“These blacks, who are grotesque caricatures, have rhythm not only in their legs, but in their skin, which shudders from their heels to the roots of their hair. They sing with a very sure sense of harmony, making us think that they remember their native forest…They have in their eyes a childish faith or an instinctive fear” (Jordan, 105 – 106).
“[The] sense of rhythm [exhibited by the performers of the Revue Negre] was more of a physiological–I am almost tempted to say glandular–phenomenon, allied to their excessive hysteria and their unbelievably high animal spirits” (Levinson, 73).
“Here we see ourselves to be in the presence of an innate gift, not a conscious art” (Levinson, 72-73).
The term “Negrophilia”–love for (any and all) Black cultures–has been used to describe the White European reaction in the beginning of the 20th century to African and African-American artists and art forms. Yet the broadness of this term obscures the complications inherent in the phenomenon that “Negrophilia” attempts to describe.
A pure and healthy experience of love depends upon respect for the thing or person loved. And respect involves seeking to know and understand a person or phenomenon for who or what she/he/it really is as opposed to for who or what we want or think he/she/it to be. The excerpts above suggest that the Parisian audiences of the 1920s tended to be obsessively enamored with the “spectacle” of any performance related to “Blackness” or “Africanness,” rather than to feel and exhibit a true love for the performances and performers they witnessed—that is, rather than a tendency to respectfully take such encounters on their own terms as foreign but legitimate (and multiple!) art forms. In addition, these generalizing and sensationalizing reactions reveal Parisian audiences’ almost desperate attachment to identity formation and protection.
In compiling the reactions of various critics who attended performances of La Revue Negre, Jordan gives us a sense of the common themes used to describe artistic presentations given by Black performers in 1920s Paris. The “ultra-modern” revue depended on epileptic “animal convulsions,” the expression of “childish joys,” and an overwhelming rhythmic presence in both the music and the dancers–all of which supposedly exemplified the essential primitiveness with which Blacks were thought to be naturally and unavoidably connected (104-105).
The overuse of these descriptors suggests a conscious and unconscious Othering of this non-French performance. In continuously recycling certain words, critics fortified the establishment of the performances of the Revue as foreign and, paradoxically, despite the sometimes seemingly congratulatory remarks, as less worthy of consideration than pure French art. Jordan writes that Albert Flament found “The audaciousness of the show and the excited reactions of the audiences…[to be] an affront to their sense of Frenchness” (109). Meanwhile, Andre Levinson warns that “Negro dancing may suggest at once any one of a variety of quite separate problems. The student of aesthetics may be interested in defining the indigenous principles of the dance and of judging its intrinsic artistic value. The moralist, on the other hand, in his search for an explanation of our times, may be more concerned with the effect of this black virus upon European civilization. …While, as it is found in our present-day dance halls, it may appear as a symptom of an epidemic contagion of society which should concern the pathologist” (70).
Considering the popularity of La Revue and other performances given by Black artists in 1920s France, it seems counter-intuitive that these performances were felt at some level to be a threat to French culture–so serious a threat that critics and other audience members felt the need to box in and devalue the art in order to affirm the superiority of Frenchness. But it is clear that the Revue from the outset was not considered in a respectful manner as a different but worthy artistic expression credible on its own terms. Rather, it was taken only in comparison to European art forms pre-established as innately superior. Levinson himself admits that “this article is merely attempting to present a European interpretation of the Negro dance” (70).
Yet as appalling as these reviews seem to us today, it is important to keep in mind that, as we learned in the introduction to Levinson’s writing, in the 1920s, racial essentialism was a prevalent and accepted tool used to categorize people and explain their actions. And although we now view this idea as deeply misguided, the ease with which it was incorporated into mainstream discussion should move us to consider how our current society–and how we as individuals–perpetuates problematic attitudes in today’s world.