Black America and Us

Published

This issue is built on conversations started a few years ago with some of our contributors. Cases Rebelles are one of them. In their contribution, they describe how an exclusive focus on an African American understanding of Blackness invisibilizes the global Pan-African struggle and allows colonial states like France to distract us from its own anti-Blackness both in France and in its colonial dominions.

Sur la Terre, un coin de paradis. “Paris, Paris, Paris,” Josephine Baker ///

The grimacing ghost of Josephine Baker heads towards the Parisian Pantheon with songs of praise and the blessings of a deeply reactionary government. She is the ideal, the parangon, the poster child for the type of Black people French white supremacy loves to extol. The crowning of a career built mainly on cliché-laden performances, as well as racist erotization, explicitly shows the kind of expectations that power as well as a large part of public opinion harbor. Nothing in Baker’s ‘work’ challenged the racial order that was in place in France (and territories under French rule). On the contrary, it reinforced that very order, and it is no wonder that all her gesticulating and flailing resulted in her starring in colonial duds like Princesse Tam Tam (1935) or in singing the horrific La petite Tonkinoise (1930). It makes sense then that she would be the first Black woman to join the “great men” that the nation honors, at a time of Europe’s historic fascistization and by the grace of a government which infamously pursued extremely repressive and anti-social policies. Ours is also a time when the representation of Black people is used ad nauseam for variegated whitewashing purposes. This ceremony marks a climax in the ritual that consists in putting Black bodies on display, as seen in 2018 in a voguing event hosted at the French Presidential Palace or in the selfies taken by president Macron with two shirtless young Black men in the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.

Josephine Baker is without a doubt the most renowned and consensual representative of the class of Black exiles from the U.S finding sanctuary here. Some of these spectacular Black people, “les Blacks,” were the showcase to French people’s relation to the Other while being at the same time the object of an astounding fetishisization which, according to scholar Tyler Stovall, reveals a broader obsession with “America and Americanness” that benefited African Americans, a “kind of model minority,” supposedly embodying the most advanced stage of Blackness.

Whether they be artists, athletes, intellectuals, they were all objects of entertainment. And it was all the much easier to gush about those Black people insofar as they were not the bearers of any colonial conflictuality capable of disturbing the French imperialist project. On the contrary, welcoming them in Hexagonal France enabled an extremely critical discourse at times (notably in the press) on the most spectacular aspect of the U.S. racist system: segregation. France was salving its conscience while enforcing the same kind of racial segregation and imposing forced labor in its colonies.

The centering of one diaspora was built against other Blacknesses, the threatening descendants of the French colonial empire. This distant Blackness could hold a mirror to France that was favorable, reassuring, and rewarding.