FrancoFiles S01E02: History and impact of African Americans in Paris after WWI
Hello and welcome to FrancoFiles. A new podcast from the Embassy of France. My name is Kamila and I will be your host. As you can most likely tell by now I am American. My work here at the embassy like that of many of my colleagues is to build bridges between French and American cultures. You will often hear us asking on this podcast well what about France? We ask this because our goal is to explore with you the secrets of diplomacy and to help you discover the rich and fascinating work that we do here at the embassy. We decided to open up our souls and our microphones to you and we hope you enjoy the ride.
This month in honor of Black History month were exploring a fascinating moment in the long history of cultural exchanges between France and the US. And that is the post World War I period. And the African Americans who flocked to Paris during this time. Tristan Cabello assistant director of the Master of Liberal Arts Program at John Hopkins University is our guest on today’s podcast. Doctor Cabellos research explores the intersection of race, sexuality, class, and popular culture in modern American culture. He met with us to talk about the African Americans who made their mark in Paris during the 1920s and 30s. And about his own experience as a student and professor of critical race studies of France and of the US.
Kamilla - To start, could you tell us a bit more about your background. How you started studying African American History in France and what brought you to the US?
Dr. Cabello - Sure, I started actually studying American studies in France around 1998 and then I got into the University and started studying American History and at the time it was not very well received and kind of frowned upon to study critical race and critical gender studies. There were actually two people in France in the university who were doing African American History and they were pretty famous at the time. They were Michel Pavre and Jean le Fevre. And Michel Pavre actually he strongly advised me against pursuing a PHD in critical race studies because there were no jobs in the field at the time. And this is when I applied for PHD’s in the US.I chose to go to Chicago at the time because that was at the time the place to do the intersection of Gender studies and African American studies. Though a lot of African American scholars were doing LGBTQ studies, gender studies, women’s studies as that was the time where really intersectionality was in the mode, and that was exactly what I wanted to do.
Kamilla - So do you now often return to France as part of your research?
Dr. Cabello - So I do. There is actually a European Association of scholars focusing on African American studies called the College for African American Research. They are actually organizing conferences even in France and some other European countries and its really a place to do a lot of transnational/transatlantic studies on critical ways and on gender studies it’s actually one of the best places of scholarly ? to do that type of work at this time.
Kamilla - Could you tell us more broadly about how the field of critical race studies has evolved in France?
Dr. Cabello - In France, it’s actually a brand new field. It’s still not a field that is accepted in University at the University level. There’s no critical race studies department there’s no race studies department, there’s no African American studies department, there’s no black studies department however there are people within disciplines in humanities and the social sciences who are doing that type of work mainly on critical race in France also abroad but mainly in France. Most of them are historians and they are doing that type of work. But this is really a brand new field its really emerging its not recognized as one of the disciplines in which you can actually get a PHD or some kind of university sanction degree, however it is starting to emerge slowly.
Kamilla - Could you tell us some of the differences you’ve seen between studying in France and the US?
Dr. Cabello - Yah I would say. Two of the main differences. Its that the French system is very much focused on disciplines, on the boundaries of disciplines. That is its very much focused on the boundaries of scholarly disciplines such as history, sociology, literature, whereas in the US the focus is very much on interdisciplinarity. There is no such thing as only studying history or literature. History does explain literature, literature does explain history, and vice-versa. So the focus is very much more on interdisciplinary, hence the creation of gender studies department Arab? world studies department, African American studies department and so on and so forth. In addition to that, the focus is very much on intersectionality. That is to say that one identity does not fully design your relationship to the world and to your social consciousness. Your gender identity, your racial identity, your class identity are always in conversation with each other.
Kamilla - Switching gears a bit to talk more about black Paris history. So the first question was what brought African Americans to Paris following the first World War and if you could tell us a bit more about what first brought African Americans to Paris.
Dr. Cabello - Sure so after World War I, Paris was seen as a place of mobility for African Americans. During World War I African Americans had actually fought with French troops against the Germans. And they were very well respected, they were very well integrated. You have pictures of African American soldiers with the white population of France that shows that they were very well respected and very well integrated. They brought jazz, they brought marching bands, they bought this new type of music that French people had never heard before.
Dr. Cabello - When African Americans go back to the US in 1918 they go back to a country that’s heavily racially segregated. Where they did experience between 1914/1918 some sort of racial freedom in France so when they come back to the US in 1919, this is at the time of the riots in Saint Louis and Chicago. Part of the way white people in America explain those riots at the time is because of the racial freedom that those soldiers have experienced in France. Not that black people in America, African Americans have experienced that type of racial freedom they probably do want it in America too. And so a lot of African Americans are moving back to Paris at the time in 1920/1921 because it is viewed as a place of freedom of mobility of racial integrity and so this is also a time where jazz music becomes very popular, very integrated in Parisian life. This is also a time where a lot of jazz clubs that are opening in Montmartre. Montmartre becomes the French Holland.
Dr. Cabello - A lot of African American writers are moving to Montmartre at the time a couple of clubs that were extremely popular at the time were on La Rue Fontaine, The Grand Dukes and Zellys, which were owned by an African American female by the name of Bricktop. So what you see in those clubs is really a conversation between identities. White Americans talk with African Americans, White French with Black French. A conversation between the stage and the audience a conversation between the clients and the buses. That is to say the club in Montmartre in French Holland do for the first time actually in Parisian culture cross identity boundaries or have conversations between identities. This happened in the Grand Dukes for example which was on La Rue Fontaine at the time. You know Scott Fitzgerald was friends with Bricktop where Hemmingway was coming to the club and you have you know working in the kitchen somebody by the name of Langston Hughes. And so you see that there is this community that is starting to form at the time of the 1920s because Paris is understood as a place of racial freedom, of conversation across identities that African Americans are longing for in the early 20s.
Kamilla - You sort of touched on this but who were some of the major figures during that period?
Dr. Cabello - Sure so you do have Bricktop who was an African American female singer, who owned a couple of clubs. She was actually in Holland and then she moved to Montmartre. When she moved to Montmartre there was this anecdote, she arrives at the Grand Duke and the place is so small that she cries, but she decides to stay. Of course there is Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes is a budding poet at the time. He’s working as a busboy at the Grand Duke, he’s working in the kitchen but he’s started to write poetry.
Kamilla - Thank you for listening. If you like this podcast subscribe on our website franceintheus.org. And please feel free to share with us any comments or suggestions you might have. You can also learn more about this topic through a video on our social media with photos from Doctor Cabello’s archives. Follow us at franceintheus on facebook, twitter and instagram. Merci et à bientôt!