Rachel Gillett’s recent book about Black music and cultural debates in interwar Paris takes us back, once more, to the French capital as a cauldron of anticolonial political and cultural ferment. Although Gillett’s estimate of 15,000 Black residents in Paris by the late 1920s is probably a little too conservative, she rightly emphasizes that their relatively limited demographic weight was easily outshone by the global repercussions of their effervescent cultural and political activism. As English-language historians have come to accept ever since the pioneering works by Tyler Stovall, this activism turned the French capital into a global hub of interwar pan-Africanism that matched New York and surpassed London, even as the British ruled over a larger empire.1
The book deftly delineates the origins and subsequent developments of Paris’ Black scene. After the French state had recruited almost three quarters of a million colonial workers and soldiers during World War I, some of them stayed after the war to form an African working-class community in Paris. African Americans, who were attracted by the city’s famed nightlife and alleged immunity to the racism they faced back home, also flocked to the French capital. Antilleans, who in 1848 had become French citizens, added a more bourgeois element to the mix. It was this diversity that proved extraordinarily productive culturally and politically, without for that reason always being harmonious. One of the book’s many strengths resides precisely in its sensitivity to the commonalities binding the various Parisian African diasporas together, as well as the cleavages and differences so often tearing them apart.
Gillett likewise attends to how the identity constructions, cultural imaginings, and political projects of African-descended peoples intersected with the tastes, desires, prejudices, and racisms of the white Parisian public. Embodied most famously in Josephine Baker’s performances, 1920s Paris found itself in the grip of what was variously, depending on political preferences, called tumulte noir or vogue nègre, which cultivated an exoticist fascination with Black cultural expressions. Sexualized and often caricatured, these expressions were contrasted with European and French “civilization.” As this book shows us, Black activists in interwar Paris learned simultaneously to draw on this tumulte noir for the emancipatory purposes of their anticolonial movements and to criticize the racist underbelly that kept it afloat. Music in particular, Gillett reminds us, played a central part in this ambivalence, so that it turned into a site of anticolonial contestation. Gillett’s chief exhibit to illustrate this is a fascinating discussion of the Antillean style of the biguine and its overlaps and differences with African American jazz, as it was performed in numerous Parisian nightclubs.
Relying above all on cultural and political newspapers and magazines, and to a lesser extent on the reports produced by French police surveilling of colonial communities in the metropole, the book is divided into five chapters. Their organization skillfully blends thematic and chronological elements. Starting with two broader mapping chapters about jazz and Paris’ various African-descended communities, Gillett then offers a fascinating micro-historical discussion of the colonial exhibition of 1931 and anticolonial reactions against it. After the fourth chapter about biguine, which the author uses to draw out the socio-economic and legal differences between Antilleans and Africans, the final chapter is a close reading of how the tercentenary of French colonialism in the Caribbean and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia galvanized the Black community in the French capital. A well-rounded conclusion sums up the book’s major findings concerning the intersections between cultural performance, music, and anticolonial politics. It also reconstructs how it was all undone by the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Although specialists will not be surprised by Gillett’s main arguments, she argues her case elegantly and compellingly. Showcasing the typical strengths of cultural history, the book is especially effective and insightful in the analysis of newspaper articles, such as those by the Martinican Nardal sisters, who entertained a literary salon in a Parisian suburb, which did much to enable European repercussions of the Harlem Renaissance. In studying the Nardal sisters’ and others’ thoughts and commentary, Gillett often offers a close reading, which sticks to the analysis of particular text passages for a good while, thus allowing the necessary space to bring to light the complex political dynamics underpinning diasporic cultures. It is all the more remarkable that she achieves this in a book that is short, pithy, and entertaining.
The book is weaker, however, wherever it ventures beyond the confines of music. Its heavy reliance on Anglophone cultural history and literary criticism exacts a toll when it comes to the broader history of the French Empire and of Europe. One problem are inaccuracies or imprecisions: Though inconsequential in this book, there was no Czech Republic in 1925 (p. 72). Closer to the subject matter, the League against Imperialism was not a Parisian organization, as the uninitiated reader may deduce from Gillett’s narration (p. 15), Le paria was not its organ, and it was not led by Lamine Senghor and “Auguste Bloncourt,” a Guadeloupean lawyer and activist who in truth was called Max Clainville Bloncourt (p. 40). France did not become a republic in 1789 and it did not colonize Morocco before West Africa (p. 18). Since France’s presence in West Africa was indeed older, it is perhaps technically correct to call Senegal’s Four Communes “vielles [sic] colonies” (p. 20), but it is also unusual and misleading because throughout the twentieth century that term was associated with those colonies whose male inhabitants received French citizenship in 1848. While this did not extend to coastal Senegal, it is not true either that the Four Communes’ inhabitants after 1916 still had to take language exams in order to receive French citizenship, as Gillett claims (p. 20).
Although most of these mistakes are venial and have in themselves little impact on the broader lines of interpretation, their number and their easy rectifiability gnaw away at the authoritativeness of the authorial voice. They combine with the use of unusual (“Madagascans”) or questionable (“Indochinese”) demonyms and a confusing rendering of the legal categories of citizens and subjects. The problem of most North and West Africans in Paris was precisely that they were “subjects,” neither foreigners nor citizens and therefore not, as Gillett appears to imply (p. 155), either of the two. Part of the problem is that it is often not clear whether Gillett thinks of citizenship as a legal figure or rather as a more abstract notion concerning the exercise of political, cultural, and social participation in French society. The latter understanding appears to underwrite the remark that “inhabitants of the ‘Black world’, or monde noir”—a demographic that surely comprises the many African Americans that populate the book—were blanketly excluded from “full citizenship” (p. 19). But it remains hard to know, since elsewhere she speaks of “colonial citizens” (p. 119) or “French citizens of color from the colonies” (p. 155), even where the presumable point is precisely that they lacked such citizenship.
Their centrality in French colonial history notwithstanding, these concepts are admittedly secondary for the exploration of music and the cultural politics of race in interwar Paris—the book’s main aim. It is in this area where Gillett offers a valuable contribution that enriches the existing scholarship. The book is therefore recommended reading well beyond the circles of jazz aficionados.
1 Tyler Stovall, Paris Noir. African Americans in the City of Light, Boston 1996; Jennifer Anne Boittin, Colonial Metropolis. The Urban Grounds of Anti-Imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris, Lincoln 2010.