But will that symbolism be accurate? Research suggests a more complex reality about racism in France, past and present. Between the two 20th-century world wars, the Black women who moved to France from the United States, the French Caribbean and Africa found that freedom from segregation and colonialism came at a price. In the eyes of many White French people, they were either invisible, blending into the landscape as low-wage workers, or else hypervisible, as exotic curiosities. In response to this discrimination, many tried to push France to go beyond the symbolic and make good on its claims of liberty, equality and fraternity for all.
How Black women transformed French identity
1932 was a good year for Josephine Baker. Her stage performances were critically acclaimed throughout Europe, and she was beginning to make her mark in cinema. That same year, the Martinican intellectual Paulette Nardal wrote a scathing condemnation of France’s treatment of Black women.
Like Baker, Nardal had arrived in Paris in the 1920s. She navigated life in the French capital as a Black woman among a cohort of other Black French and American students and artists. Her experience, however, was the opposite of Baker’s. As Nardal would later write in her 1932 essay “The Awakening of Race Consciousness,” Black women experienced a rude awakening as racism in Paris led them to feel uprooted and isolated.
In the pages of the Review of the Black World, the journal she co-founded, Nardal presented her vision for how France could live up to its promise of universalism. Her journal published an international cast of writers from across the African diaspora who highlighted Black people’s cultural, political and intellectual contributions on the global stage. Taken together, their work argued that the path to anti-racism lay not in Black people’s assimilation into a narrow and fixed idea of France, but rather in remaking France in their own image.
What would this look like concretely? For Paulette’s sister Andrée, it would require recognizing the technical sophistication of Afro-Creole art forms such as the Antillean beguine dance popularized by Baker in Parisian dance halls. Black American educator Clara Shepard identified the importance of the French language for Black students in the United States, not necessarily to learn about France but rather to connect the experiences of American sharecroppers to those of West African farmers. For Roberte Horth’s fictional character Léa, it was an imagined day when her Black skin would no longer be a marker of difference “in the land of her dreams” and would merely be “a thing of no importance.”
The Review of the Black World took an international approach to anti-racism. Its essays about anti-racist resistance through language, dance, poetry and the reclaiming of Black history presented the realities of racial discrimination in Africa, the Caribbean, France and the United States. In this way it illustrated what many researchers today argue: that White supremacy, as a global problem, cannot have a national solution.
Bridging the United States and France
In many ways, Baker hovered on the margins of Nardal’s world, colliding but not quite overlapping with the communities of Black students, writers and artists who passed through France between the 1920s and 1940s. At the same time her extraordinary life still illustrates the reality of racism in both France and the United States that Nardal revealed in the pages of her journal.
In the story that is today told about her life, Baker fled racism and segregation in the United States and found refuge in France, where liberty and equality enabled her rise from rags to riches. In reality, her predominantly White European audience’s colonial desire to consume all things exotic and “primitive” was simply another manifestation of the racism that Baker had supposedly left behind. Contrary to Macron’s speech casting France and the United States as opposites on matters of race, Baker’s experience shows that France was neither more nor less racist than the United States — just differently so. As another Black French thinker, the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, argued, American racism was simply a continuation of European imperialism.
The France in which Nardal and the Black women who wrote for her journal lived was a far cry from the “place where one stopped dreaming of elsewhere, a promise of emancipation” that Macron described last week as he ushered Baker into the Panthéon. Last year’s large-scale protests against racialized policing in Paris show that emancipated France has still not yet come into being. Now that Baker is once again a symbol on the world stage, the Review of the Black World provides a useful international lens through which to see her life — not as a premature symbol of France’s race-blindness but instead as a reminder that the fight against racism transcends national borders and continues on all fronts.
Annette Joseph-Gabriel (@AnnetteJosephG) is an associate professor of French and francophone studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the author of “Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire” (University of Illinois Press, 2020).