- Afterword:Europhilia, Francophilia, Negrophilia in the Making of the Modernism
And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps for babyhood and in Europe.—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks
The power of place will be remarkable.—Aristotle, Physics
That the prickly "impresario of Pan-Africanism," W. E. B. Du Bois's oft-cited formulation of the Negro as a problem and race as the enduring quandary of the twentieth century, was so clearly expressed in geopolitical terms is the stuff that has been relegated for the most part to biographical tomes (Lewis 566). And further that such geopolitical parsing would serve as a jump-off for his internationalist maneuverings and even shortcomings leads us into perplexing Du Boisian territory. As he rhapsodized over "the purple façade of the Opera, the crowd on Boulevard des Italiens and the great swing of the Champs-Elysées" (qtd. in Lewis 566), Du Bois in Paris 1919 was at last free from "the Thing—the hateful, murderous dirty [End Page 976] thing which in America we call 'Nigger-hatred'" (566). From this feeling of freedom issued forth his vision of the Negro World, of a black internationalism where the French colonial project could ostensibly coexist peacefully, according to Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis, with his own radicalism from above and with his cultural chauvinism concerning Africa. The Paris Pan African Congress as organized by Du Bois would embrace the French colonial undertaking as "one of a splendid beginning" ("Association"; my translation).
The "fate of place," as philosopher Edward Casey suggests (borrowing an Aristolean missive), is then quite "remarkable" (xii). Place determines reality. Places are concrete settings loaded with cultural, political, and social significance. Therefore, the seemingly contrarian political positions taken up by race radicals à la Du Bois and the figures of negritude; the salons hosted, and later the launching of La Revue du monde noir, by the soeurs Nardal at their Clamart apartment; and the over-the-top-ness of Chester Himes's contributions to La Serie Noire are justly owing to the "place" where those creative, political, and social contexts were produced. And France, with its democratic ideals and Jacobin history, was that place.
Paris, more specifically, seemingly and seamlessly provided an escape from the doldrums of race (and gender) and racism. It represented the capital of opportunity and acceptance to African Americans and colonial subjects of the French empire in much of the same way that America's Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty just beyond signaled new and prosperous beginnings to the hordes of weary immigrants mired in poverty and hemmed in by an intractable European class structure. Interestingly, these yarns of opportunity and new horizons are importantly tied to race—in Paris blackness, especially of the American variety, was like a prized social currency, circulated at swank soirees, erudite salons, artist studios, and happening revues, while the assumption of whiteness for America's newly emigrated allowed access to jobs, trade unions, and public spaces.
But just as several of the essays in this issue recognize the psychological and history-making agency afforded by Paris, they also tackle and explode the myths of a color-blind and non-xenophobic France, giving light to the very complex roles blacks and their blackness played in the midst of French colonial practices and exoticism. Indeed, France ensnared many who sought refuge in its harbors at Le Havre in the olla podrida of French negrophilia. Serving both political and cultural ends for the French, who were known to exalt at any given moment japonism, orientalism, primitivism, or melanomania, the emergent Black Atlantic community profited nonetheless from the negrophilic mood and its liberalism, despite its exoticist and infantilizing tendencies. [End Page 977]
Negrophilia was never really about the Negro but about France, its needs, its wants, and desires. France traded in nationalism's violence for bohemianism, retrieved its cosmopolitan flair as its culture commingled with blackness as a sign of modernity, and embraced its colonial subjects with renewed vigor. Paris, particularly in the interwar years, became curiously lamented and celebrated as "un...