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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.1 (2003) 11-49

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The Shadow of Shadows

Brent Hayes Edwards

In the summer of 1927, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Roger Baldwin wrote an article for the magazine Survey, which made a remarkable claim about the significance of Paris during the period between the two world wars. If from the U.S. vantage point the "roaring twenties" connoted an age of conspicuous consumption and summer sojourns in Europe, Baldwin contended, the period was shaped just as indelibly by the roiling political unrest in the wake of World War I, which had deposited a kind of secret history of agitation in the European metropolis. Although "Paris means a half-dozen things to Americans—fashion, sport, art, side-walk cafe life, Montmartre music-halls, the charm of a ripe old metropolitanism," the French capital has an entirely different importance to the tens of thousands of "political outcasts" who find in it "the only safe haven of refuge in all the world." One might have to "dig under the surface of life" to recognize it, Baldwin writes, but Paris is the "capital of the men without a country."1 [End Page 11]

The "atmosphere of toleration" in the city drew an enormous range of refugees from dictatorships and political struggles throughout Europe: noisy clutches of Italian antifascist intellectuals, a nostalgic menagerie of Russian czarists and aristocrats, political exiles and dissidents from Spain, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Of course, the decade also marked the high point of European colonial expansion in Africa and Asia, and Baldwin notes that the "men without a country" included "the groups of black, brown and yellow French colonials who agitate there for freedom of the colonies from French rule, just as our Filipino independence advocates agitate in the United States. But with the difference that in France they may agitate freely what it is illegal to advocate in the colonies themselves."2 Baldwin considered the scattered colored activists from the French colonies—including soldiers and workers who chose to remain or were stranded in the metropole after the war, students, artists, and drifters—to be "of far less importance in numbers and activity" than the European political exiles.3 But the story of the black, brown, and yellow "men without a country" constitutes an important chapter in the history of resistance to European colonialism, one written in the very center of the imperium, in the belly of the beast. My particular focus here will be not only the work of such groupings, but more specifically their interaction with one another: the intercolonial crossings and collaborations that were arguably the most extraordinary feature of the metropole.

More recently, Raymond Williams has singled out Paris in considering the role the metropolis played in the development of cultures of modernism, noting that during the interwar period in the major cities of the West, "there was at once a complexity and a sophistication of social relations, supplemented in the most important cases—Paris, above all—by exceptional liberties of expression." What counts most for Williams is the "miscellaneity" of the modern imperial metropolis, the anonymity that allowed "small groups in any form of divergence or dissent" room to operate and experiment to a degree not possible elsewhere.4 For intellectuals from the colonies, though, complexity and miscellaneity meant first of all that they crossed paths with each other—whether as coworkers, neighborhood acquaintances, roommates, students, or activists in the "colonial" branches of the French Communist Party—in ways that influenced their nascent discourses of nationalism and [End Page 12] anticolonialism. Historian J. S. Spiegler, one of the first to consider this milieu, has argued that Paris "afforded young colonials possibilities for association with militant French intellectuals" but that "even more important was the chance for contacts with natives of other colonies."5 A number of critics have considered the exchanges and influences among writers and intellectuals of African descent in Paris.6 If diaspora is an appropriate term to describe these circuits, it is partly because it (a Greek word, arising in Jewish exilic...


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