Black and White 

The Jamaica-based art historian and writer, Petrine Archer-Straw, has provided us with a fascinating study of a fascinating phenomenon from a fascinating period and place – 1920s Paris. The phenomenon itself came to be known as ‘Negrophilia’ – that is, a white love of black culture. Negrophilia was, according to this book, ‘the term used by the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s to affirm their defiant [and we might add, deviant] love of the negro as a provocative challenge to bourgeois values. This book explores the historical ambiguities of 1920s Paris and describes the short-lived craze that overtook the city when black culture became highly fashionable and a sign of being modern’.

Archer-Straw does much to order and make sense of what was a deeply flawed and contradictory cultural movement. In its wider context, the story of negrophilia spanned several continents, namely Africa, the Americas and Europe, though in many ways the book is a description of what happened at a particular moment in time when Africans and African-Americans came together with white, supposedly liberal, Parisians in a heady yet confusing and doomed cultural and social mix…

…At the core of negrophilia lay liberal Paris’s obsession with the rhythm of the jungle that black people were considered to possess. It was a rhythmic sensibility that was regarded as just the job for dealing with the post WWI uncertainty and self-doubt that characterised the leading nations of civilised Europe. After all, the self-proclaimed greatest nations of the world had just spent four years slaughtering each other’s young men in unprecedented and horrific numbers. For those black people not deemed to look, dress or dance primitively enough, coaching and more suitable attire was often provided. But this was always a faux primitivism that spoke loudly of white people’s attitudes towards Africans, much more than it did of the psychological or cultural make-up of Africans and new world Africans themselves. Indeed, rather wearily, Archer-Straw makes the point that ‘blacks and whites shared the same dance floor, but little else. Images of blacks and whites together in that era show them dancing, dancing and only dancing.’

The above extracts are from a book review by Eddie Chambers of Petrine Archer-Straw, Negrophilia. Thames & Hudson, London, 2000. The review appeared in  Art Monthly, London, Number 241, November 2000: 46-47