- Redefining Paris:Trans-Modernity and Francophone African Migritude Fiction
I met you in the elevators of PARIS.
You were from Senegal or the Antilles
And the seas traversed surfed on your teeth,
Permeated your smile,
Sung in your voice like waves in the hollows.
Midday on the Champs Elysées
I suddenly encountered your tragic faces:
Your expressions attested secular grief.
And yet at the Boule Blanche
And under Montmartrian colors,
Your voice, your breath, your whole being exuded joy.
You were music, you were dance.Jean Brierre, "New Black Soul"
On Transmodernity: Paris and Foundational Black Internationalism
Three scenarios—two obvious, the third less so but far more important—emerge from Haitian writer Jean Brierre's poem that [End Page 958] serves as the epigraph to this essay. The first relates to the universally acclaimed status of early-twentieth-century Paris as the crucible of black intellection, a site for the articulation of polyvalent cultural expressions in all areas of the arts; the second, a corollary of the first, underscores the geographical position of the French capital at the heart of a centripetal nexus that consolidated the nascent black internationalism of the period by bringing together black cultural luminaries from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.1 In this complex but felicitous interweaving of black politics and culture, negritude movement encountered Harlem Renaissance; avant-garde "white" Paris of Dada and Surrealism encountered l'art nègre, laying the foundation, much later, for cubism's so-called discovery of primitivism via Pablo Picasso;2 white musical Paris encountered African-American jazz. The expression of Paris's desire for black otherness reached its ultimate consecration in the aestheticization and consumption of the body of African-American model and actress, Josephine Baker.3 What these two scenarios foreground is the emergence of "Parisianism"4 and "Black Paris," two hermeneutic categories that have entered critical/cultural discourse as a means of engaging the totality of black cultural and textual practices informed by the matricial ontology of Paris.
The third scenario borders on the centrality of Paris to the discursive fashioning of a transnational black modernity at once deconstructive of and resistant to the dominant post-Enlightenment narrative of Euromodernity the space of which it problematically inhabits. It is no longer news, as Enrique Dussel reminds us in his Frankfurt lectures, that the project of modernity, narrativizing itself as the reason, rationality, technology, and liberal democracy of the Western white male, circumscribed the black subject as an alterity defined and instrumentalized solely within the political economy of slavery and colonialism. By denying agency and even coevality to its constructed others, Euromodernity set the stage for the emergence of alternative modernities that, as Dussel claims in another context, are "trans-modernities", because they lie beyond the truth claims of the European episteme, constantly undermining its will to universalism: "To repeat: the thesis advanced in this essay is that modernity's recent impact on the planet's multiple cultures (Chinese, Southeast Asian, Hindu, Islamic, Bantu, Latin American) produced a varied 'reply' by all of them to the modern 'challenge.' Renewed, they are now erupting on a cultural horizon 'beyond' modernity. I call the reality of that fertile multicultural moment 'trans'-modernity (since 'post'-modernity is just the latest moment of Western modernity)" (World System 221).
Of particular interest to our discussion is Dussel's description of the other's voice as a form of rebellious modernity. For Africa and its [End Page 959] Atlantic diaspora, the rebellion against the tropological claims of modernity and its subalternizing symbologies came in the form of a veritable textual revolution for which Paris served as a confluence. From the 1920s to the 1940s, African American, Caribbean, and African intellectuals met and fraternized in Paris. In the process, they founded a plethora of journals and newspapers such as Les continents, La voix des nègres, La revue du monde noir, La dépêche africaine, Légitime Défense and L'Etudiant noir. Although these journals, reviews, and newspapers did not always reflect monolithic ideological positions and varied considerably in the degree of their militancy vis-à-vis the European ur-text of representational modernity they aimed to undermine...