A Black Haven

African Americans and the Myth of a Colorblind France

Illegal Immigrants Demonstration (62)
A Black Haven : African Americans and the Myth of a Colorblind France - Lua Kamál Yuille

"Society is held together with legend, myth...without it we will be hurled into that void, within which...the foundations of society are hidden.1" Eric Hobsbawm defined "myth " or invented tradition as the aspect of society "of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek[s] to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior...which automatically impl[ies] continuity with the past.2" Invented tradition can come in many forms, and from rituals and monuments to images and idioms; each nation has a wealth of invented traditions that shape and guide the beliefs, values, and behaviors of its society or France one of the most important invented tradi­tions is expressed in three simple words: Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. This phrase encompasses French pride in their government, art, comportment, and society. Not only has this expression shaped the French perception of the French for hundreds of years, it has also informed the world about France and manipulated its evalua­tion of the nation and its people. When French historian Henri Blet explained that "Frenchmen have never adopted racial doctrines affirming the superiority of white over men of color,3" no one found evidence to object, disagree, or reason to disbelieve because the image of a French society firmly committed to freedom, equality, and brotherhood was crystallized into the definition of France.

For African Americans living in a country that they perceive as overflowing with prejudice, France has come to represent the opportunity and security missing in America. France is seen as a Black Haven, a safe place. Given the chance, many have given up all they know and ventured into the comforting borders of the "City of Light," where they felt that all that was wrong in America would disappear. The most important, or more fittingly, the most renowned of these periods of flight to France occurred during the first half of the twentieth century when America was mired in societal norms that promoted white people over all others. Thus the inter­war and postwar periods are the most important eras for the African American experience in France, more specifically in Paris, the "Black Haven."

In the words of a World War I black American soldier, "French people don't bother with no color line business. They treat us so good that the only time I ever know I'm colored is when I look in the glass."4 The sentiments of the soldier were clearly felt widely as evidenced by the number of African American soldiers who returned to France after the wars. Similarly, African American artists and per­formers during much of the early and mid-twentieth century chose to settle in Paris. From poets like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay to authors like Richard Wright and James Baldwin and performers like Josephine Baker and Kenny Clarke, much of America's prominent African American artist class lived in France between and after the wars in a desire to escape the prejudices they experienced across the At­lantic. Yet, the historical racism that was abhorred in the United States also ex­isted, at least to some extent, in France. Thus, the question arises as to which char­acteristics did French society, culture, and government possess (in practice or per­ception) that made it so popular to African Americans during the twentieth cen­tury? Why did black people choose France?

Visions of France

On the eve of World War I, France was more than just another country for most of America's black people. The European nation had played host to blacks and Africans for many years. Throughout the nineteenth century, well-to-do French speaking Louisiana Creoles sent their sons to France to enjoy the educational op­portunities from which they were excluded in the United States. Prominent mem­bers of the black American community visited France. Among the most recogniz­able names are Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, and W.E.B. DuBois, all of whom returned home with glowing reviews of the open­minded receptions they had received. There were even some artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had decided to venture across the Atlantic to take France as their permanent home. However, by the beginning of World War I, France had also produced some of the most important discriminatory literature including the overtly racist works of Georges Cuvier as well as the fairly innocent ignorance produced by Henri Gregoire and Louis Daubenton. In addition, late nineteenth century France produced Arthur de Gobineau, commonly known as the "Father of Racism." He published The Inequality of Human Races four years before Darwin produced his seminal work. Gobineau's writing, which would become the foundation for much of Hitler's ideology, explained that there exists an "original, clear-cut, and permanent inequality between the different races" that is unrelated to environment and cir­cumstance and that the "Negroid" peoples have no possibilities for improvement.5 More importantly, his influence was felt in the works of other racial scientists world­wide, whose "scholarship" condoned and promoted the subjugation of the African Diaspora and of Africans living on their continent.

A half-century after the era of slavery and two generations from the end of Reconstruction when most of the advances made by blacks began to be reversed, the average black Americans, still living as a sharecroppers in the rural South, had neither reflected upon nor held any illusions about France. For them, France was nothing more than simply another country; it might as well have been another planet. However, France (though not all French) had experience with blacks and Africans in this era, as it encountered the handful from the US and played host to Africans and blacks from its former colonies. Furthermore, blacks contributed to French society in areas as diverse as literature and the military and had been living in the country since Roman times. It is sufficient to say that the historic black presence in France was significant enough to prompt the adoption of the Polices des Noirs first in 1777, and then again in 1802.6

The American participation in World War I fundamentally changed the black perception of France. While fighting in France, American soldiers were able to ex­perience for the first time a society free from the racial caste system that set black Americans upon the lowest rungs of the social ladder. 7 The perception was so fully disseminated that American military officials sought to deflect the possible reper­cussions of too much Liberte, Egalite, or Fraternite by issuing numerous memos and protocols, which sought to govern and restrict relations between black American soldiers and white French civilians.

Upon their return to the United States, black American soldiers found the racial caste still ferociously intact, arguably with more vigor. Black Doughboys had fond memories of "colorblind" France, which they related to the black community in America. The same would occur with black soldiers returning from France after World War II. They described the surprise and dismay of many Parisians over American bigotry toward blacks, highlighting dazzlingly the absence of a color line in France. To deal with the problem of American racism in France, columnist Georges de la Fouchardiere recommended putting white Americans "under the subjection of negro customs officials ...and conductors" and forming a brigade of black cops to train them to be civilized human beings.8 The Chicago Defender ran a comic strip called "Bungleton Green" that praised France as a paradise of equal treatment, thus furthering the predominance of the myth for black Americans.9 From this period forward, with a break only during World War II, a steady stream, or more accurately, a constant trickle, of blacks left the United States for France, a practice that continues today.10

The Crown Princess of Jazz in France

What was the motivation behind this "micro-exodus" that created a distin­guishable African American community in Paris in the interwar and postwar years?

To explore the possibilities, it seems fitting to turn to some examples of the "refugees" who went to Paris during the two "boom" periods. The first, Josephine Baker, the undeniable queen of the "jazz age," remains the most well known black American to renounce America for France and embodies the legend of the black experience in France. Other examples include Richard Wright and James Baldwin, two influential black authors, who personified the different sides of the brick which completed the fac;ade of black America's triumph in France during the postwar years.

A girl from miserable beginnings, even for a "Negro," in the heart of racist Midwestern America, Josephine Baker never expected to leave America for France but, for all intents and purposes, never re­turned.11 According to her own often-exaggerated accounts, she went to France for one reason: she was a performer, and her act was going to Paris. Offered a principle role in a show that would be called the Revue Negre and a salary of $250 (twice what she was earning at the time), Baker eagerly accepted both the prospect of lucrative work as well as the chance to go to France, an opportunity that she could not pass up.12 Recalling later, she would say that she dreamt of going there since she had been shown a postcard of the Eiffel Tower, "it looked different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue with out the liberty, the freedom to go where one chose if one was held back by one's color? No, I pre­ferred the Eiffel Tower which made no promises."13 Having expected little, what Baker found in Paris would cause her to stay forever and eventually renounce her United States citizenship by adopting France as her nation and Paris as her city.

As a young girl, Baker grew up in poverty; she was forced to provide for her family from the age of eight. She was criticized by her own dark complexioned fam­ily for being too "light-skinned" and humiliated by the family of her first husband14 and fellow performers for being too dark. That the "French experience" made an expatriate out of her should come as no surprise. As biographer Phyllis Rose ex­plains, what better response could she have had?15 For the French, she embodied a raw sexuality and primitivism as she danced clad only in feathers, nude from the waist up, in the Danse Sauvage, which had been included in the show to highlight Baker. The opening of the Revue Negre was a huge success, and the pages of French newspapers were saturated with talk of the beguiling Baker, who was instanta­neously the toast of Paris. Parisians loved her, which was sufficient not only to capture Baker's attention but also to keep her mesmerized.

As Baker perceived the situation, she was, for the first time, the measure of perfection. French women, who had valued pallid, pasty skin as a symbol of absolute beauty, began to darken their complexions using walnut oil to match Baker's smooth, "cafe-au-lait'' finish;16 they copied her slicked black hairstyle using the name­sake product, Bakerfix. The purpose was to emulate the enchantment of Baker.17 One of her first activities in Paris was to pose nude for the young artist Paul Colin.

While at first shy and reluctant, even obstinate, Baker soon felt comfortable with Colin. Colin was enchanted; "he could not stop looking at her and his eyes liked what they saw. She had hardly ever seen that ...certainly not in the eyes of a white man."18 Posing completely nude for him, she felt beautiful for the first time in her life. The pleasure Baker found in her newfound sexuality was made clear by the fact that once she was naked, it was a long time before she would put her clothes back on again. She is immortalized that way, in her "signature" costume consisting of a little skirt of plush, yellow bananas, which as she danced bare-breasted, came to life "like perky, good-natured phalluses."19 French white men openly lusted after her and showered her with lavish gifts of both physical and material affection. In her eyes, she was given full run and control of French male sexuality and virility, an absolute impossibility in the United States. She took lovers and, eventually, husbands from any race she chose, and they felt privileged to have her.

Baker's attraction was fueled by more than the unadulterated sexuality that permeated the sphere of her life like a thick, noxious, yet intoxicating fog. On the personal side, she was able to become part, if only on the periphery, of the Parisian haut monde, both black and white. Baker was so eagerly accepted in the music halls of France and elsewhere in Europe that in a short time she was able to open her own jazz club, Chez Josephine, in Montmartre. She became the star not of "black entertainment" but of entertainment in general. While her performances in Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies, the first black shows to make Broadway prior to World War I, had not left her unknown, Paris made Josephine Baker a superstar. She came to represent all that Paris, a city bursting with the spirit and rhythm of jazz, wished to be during les annees folles, its "crazy years."

For Josephine Baker and the others, mostly jazz musicians but also writers, artists, and ex-soldiers who came to Paris during the interwar years, France was a near perfect match. Like those of the "lost generation," America's relentless pursuit of "traditionalism" and tenacious adherence to established structures and attitudes were too much for Baker and her contemporaries to bear. In France, they found freedom - the freedom to love, work, and live as they wished, without many of the boundaries placed before them in the US.

The First "Black" Expatriate

During his exile Richard Wright said, "I live in voluntary exile in France and I like it. There is nothing in the life of America that I miss or yearn for."20 However, like Josephine Baker, when Wright first set sail for Paris on May 1, 1946, he never believed that he would eventually make France his permanent home, giving up the United States which had, by that time, brought him inspiration for and success from his two most recognizable and highly acclaimed works, Black Boy and Native Son. But Wright wanted to get away; he felt stifled in the United States. In his journal he wrote, "one could live and write like that only if one lived in Paris or in some out of the way spot where one could claim one's own soul."21 So, again like Baker, Wright went to Paris for his work. Eventually, with an official invitation from the French government, initiated by an aging Gertrude Stein, he boarded a ship with his wife and young daughter eagerly anticipating his visit, but never believing he would stay.22 Officially, Richard Wright first went to France to meet with the Cultural Relations Section of the French Foreign Ministry, and after nine months he returned home to a United States that was no longer and would never again be his home. The "virus" had infected him, too.

Wright wrote to a friend just before he returned to France in 1947,

All the people I meet are longing to go to France ...writers and painters who heard that Paris was where interesting work was being done ... ex-soldiers who had sampled the pleasures of the city during the Liberation ...jazz musicians who had heard that [Paris] was in the grip of a 'hot music craze' ... all 'were longing to go' . . . but in any case I shall have Paris.23

For an ex-communist, and, more importantly, a black man married to a white woman,24 who vocally condemned the hypocrisies of American society in his popular literary works, America on the eve of the civil rights movement and Senator McCarthy's own version of Stalin's Great Terror, was not a safe haven. Wright became one of the first true black expatriates, following in the footsteps of his white literary brethren of a decade before, those who went to Paris to seek refuge from American rigidity and what, after World War II, seemed to be anachronistic racism.

As James Baldwin would later explain, Wright was fond of referring to Paris as "the city of refuge." Though he would be criticized greatly for the failures of his work after his voluntary exile to France, Wright discovered the opportunity to claim his soul in Saint-Germain-des-Pres, the community where he and most other refu­gees would settle. In his essay, "I Choose Exile" Wright explained, "To live in Paris is to allow one's sensibilities to be nourished." When he first went, he found that "Angst was not spelled b-l-a-c-k," a realization which not only made him feel, for the first time, fully like a man (instead of a black man), but also removed the blinders from his eyes enabling him to see dimensions of the human experience he had never before explored.25 For Wright, Paris lifted from his back the corpse with which he had been burdened his entire life.

Once established in France, Wright became a fixture on the Left Bank, which had been home to the "lost generation." Although his work did not succeed as he had hoped it would, Parisian exile made Richard Wright the universally recognized king of a lively black expatriate community that flourished in Saint-Germain-des­Pres.26 The most famous of the postwar expatriates, he played host to blacks who came into the city setting them up with hotels and giving them their first instruc­tions on life in the city. Furthermore, he found a society in which he could escape the constant fear that he felt in America every time he walked out of his home with his wife on his arm, the fear that someone would "come up and shout 'Nigger lover' in her face."27

Wright represented the different kind of American who went to Paris in the postwar years. While in the interwar period, black Americans had embodied the fun and excitement of les annees folles, the postwar blacks were mostly writers, who had come to France to escape America, living in a kind of exile. Instead of symboliz­ing good times, Wright, at the center of the black community, represented ideologi­cal consciousness and political engagement.28 He created the model for black Ameri­can life in Paris and was considered the father of the black American community there after World War II. Although he played a fundamental literary role for blacks in the US, Wright could never have enjoyed the position as the "voice" or leader of the people in America. The black community there already had a plethora of vocal and outspoken leaders to fill the position. Furthermore, he was finally able to look at the fundamental problem in his life, racism, from a broader, international per­spective. He began to address the universal, worldwide problem of the color line and even saw his views on America and racism in a new light.

Like Baker, the comfortable life, the important societal position, and the per­sonal growth that Wright experienced and attributed to his life in France provided ample justification for his choice to relocate and support for the conceptualization of the colorblind France. Frederick Douglass wrote that the principle problem fac­ing America was that of the color line. Wright's experiences and those of the many other black Americans, not just writers but also musicians, artists, businessmen, and even scientists, proved that without the barricade created by the color line black people could enjoy (or suffer through) their lives as white people did, proving that, for Wright, Douglass' assessment was correct.

A Different Breed of Expatriate

Though not considered the father (and for many not even a member) of the black expatriate community of the postwar years, James Baldwin went to France for his own particular reasons as well as for reasons common to most expatriates of his time. Of the three famed francophiles presented here, Baldwin would be the only one who did not make the decision to become an expatriate quickly, leaving the United States permanently only in the 1960s after having returned to assist the Civil Rights Movement. His experiences also help to illustrate the impetus for the black exile in France.

James Baldwin's decision to leave the United States demonstrates that there were many reasons for accepting the expatriate existence. Though he spoke of '"a violent anarchic, hostility-breeding' pattern, with race at the bottom of it, which was eroding the fabric of his identity,"29 he, surprisingly, had more motivating, or urgent, grounds for fleeing to France. As he explains, "I wasn't really choosing France, I was getting out of America. I had no idea what would happen to me in France, but I was very clear as to what would happen if l remained in New York."30 From the writings of many others, it is clear that this same stimulus motivated them as well; France for them was not so much a refuge as it was an escape. For each, France became the choice for a different reason, but Baldwin went to France to face the many aspects of his social identity which had remained unexplored within the re­strictive social structures of the US.31

Life was not easy for Baldwin. He arrived in France with only $40 and no prospects for work. He also had to come to terms with his homosexuality while living in poverty and managed to strain relations between himself and other black expatriates living in Paris by building up debts. Unlike others, he did not see the Negro community in France as a community saying, "only Negro entertainers are able to maintain a useful and unquestioning comradeship with other Negroes."32 However, Paris did keep its promise to Baldwin. It provided the vital stimulation he needed to create the critical and commercial masterpiece Go Tell it on a Mountain, and his experiences there provided needed subject matter for his collections of es­says including The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son, and Nobody Knows My Name. Furthermore, Baldwin found in Paris a place where he could be judged as an individual rather than as the "sum of his various social identities."33 This freedom allowed him to mature and grow to understand those various identities.

When explaining Wright's vision of Paris as a refuge, Baldwin concurred say­ing "it certainly was, God knows, for the likes of us."34 Baldwin's life abroad fueled his creative genius and propelled him into stardom. It allowed him to develop his personal strength and confidence, and prompted him to explore and accept himself. When he returned to the United States, he was, according to his own accounts and those of others, a stronger and better man for his experiences in Paris.35

What Josephine, Richard, and James found may have been that which they had imagined in the basements of small Midwestern homes, that which they had longed for between the lines of incendiary commentaries and that which they had needed in order to break free from the shackles placed upon them by an unwitting though not always unwilling society. In an early testament of the magnificence of France, James Weldon Johnson said that in France he was "suddenly free; free from a sense of impending discomfort, insecurity, danger ...free from special scorn, special tolerance, special condescension, special commiseration; free to be merely a man."36 Richard Wright echoed this statement by saying that in Paris he was able to live in a "normal" human atmosphere. However, this does not mean that one should accept their evaluations of France without looking for counterevidence.

Hopes Realized or Dreams Deferred?

Josephine and her jazz era compatriots like Bricktop, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Sidney Bechet, and Arthur Briggs accepted Wright and Johnson's evalua­tions of France. For most of the blacks in Paris during the 1920s, the city most likely lived up to their greatest expectations, but exactly how different was France from America during the jazz age? How was Montmartre different from Harlem? To answer these questions, one would need to examine all of the contextual elements that comprised the environment in which the jazz age occurred is a task too large for the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, one can begin to have some idea of the true nature of the black experience in France from even a cursory examination of the perceptions presented by expatriates. When this is done, it seems that the life that Baker found was not as exceptional as it seemed, notwithstanding her immense fame.

At first glance, it appears that Baker was completely adored in Parisian soci­ety; however, a less overwhelming dialogue of clearly racist contempt tempered the praise that was showered upon her. Most notably De Fluer, an influential reviewer for the popular conservative newspaper Le Figaro, declared the Revue Negre to be a "lamentable transatlantic exhibitionism which makes us revert to the ape in less time than it took us to descend from it."37 Others expressed their support of De Fluer's displeasure with what Baker and "others like her," meaning black jazz per­formers, brought to France." All masterworks of the human spirit will be thrown in to a great bonfire around which savages will dance naked," lamented one writer.38 A distinguished dance critic explained, "the Negro stepper ...pounds the platform with unremitting rigor, producing an infernal racket."39 In France and the United States the opinion of the "black aesthetic " in entertainment was divided, and it is clear that Josephine Baker was in the Parisian spotlight at least as much for her race as for any other quality.

Furthermore, and more importantly, even the majority, which did seem to consider Baker the "toast of the town," was not entirely free from prejudices as was imagined. The artist Paul Colin, for whom Baker had posed nude during her first days in Paris, produced from his sessions with her a promotional poster for the Revue Negre. His poster, which featured Baker, displayed her with "bug eyes " and grossly exaggerated lips accompanied by two enormous black men who clearly re­sembled apes. This representation, which fails to rise above the level of stereotypi­cal "Sambo " art, used Pickeniny images of black people, which were no less degrad­ing than those which appeared in the United States in the same period.

The positive descriptions of Baker in her performance are no less degrading than the poster used to promote it. To read reviews and articles about Baker's shows was to find oneself emerged in animal imagery and primitive imaginations. One insightful French critic explained, "these blacks feed our double taste for exoticism and mystery ... We are charmed and upset by them, and most satisfied when they mix something upsetting in with their enchantments."40 Baker herself would say, "the white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks."41 Parisians thought she was from the jungle saying of the excitement caused by the Revue Negre, "their lips must have the taste of pickled watermelon, coconut, sweet pepper, and guava. One sips through the sweet saltiness of their perspiration, the sweat of a hamadryad bounding across jungles filled with poisonous flowers."42 Interest­ingly, the Revue Negre was supposed to explore black culture in American Harlem. The Danse Sauvage was the biggest hit of the night and the only thing on stage designed to bring "jungle" into the mind. The dance featuring Baker was added to "authenticate" or ''blacken'' the show which, coming from New York, was consid­ered too" white" for Parisian audiences for whom the vision of "Negroes" dancing in a precision chorus line was not believable. "Blacks ...w ere instinctive dancers, incapable of discipline"43 and the show, not adhering to this stereotype, seemed to put on airs.

In addition, the true liberty of Josephine Baker's wild, salt and pepper love life comes into question. While it seems that Baker did enjoy an active sexual life with men from both Parisian high society and Montmartre's American performance soci­ety, the wealthy men who were happy to sleep with her were none too eager to marry her. In the same sense," while the French haut monde liked having her around, it never really accepted her."44 To illustrate, when Baker went to the mother of one of her upper middle class French lovers and asked the woman if she could marry her son, the woman treated her suggestion as a joke, saying, "It is true there have been some scapegraces in our family but ...no thing like this. No, no, what you want is quite impossible."45 Even those who did seem willing to marry Baker some­times had less than pure motives. One aim behind her imaginary" marriage in spirit" to Robert Brady, an American artist, was to shock his conservative Basque neigh­bors in Cuernavaca by bringing a "black woman to swim in their pools."46 This is another aspect of Baker's Parisian experience that shaped aspects of American so­ciety in the same period. As evidenced by the spectrum of colors and shades that could be seen in the black American community, white men often had sexual en­counters and even love affairs with black women, but marriage was "quite impos­sible."

Searching for Salvation or Better Alternatives?

Similarly, what did the Left Bank and Saint-Germain-des-Pres offer artists like Ollie Harrington, Kenny Clarke, William Gardner Smith, Arthur Briggs, and Bill Coleman who met Wright and Baldwin in Paris? For many, the answer was clear, even considering that the label "expatriate" was, in fact, a misnomer, given that these artists had never been accepted in American society. "One must belong before one may then not belong. I belong in Paris. I am able to realize myself here. I am no expatriate."47 But there is evidence, which suggests that acceptance was not forthcoming in France either.

Wright sought freedom from racism, and while he encountered little racial prejudice in France, it is clear that racism and racial stratification were iniquities existing in French society. From the mistreatment of Arabs to the relegation of the Algerians, the "Negroes of France,"48 and the Senegalese to positions of menial la­bor, one could conclude that color played an important role in France, and only black Americans were immune to French bigotry. Yet even this assessment is not entirely accurate. While throughout the interwar and postwar periods, African Americans were normally permitted into and given service at any establishment, some restaurants and hotels did bar entrance to black people. It must, however, be stated that many such establishments, though not all, were highly frequented by white American clientele to whom they claimed to be catering. Regardless, it is telling that establishments could be so easily influenced if they truly held to the colorblind ideals supposedly accepted as fundamental aspects of their society.49 Baldwin came to France to free himself of the rigidity of conservative American life, as Baker did by enjoying relations with black and white men and women. However, Baldwin was not completely free. In Paris,like in the New York, homosexuality was not to be flaunted, and though in artist circles it was acceptable to be open about one's homosexual tendencies, there was no escape from the epithet "faggot."50

Some never believed the myth of the colorblind France. Chester Himes clearly expresses his motivations for going to France:

I received a deluge of letters ...of how pleasant and stimulating life was in Paris . . . This was my first experience with black expatriates who have become self-ap­pointed civic boosters for their favorite European capital. All this I took with a grain of salt; I didn't expect any utopia ... I didn't expect the Europeans to be greatly different... I just wanted out of the United States, that was all. I had had it.51

Those who came expecting nothing other than an alternative to America were not disappointed either. In a letter to a friend, Himes wrote, "I didn't find any great welcome by the French girls ... The American Negroes ... sleep with the Swedish, Norwegian and American girls."52 Regardless of finding the situation "dull and unimpressive,"53 Himes still chose France over the United States, which pays great tribute to the power of the myth of a better life in France.

The Strength of the Myth

In the Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote, "I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be "accepted " by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet."54 During the interwar period, black American jazz artists flocked to Paris; a generation later, in the postwar years, writers re­placed the musicians, who had all hoped to find a society that resembled Baldwin's description. During both periods artists were not the only blacks to leave the States. American soldiers benefiting from the GI bill, students, chemists, and businessmen all came to France to experience the legend of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, which for black Americans manifest itself in the form of a colorblind society. What they found was not always what they had expected (regardless of whether they realized or admitted it), and even superficial scrutiny of French society during its history shows that it has been anything but colorblind. Nonetheless, the image survives and counterevidence has not served to deter the multitude of black people coming to the city.

It was as if the black expatriate had gone "in effect, to a city which exist[ed] only in his mind... refusing... to recognize Paris at all, but clinging instead to its image."55 Explanations for the ability of the charm of legend to prove itself capable of withstanding evidence pointing to the contrary are complex and have yet to be fully explored.56 However, there are many possibilities. In both periods the number of blacks was always minuscule in comparison to the white population of the city. Estimates for the 1920s are around 500, with only 13 GIs actually using their ben­efits to return to France. During the 1950s, the number jumped to 1500, but in a city as large as Paris, this was still a negligible community. Furthermore, except for a few cases, there was not that much significant contact between blacks and whites, and certainly not in any large numbers. This sort of evidence suggests both that the black community in France was able to insulate itself from any negative experiences by remaining within the bounds of comfort created by its compara­tively close-knit community, and the white community was able to continue its nor­mal existence unaffected by the presence of a handful of darker Americans.

Another explanation for the strength of the Parisian myth seems equally com­pelling and infinitely more interesting. A biographer of Josephine Baker proposes that the sheer novelty of the black American in Paris, either as a representative of the modernity and the free spirited liberty of Parisian society or as the embodiment of the sentiments of equality and brotherhood, served to perpetuate the already well-founded image of France as a colorblind society. In other words, blacks repre­sented all that was exotic and distinctive about France, and that was acceptable for black Americans.

Compared to racism, exoticism is merely decorative and superficial ...exoticism cares mostly about its own amusement and tends to find differences of color amus­ing where as racism finds them threatening. Exoticism is frivolous, hangs out at nightclubs, will pay anything to have a black... sit at his table. Racism is like a poor kid who grew up needing someone to hurt. Exoticism grew up rich and a little bored.75

The difference between the black experience in America and that in France, accord­ing to this view, is that while one's color is very significant, the stereotypes attached to one's blackness will be fundamentally different. In the "Jazz Age" it was primi­tivism, savage beauty, fun, and entertainment; in the 1950s, it was struggle, pain, and even anti-Americanism. In any case, however, blacks were still objects, per­sonifications of concepts and emotions.

Why then would the myth of a color blind Paris persist? In the context that was important for black Americans, it was true. As Wright wrote, black Americans "have been oppressed for centuries - oppressed for so long that their oppression has become - a kind of culture."58 But in France, black Americans were not gen­erally and systematically hated and degraded because of the color of their skin. The racism and stereotypes of blacks held in the societies in which they became im­mersed were not tied, inextricably, to negativism. The logic is simple, "if one is to be treated as a thing, one would rather be treated as a rare and pretty thing than as a disgusting or dangerous one."59 If one is going to always be seen in terms of his or her color why not prefer to be unique and special rather than indistinguishable and evil.

Today, as a result of the influx of African blacks and the societal clashes over race that have emerged in French culture recently, the myth of a colorblind France is not as compelling as it was in the first half of the twentieth century. Neverthe­less, most black people in America still equate the French nation with the invented tradition that it prizes above all Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. For it was these values which provided many African American artists and non-artists alike unique oppor­tunities for creativity, expression, and camraderie unavailable to them on the other side of the Atlantic.


Currently pursuing a Diploma at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Bologna Center, Lua K. Yuille is an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She has served for several years as the chairperson for the JHU annual Symposium on World Peace.