“So here we stand, on the edge of hell, in Harlem, and wonder what we will do, in the face of all that we remember.” – Langston Hughes
I’ll be studying in Paris and with the help of Anderson and Wells’ Paris Reflections will be able to walk through Paris with some understanding of where African Americans lived, worked, and socialized in Paris (Anderson and Wells).
America between the wars
In 1918 about 1 million American troops had been deployed to Europe to aid the Allied forces in their fight against Germany in the Great War. 13% of those drafted were African American who served in segregated units. American history dictates the Great War as a conflict started by the old world and ended by the new, with Americans as the heroes and saviors of a long, bloody and “total” war.
Apart from the brief and fatal Spanish Influenza brought back to the United States in 1918 by troops who had served in Europe, the years just following the war are regarded in the United States as a time of great prosperity, or the “party” decade of American history. This decade was coined “The Jazz Age”: the age of flappers, alcohol, pushing social boundaries, speakeasies, mob control, the Charleston; the age of plenty, of luxury, of free expression, and of scandal. The young were in charge, changing the way Americans dressed, the way they consumed, the way they spoke, and the way they spent their time. The music was loud, boisterous, got people moving; youth started buying race records on the corners, listening to jazz, and the blues; they went to the pictures every weekend, spent late nights dancing and drinking—involved in rampant law-breaking. The war which many Americans had just returned from was largely ignored as an influence on the lifestyle many Americans turned to. (Britten and Mathless)
In actuality, the 20s were an Age of Uncertainty, particularly for the facet of Americans who were racially marginalized. In the early 1900s, African Americans began moving north into cities with greater employment opportunities. The Great Migration changed the demographic of northern cities, and during America’s short involvement in the Great War, many African Americans filled those job openings left by white volunteers and draftees. The summer race riots of 1919 which took place in Chicago, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington D.C., and Nebraska, among many other places, evidenced the great uncertainty about race relations in the United States after the war. There are two primary reasons recognized for these riots, first that many white veterans returned to the States to find their jobs taken by black workers, or returned to homes much changed by black presence and felt a need to restore order; second, that many black veterans assumed equal treatment would be afforded them in homecoming celebrations, or assumed they would be treated with respect as veterans of the United States Army after having been treated with respect by white Frenchmen (Stovall 26-27). Lashing out in uncertainty and hatred, white mobs killed and lynched men without trial, accused men of rapes, harassment and murders they did not commit, destroyed African American housing districts which left many dead or homeless, and burned down entire sections of cities (Gates 262-265). The Chicago Race Riots alone left 38 dead and over 500 injured; that summer 10 of those lynched in the south in 1919 were black veterans (Stovall 27).
Having wrongly assumed that perhaps they, as veterans, had earned the respect of their fellow Americans, many African Americans who had served in Europe during the Great War returned to France as musicians, performers, writers, artists, and intellectuals, to a place where they felt appreciated and valued. Thought the racial freedom many African Americans reported having experienced in Europe was not entirely the case (Schmeisser 109-110), the French ideal of an élite (Barlow and Nadeau 47-59) allowed these cultural contributors the chance to give of their talent without apparent racial discrimination (Whalan).
Meanwhile, those who stayed behind were the predecessors to the civil rights movement that would take full effect thirty years later. (“We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.” – W.E.B. DuBois)
France was not America entre-deux-guerres. In many ways, France was aware of the anxiety that riddled the twenty years between the two wars. By the war’s finish, everyone knew someone who had died in the war because 6000 men were killed every day of the duration of World War I; out of 38,000 communes in France, only one did not lose someone to the war. Furthermore, 5 million acres of French farmland had been destroyed, and by the beginning of WWII the number of cities with populations over a million had doubled in France as it became harder to sustain a lifestyle in the country. (History of France)
Before the war, Europe had had high hopes for its future, but instead “European civilization had managed to produce the most destructive, bloody war in human history. . . . This lost self-confidence lay at the heart of the Roaring Twenties in Paris, leading many thoughtful Parisians to look toward other traditions as a way of restoring their shattered faith.” Lifestyles drastically changed, many of which influenced American culture as well.
The feminist movement reigned during the period, and a new fashion of women (called les garçons) cut their hair short and began wearing men’s clothes. They discarded their corsets and started showing their legs, they smoked in public, and began working to fill the need caused by all the loss of men in France. (History of France) After the trauma of war, “Paris seemed bent on having a good time; the war was over, and young people now had the freedom to experience life to the fullest. . . . One result was a new interest in Africa and blacks as a whole” (31).
Jazz and African Americans in France
Though “race music” as it might have been called by Americans, was introduced in Europe before the Great War, and records of bands which toured through Germany, France and Britain were found years later, it didn’t have much of an influence on Europe until after the First World War (Lotz). However, because some black music got into Europe before the war, Lotz argues that its influence in Europe needs to be reassessed because it shaped how African American artists were received in Europe later.
Most attribute the inextricable introduction of Jazz to France to the African American soldiers who served in France during the Great War. Though American units were segregated, undoubtedly soldiers played the blues and jazz while they were in Europe. Immediately following the war, there was a high demand for revues and black musicians in Paris to play Jazz for the French. Such revues was how Josephine Baker came to Paris; her overnight success in Paris kept Baker in the city, singing, dancing, and performing in shows until she returned to New York for a short stay. She was not received well (Read: the Reception of Jazz in America) and returned to Paris. Other African American expatriates gathered in Montmartre, where their musical expertise was enjoyed by the French. In truth, the French demanded black musicians for their clubs, preferring them to white musicians. “ ‘ If there was any racism it was our people that used to give preference to the colored musician,’” one French musician said; he performed in blackface so he would have the chance to play with a black band (Stovall 38-39).
(Include: (Archer-Straw), (Jackson “Making Jazz French”) & Django Reinhart)
Influence on America
Alexandre Dumas (Martone),
I’m interested in studying African American expatriates in Paris simply because when one learns about the “Jazz Age” of American history, not only is the French perspective of the War, and France’s influence on American society often ignored, but more important the African-American perspective is disregarded. Little, if anything, is ever taught of the Summer Race Riots which took place after the First World War, or how the freedoms blacks experienced abroad played an influential part in the civil rights movement of the 1950s-70s.
If we do mention Paris or France during the Jazz Age, it is always in reference to the Anglo-American expatriates: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Though worthy of mention, these white writers only represent a fraction of the American expatriates in Paris at the time, and are only a fraction of contributors to the American-Parisian culture that influenced America. This is one of many examples of a “white-washed” history. As the entire “Jazz” Age, it can be argued, was the gift of black America to the United States, and for that matter, to France, why the story of the history of Jazz is not told in an American History context is entirely beyond me (Beregot and Merlin).
Though what I primarily want to study is how French culture influenced the black expatriate musicians in Paris and what they perhaps brought back to the United States because of their experience in France, ultimately, I think the significance of studying this facet of American culture is to treat it as main-stream American history, rather than marginalize it as “African-American History.”
Josephine Baker – Complete Record Works, 1926-27
Ada “Bricktop” Smith
Claude McKay - Banjo