- Introduction:Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic
I can tell you everything. I've met so many men and women who came in droves to cling on to the city. Paris. An image, a perfume, a sunless mirage, without trees.—Calixthe Beyala, Loukoum: The "Little Prince" of Belleville
LUMUMBA LOUIS ARMSTRONGPATRICE AND PATTI PAGEHAMUBURGERS PEPSI-COLAKING COLE JUKEBOX PAYOLAIN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROESGOD WILLING DROP A SHILLINGFORT DE FRANCE, PLACE PIGALLEVINGT FRANCS NICKEL DIMEBAHIA LAGOS DAKAR LENOXKINGSTON TOO GOD WILLINGA QUARTER OR A SHILLING. PARIS—AT THE DOME VINGT FRANCS WILL DOROTONDE SELECT DUPONT FLORETALL BLACK STUDENTIN HORN-RIM GLASSESWHO AT THE SORBONNE HAS SIX CLASSES,IN THE SHADOW OF THE CLUNYCONJURES UNICORN, [End Page 731] SPEAKS ENGLISH FRENCH SWAHILIHAS ALMOST FORGOTTEN NEALIE.BUT WHY RIDE ON MULE OR DONKEYWHEN THERE'S A UNICORN? NIGHT IN A SÉKOU TOURÉ CAPDRESSED LIKE A TEDDY BOYBLOTS COLORS OFF THE MAP.PERHAPS IF IT BE GOD'S WILLAZIKIWE'S SON, AMEKA,SHAKES HANDS WITH EMMETT TILL.—Langston Hughes, ASK YOUR MAMA
This special issue of Modern Fiction Studies takes its cue from the growing body of scholarly work attentive to the intersections between twentieth-century Francophone and Anglophone black writing and thought. Understanding diasporic modernism means recognizing the conceptual range and scope of transnational black cultures throughout the twentieth century, as well as the geographical mobility that made such internationalism possible. Paris, as one of the key sites at which this conceptual and geographical activity comes into focus, has gained attention both as a black literary interest and, more traditionally, as a city whose phantasmagoric appeal forms the basis of so much of Walter Benjamin's writings about the political subtext of modernity. Indeed, there have recently appeared a number of scholarly books attesting to Paris's role as the "Capital of Modernity" (Harvey ) and, more ambitiously still, as the "Capital of the World" (Higgonet ). In a similarly Benjaminian vein, we suggest that the essays in this special issue on Paris, Modern Fiction, and the Black Atlantic be taken together as an argument for the consideration of Paris as the Capital of the Black Atlantic.
We mean this in two senses. First, studying the travels made to Paris—whether literally or imaginatively—by black writers of American, Caribbean, and African descent, the essays collected in this issue explore the transatlantic circulation of ideas, texts, and objects to which such travels to Paris contributed. As significant for its imaginary topography as for its actual landscape, the Paris inhabited by black writers throughout the twentieth century refers as much to the product of such international traffic, as it does to the real conditions of Parisian life itself.1 Thus, if Paris might be said to serve as a "Capital" of such intellectual exchange, it does so more as Kapital—that is, as both a sign and as an accumulated resource of black intellectual commerce—than as a geopolitical capital [Haupstadt]. This does not mean, however, that Paris's status should be understood as purely mythical or allegorical. Just as Paul Gilroy stresses in The Black Atlantic [End Page 732] that transnational black culture (as a "counterculture of modernity") is not just a set of "tropes and genres" but a "philosophical discourse" that unites "ethics and aesthetics, culture and politics" (38–39), so too does Paris's status as a symbolic artifact trafficked among black intellectuals demand that we pay attention to the historical specificity of the ideas, texts, and forms of subjectivity that circulated under the aegis of "Black Paris." Indeed, Paris's value as a "special space for black transnational interaction, exchange, and dialogue" (Edwards 5) is remarkable to the extent that such transnational interactions were, in turn, instrumental to the broader intellectual, literary, and political projects that fought against the domination of capitals, empires, and colonial forms of subjectivity.
The second sense in which we invoke Paris as "Capital of the Black Atlantic" is in the Benjaminian sense of a wish image of the diasporic imagination. In place of the romanticized image of Parisian...