- Colonial Metropolis: The urban grounds of anti-imperialism and feminism in interwar Paris
In the introduction to her absorbing study of interwar Paris, Jennifer Anne Boittin locates her analysis within a growing field in the history of modern France. Following the work of Gary Wilder and others, Boittin's approach to the French capital during the 1920s and 30s reflects a historiographic commitment to understanding France as an "imperial nation-state" whose history of empire must be understood as integral to its metropolitan economic, political and cultural past.1 Boittin's six chapters approach from different historical perspectives, actors and sources the research question at the book's heart: In what ways must we understand Paris between the world wars as a "colonial metropolis," a "space in which the specter of 'empire' guided the self-identification of its residents as well as their social and political interactions" (xiv)?
To the familiar story of Josephine Baker's years in Paris, Boittin brings new insights, rereading Baker's physical and symbolic embodiment of the French jazz age and tumulte noir in terms of the contradictions of colonialism and the politics of anti-imperialism during the interwar period. After her debut on the French stage in 1925, Baker, an African-American woman, played multiple roles in the French cultural imaginary as an icon of American modernity, of the colonial primitive, even as an example of the successes of France's civilizing mission. While the color of her skin made possible Baker's transformation into a kind of colonial Everywoman, she became more and more "French" with the passage of time and through the wonders of marketing. As Boittin reveals, Baker's performances and celebrity were linked to the politics of anti-imperialism in this period. Black and White activist men and women expressed ambivalence regarding her exoticism and complicity with racism and imperialism, all the while putting to their own political uses the cultural spaces that the French fascination with Blackness and colonialism encouraged during these years.
Boittin's careful exploration of the "urban grounds" of the colonial metropolis is one of the most innovative and captivating aspects of the book. Drawing on the archives of police surveillance, Boittin is able to provide readers with glimpses of the presence and movement of the city's racial others, revealing the "infusion of colonialism with everyday exchanges" (44) between Parisians, White and Black, male and female. Boittin's attention to both private and public spaces and relationships adds texture and depth to our understanding of the "urban topography" of Paris, locating racial interaction and tensions on both historical sides of the Colonial Exposition of 1931. In doing so, she contributes in significant ways to our understanding of the history of the city as an imperial capital while contextualizing the exposition itself in new way.
Taking up the provocative notion of a "black colony" within Paris, Boittin examines the racial consciousness and political organization of the largely male migrant communities of Africans and Antilleans who came to inhabit the city during the interwar years. Boittin underlines the significance of the First World War in terms of the arrival of unprecedented numbers of colonial laborers and soldiers in France and the eventual politicization of colonial civilians and veterans living in Paris after 1918. She tracks the emergence of anti-imperial voices and groups among this population, despite the varied policing efforts of the state, from mandatory registration of colonial migrants to the surveillance of individuals suspected of subversive activities. Outlining a history of the organizations that brought anti-imperial activists in the city together, Boittin explores a diversity of definitions of race and political perspectives among the members of groups such as the Ligue de Défense de la Race Nègre (LDRN) and the Union des Travailleurs Nègres (UTN). "Mirror[ing] relationships to race and the metropolis" (80), the variety of political organizations in this period expressed racial, class and geographic differences, as well as different responses to imperialism, from reformist efforts to the embrace of Communism. Despite their...