Black Pearls

On the 21st December 1934 the French film “Zouzou” received its premiere in Paris. It helped launch the film career of Josephine Baker, the African-American dancer and theatre actress. Baker moved to France, partly to escape racism, but chiefly to seek lucrative work as an “exotic” dancer. Baker joined the Revue Negre in 1925 when she was just nineteen years old. French perceptions of African heritage people in the twenties were unenlightened by modern standards, and they were often regarded as curiosities.

Baker`s act was a deliberate caricature of racial tropes, she wore feathers, bananas and pineapples and was sexually disinhibited. Her “Danse Sauvage” was both provocative and entertaining. Her performance re-enacted the stereotypical colonial fantasies of the audience and helped forge a new artistic movement in a country which has always been regarded as the epitome of artistic liberation.

France, and its colonies always had a troubled relationship, but the founding principles of the French republic, liberty, equality and fraternity allowed black artists like Baker to succeed. Many black artists from America sought out lives and careers in France because racial prejudice and discrimination were firmly entrenched in their home country.

The writer James Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948 as he felt demoralised and disillusioned by an America which dehumanised and belittled him. He spent nine years living and working in the country, where he felt free both personally and artistically. The overt racism that was inflicted upon him in America was grinding and merciless, but in France this was conspicuously absent.

The Jazz musician Miles Davis also lived in Paris in 1949 and immediately recognised the cultural freedom and open minded attitudes of the French people. The French celebration of black cultures was a marked contrast to the narrow minded philistinism of Americans.

Art is a unique medium, it can stimulate our imaginations in myriad ways, it can transcend politics and petty attitudes. It does not seek to change society, but it allows those who dare to dream to share their ideals. Josephine Baker once said,

“Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free when understanding breeds love and brotherhood”.

It might seem hopelessly naive to believe such things could ever happen but art and entertainment are part of a very human need to seek some kind of “oneness” with a deeply fractured world.

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