Josephine Baker, the Bal Negre, and the State of Black Musical Expression in Paris
by Jane Nardal 1
For years now, all of Paris has crazed itself over black culture2. The bourgeois French woman exudes the exotic appeal of Africa by draping herself in leopard skins3, the well-to-do white man imagines himself accessing the “primitive” depths of his nature as he boogies to the late-night croonings of a jazz band, the up-and-coming artist is considered behind the times if she fails to reference the masks of Gabon on display at the latest ethnographic exhibition in her newest painting 4.
An unsuspecting observer of this phenomenon might claim that white Parisians are celebrating black culture. But, in fact, this fascination with all things “African” is an insult to blacks of all cultural and national backgrounds because it naively asserts the sameness of all blacks everywhere. The white Parisians’ enchantment with blackness conflates all African and other black cultures into one exotic stranger, ignoring both the diversity of heritage and experience between, for example, African-Americans, Ethiopians, Martiniquans, and the myriad of other black peoples, and, of course, the human conditions that transcend all cultures, black, white, or otherwise, and that we all share with one another5.
By this conflation, the whites of Paris succeed in seeming to honor blackness while actually disrespecting it by essentializing many distinct cultures. Indeed, their conception of blackness as implying universal and essential characteristics (different, these same whites would claim, from the supposed “superior” universal and essential characteristics of whites) goes beyond disrespect; it allows whites to subconsciously affirm the difference from and superiority over blacks that they come, through practice and cultural heritage, to believe they possess.
What is most damaging is the compliance that some black artists of today show in regards to white stereotypes of black culture. Such affirmation of the misguided imaginings of white audiences serves to encourage whites to continue on their path of ignorance and insult. Josephine Baker is a prime example of this submission to white fantasy: “she plays into the fantasy that whites create for her,” and seems “happy to sing ‘Bake that Chicken Pie’ despite its racial slurs; to accept a gift of a monkey and…a leopard as her pet companions; and to present herself as a Tahitian, if that [is] what her public desire[s].” In short, “Josephine Baker’s performance in La Revue Negre reinforce[s] stereotypes of blacks.”6
The very title of Baker’s showcase in La Revue Negre instantly puts the white audience member at home in her or his limited view of Africa as a continent filled with primitive people: the “Danse Sauvage,” it is called. Baker’s dress–or lack thereof–contributes to this stereotype of backwardness. Baker’s blackness and nudity are experienced concurrently with the label of “savage,” leading the audience to believe that both of these elements in and of themselves denote inhumanity.7Of course, Baker has no hope of presenting a truly authentic African experience for the audience: she herself was born and raised in the United States. The jazz-based music that accompanies the Revue reveals the show’s American origins, but at the same time provides yet another opportunity for the audience to associate disparate black traditions as being one.
How relieving, then, in the midst of all this muddling of black artistic expression, to witness the emergence of the Bal Negre. This new nightclub, located at 33 Rue Blomet has become a gathering space for the Antillais community here in Paris 8. After visiting the Bal negre this past week, I am convinced that the venue is poised to champion black expression by giving distinct voice to music of the Antillean islands while providing a space for blacks of all cultural backgrounds to dance for their own entertainment rather than for the entertainment of white audiences .9,10
Examples of black music and dance in Paris have until now largely been limited to the African American jazz heard so often at other nightclubs11, and to the kind of spectacles, such as the Revue Negre, that generalize and degrade black culture. But open the door at the Bal Negre and you will hear clarinet, piano, banjo, and drum spinning out the the melodies and rhythms of the biguine, quadrille, mazurka, and Creole waltz styles that typify Antillais music.12 And not only is the Bal negre’s house band–led by the hall’s founder, Rezard des Vouves–an all-black band, the audience, too, is predominately black.13Many attendees hail from the Antilles, others from Africa, and a small number are African Americans. White metropolitans occasionally attend performances at the Bal negre, but they number so few that the Antillean performers are unlikely to feel forced to manipulate their musical heritage in order to fulfill the exotic fantasies of these white audience members. Instead, the Bal negre can safely be understood as an opportunity for whites–and non-Antillean blacks–to learn about authentic examples of black music beyond jazz.
I urge my readers to denounce performances such as Josephine Baker’s that serve only to perpetuate misconceptions of blacks, and instead to support this important enterprise undertaken by the Bal negre.
Dear Mlle Nardal,
A person cannot be judged solely on the basis of his or her actions: not everyone has the luxury to choose how to lead their lives, and as a result many are forced to comply with undesirable realities simply in order to stay alive. Do I care deeply about the fight for equality for my black brothers and sisters? Of course. But if I choose to renounce, in the name of cultural authenticity, the performances that have brought me my fame, I will not only lose any influence I might hope to later put to use in this struggle, I will also risk my own financial and social stability–maybe even my life.
You seem unable to understand this.
Perhaps it is because you do not know what it is to grow up in a vermin-infested, one-room shack, to be forced to scrounge through dumpsters in the hope of finding some sustenance, to see your friends and neighbors mercilessly killed as you run for your life from angry white mobs. 14
I also know the experience of indescribable relief that participation in a white woman’s performance troupe gave me. To be paid–well, and regularly–and to be encouraged every night by an enthusiastic audience: this is a freedom that I would never have known had it not been for Mrs. Reagan.15 It is a freedom of which I will be stripped if I cease to fulfill the desires–yes, even the degrading and misguided fantasies–of white audiences. It is true: “Paris [is] in a giddy mood, eager for pleasure. [And] I supply the amusement it craves, patting my gentlemen customers’ heads and pulling their beards, flattering the women and teaching them the Charleston”16. But I must embrace this artifice until the nightmare of violence and poverty that I have lived is no longer a possibility in our world. I know too well that such conditions are still possible–and so I cannot consent to rejecting the white enablers of my career.
I wonder, too, if anything more “authentic” and “affirming” of black culture will result from this Bal negre with which you seem so enthralled. Do the whites who look on from the sidelines at the Bal negre really do so because of their deep respect for Biguine music? Or might they simply be seeking a chance to see the “savage” in its “natural habitat”?
Perhaps you did not hear of Abel-Petit’s reactions to the Bal negre: this critic seems to think that the scene at the Bal negre actually authenticates the inventions of “primitive” “African” culture that my Revue Negre feeds to audiences. Abel-Petit described the scene at the Bal negre as follows: “Undulations and lascivious quiverings of supple bodies blend with the rhythm of amorous harmony, hieratic arms in gestures of amphora curves that meet, palms facing outward, above the wooly mane…we have admired all the poses at the Folies, the Moulin, and the Casino de Paris” 17. To Abel-Petit, the authentic Antillean music that the Bal negre is dedicated to presenting is no different from any other manifestation of any other artistic expression connected with Africa or blackness that he has seen in any other venue in the city. Obviously, even the Bal negre cannot prevent the white spectator from projecting her or his misinterpretations onto any tradition of black cultural expression.
As you note, a majority of the audience at the Bal negre is black.18
But I doubt that in Paris a black-only audience can financially sustain and socially legitimate performances by black artists: the Bal negre will only survive by depending on the financial support of an upper-class white clientele. As a consequence, it has no hope of escaping the cultural conflation and essentialization with which white audiences seem all too eager to label any performance involving black artists.19
Time will only tell which of us is right about the influence of the Bal negre on the stereotypes of blacks that white Parisians perpetuate through their entertainment choices. But while we wait for the verdict of history, let us not criminalize one another for the choices we are sometimes forced to make as we navigate a world that too often belittles, judges, and punishes individuals based on the color of their skin. Instead, let us support one another as we struggle through these hostilities in pursuit of a future in which all people and artistic expressions are respectfully considered on their own terms.
1 Jennifer Anne Boittin, “In Black and White: Gender, Race Relations, and the Nardal Sisters in Interwar Paris,” French Colonial History 6 (2005): 120-135, accessed October 26, 2015, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/french_colonial_history/v006/6.1boittin.html#REF29.
Jane Nardal actually published a piece (called “Pantins exotiques”) in La Revue du Monde Noir in October 1928, in which she lamented the influence that black performers like Josephine Baker (blacks who were “on display” in Paris) had on the perpetuation of whites’ exoticization of the black body: “All the trouble comes from the fact that the vogue for Negroes these last few years has led to their being considered as folk destined to serve as amusement, to see to the pleasure, artistic or sensual, of whites” (Boittin, 25). Unfortunately, I was not able to access this article in full.
Jane’s sister, Paulette, also reviewed the Bal de la Glaciere, a dance hall operated by blacks and for blacks that opened in May 1929. According to Paulette Nardal, the Bal de la Glaciere provided an authentic Antilles experience: “The blacks feel quite at home in this setting. There is no shocking contrast, as there is at other dance halls, between their kind and a violently European setting. …Nothing in this hall evokes France.” (Berliner, 215-216). Despite the positive potential of this dance hall for the Antillean community in Paris, the Bal de la Glaciere closed after only two months. Brett Berliner writes, “The Bal de la Glaciere was closed down after two months; residents living next to it disliked seeing Antillais coming and going at all hours of the night. There was no metropolitan community to protect and preserve this dance hall, as there was at the Bal negre. Perhaps only those sites that were colonized could survive” (216).
2Petrine Archer-Straw, Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 9.
3Archer-Straw, Negrophilia, 78.
4Archer-Straw, Negrophilia, 55.
5Archer-Straw, Negrophilia, 10, 107.
6Archer-Straw, Negrophilia, 94, 107.
7Tyler Stovall, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996, 53.
8Brett Berliner, Ambivalent Desire: The Exotic Black Other in Jazz-Age France (University of Massachusetts, 2002), 206.
11 Berliner, Ambivalent Desire, 208.
12Berliner, Ambivalent Desire, 209.
13Berliner, Ambivalent Desire, 208.
14Stovall, Paris Noir, 50.
15Stovall, Paris Noir, 52.
16Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon, Josephine. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 68.
17Abel-Petit, “Le ‘Bal negre’ rue Blomet…sous le ciel des tropiques,” 12 March 1928. Quoted in Berliner, Ambivalent Desire, 209.
18Berliner, Ambivalent Desire, 209.
19Berliner, Ambivalent Desire, 216. The prediction that I have Baker make here foretells the failure of the Bal de la Glaciere. See footnote 1.