difficult time judging their opinions (or at least what I think are their opinions) based on our current cultural views and definitions. As Levinson’s writing points out, though saying the differences between European and non-European dances are products of different levels of civilization is viewed as racist today, it was a very widely held belief at the time. Granted, just because something is widely believed does not make it correct. However, we can’t help but wonder, what commonly held notions today will be viewed as insensitive in 100 or 10 years?
When relating to the so-called “other” musicians of today (who even are they?), one important take-away to keep in mind after examining the happenings in the 1920s is that it is okay to have a variety of reactions and feelings about art we are exposed to, even if those differ from how others are digesting the art. Despite what culture tells us we should be feeling, it may even be understandable to have some racist (or other -ist or -ac) feelings. I think how we process those reactions and what we do about them is the most important implication for today. We can learn a lot from history if we choose.