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History Workshop Journal 58 (2004) 211-223

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Frantz Fanon, or the Difficulty of Being Martinican

In his epic account of his return to his native land of Martinique, which was first published with spectacularly bad timing in 1939, a weary Aimé Césaire (b. 1913) bids farewell to a certain mode of what might be termed being-black-for-others-in-France:

They simply love us so much!
Gaily obscene, doudou about jazz in the excess of their boredom,
I can do the tracking, the Lindy-hop and the tap-dance.1

Writing just two years before Césaire, the Guyanese-born Léon-Gontran Damas (1912-78) calls for a truce in

The blues,
The hammering of the piano
The muted trumpet
The mad clacking of the feet
The satisfaction of the rhythm
So many swing sessions.2

These are farewells to a mode of being dominated by the jazz-age imagery that equates 'black' with 'music', and to the cult of le tumulte noir, or to the highly productive collision between forms of popular entertainment and a certain modernism in the 1930s.3 African art or art nègre was popularized by many agencies from the Picasso of 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' (1907), in which the faces of the women depicted are modelled on African masks, to surrealists in search of a new vitalism that could reinvigorate a bloodless European culture. The furniture shown at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, which produced the term 'Art Deco', incorporated 'African' elements into the design of stools, chair backs and other pieces of furniture. A modernist primitivism emerged, but it was also underpinned by the work of anthropologists and psychiatrists who spoke of the pre-logical mentality to be observed in 'races' from south of the Sahara.

The key event in what is sometimes called 'negrophilia' was probably the opening of the Revue nègre at the Theatre des Champs Elysées in 1925. There was already something of a craze for 'black' novelty dances like the Cakewalk, the Charleston, the shimmy, but Josephine Baker on stage in a [End Page 211]

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Figure 1
'Empress Joséphine of the French dreaming high, high above negridom' (Césaire, 'Cahier d'un retour au pays natal', 1939): her statue in Fort-de-France, decapitated in the 1980s and regularly daubed with anti-French slogans.
[End Page 212]

skirt made of little more than a string of bananas created a new sensation. Jazz was automatically associated with unbridled sexuality, frenzy and even spirit-possession. It is true that this illusion was by no means uniquely French or Parisian. The white audiences at Harlem's Cotton Club from 1927 onwards genuinely believed that they were listening to jungle music; Ellington and his musicians knew better.

One of the side effects of the new craze was to transform Le Bal nègre in the rue Blomet (in the fifteenth arrondissement) from a meeting place for the West Indian community into one of Paris's most fashionable nightspots. Alexandre Stellio's band, and others like it, played the biguine, which originated in Martinique. Very fashionable throughout the 1930s, the biguine bands were, in terms of their instruments, almost identical to traditional New Orleans bands, but Stellio's clarinet, and not the trumpet, was the lead instrument in the orchestras he led. He was a very accomplished musician and often sounded like Sydney Bechet, another star of the Revue nègre. The gentle syncopation and the use of improvized harmonies produced an attractively sweet sound and Paris danced the biguine well into the 1930s. That many of the songs were in Créole no doubt added to the exotic appeal, as Créole is all but incomprehensible to speakers of standard French. Although it is notoriously difficult to date the origins of such things with any precision, it is widely accepted that the biguine originated from St Pierre in Martinique at some point in the late nineteenth century.

In 1927 'Le Carnaval noir' opened and Paris became enamoured of a new...


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