Black people have historically become objects of affection or derision, and continue to be.
Aspects of black culture such as hip hop, reggae, gangsta rap, locks and Afro hairstyles proliferate, in the 20s the craze was for dances such as the charleston, the lindy hop and the black bottom, for Bakerfix hair paste, and for wearing African-inspired clothes and accessories. This passion for black culture and a “primitivised” existence flourished in the aftermath of the first world war, when artists yearned for a simpler, idyllic lifestyle to counter modern life’s mechanistic violence.
But, even as the “negrophiles” of 20s Paris affirmed a love of black people, their relationships with them demonstrated, at least covertly, sentiments closer to fear – sentiments that still persist to this day. Black personalities were eitherlionised or demonised in a manner that denied normality.
Being called a negrophile within the Parisian avant-garde affirmed one’s defiant craze for black culture. “Blackness” was a sign of their modernity, reflected in the African sculptures that scattered their rooms alongside abstract paintings. Such orchestrated environments of tribal and modern became part of an invisible code that, rather like the decor of Dr Frasier Crane’s apartment, defined their owners as cultured.
Black culture informs a wider, global popular culture. Black music and fashion are particularly seductive. The black image in movies, magazines, videos and computer games is now an icon of modernity.
Negrophilia, from the French negrophilie, means love of black culture, and was the term used by the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s to affirm their defiant love of the negro as a provocative challenge to bourgeois values. This book explores the historical ambiguities and racial complexities of 1920s Paris and describes the short-lived craze that overtook the city when black culture became highly fashionable and a sign of being modern. –
French interest in their colonised peoples went beyond economic considerations. In addition to mainstream patronage and a colonial mission to “improve” black people, the avant-garde’s admiration and borrowing of Negro forms was as much to satisfy its own need for the “exotic” and the “real” (something that was lacking in its own culture) as it was economic exploitation. The allure of black culture was that it stood for a spiritual wholeness that had been obscured in an increasingly “civilised” and mechanised environment by material development. The assimilation of black forms into Parisian subculture was remedial and therapeutic.
The word negrophilia is derived from the French négrophilie that means love of the negro. It was a term that avant-garde artists used amongst themselves to describe their fetishization of Black culture. During 1920–1930s Paris, negrophilia was a craze to collect African art, to listen to jazz, and to dance the Charleston, the Lindy Hop or the Black Bottom, were signs of being modern and fashionable. Sources of inspiration were inanimate African art objects (l’art nègre) that found their way into Paris as a result of colonial looting of Africa as well as live performances by Black people, many of whom were ex-soldiers remaining in European cities after World War I, who had no choice but to entertainment for a source of income. Perhaps the most popular revue and entertainer during this time was La Revue Nègre (1925) starring Josephine Baker.
© Petrine Archer-Straw, 2000. Negrophilia, by Petrine Archer-Straw, is published by Thames & Hudson. Via theguardian.com