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The "exotic" Black African in the French social imagination in the 1920s

Brett Alan Berliner, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation, a study of one strand of French exoticism, discusses the representation and reception of the Black African and Caribbean Other, both of whom the French called the “nègre,” from the Great War until 1930. Using a wide array of sources (novels, travelogues, advertisements, and photographs), I argue that representations of the nègre, from French West Africa and the Antilles were constructed ambivalently in the French social imagination to define boundaries of the French self and to mediate cultural changes and social anxieties that World War I had furthered. ^ In Part I, I demonstrate how the Black African came to be represented as a grand enfant in popular culture during and after the Great War. This representation set the stage for the emergence of négrophilisme in the 1920s and for some romantic mixed-race relationships. But the grand enfant was a contested representation, and this dissertation shows that a battle to define the post-war “Black soul” broke out after René Maran, a Black Frenchman, published his novel, Batouala (1921). ^ In Part II, I analyze how the French depicted the Black African as the Other in “ethnographic” exhibitions, photographs, and advertisements. In the 1920s, the French represented the Black African as an exotic, primitive “type” in efforts to define post-war moral and social identities. ^ In Part III, I examine three French travelers to Africa. Writers Lucie Cousturier and André Gide demonstrate a limited French conception of extending fraternity to the Other and a reluctance to embrace the “oceanic” in Africa. Popular response to La Croisière noire, an automobile expedition through Africa, serves as the basis of my analysis of heroic exoticism. ^ Last, I examine French exoticist desires at the Bal nègre, a dance hall where ethno-eroticism and carnivalesque mixing of races flourished. Some contemporary observers, like writer Paul Morand, feared fluidity across the color line. Morand's exoticism is invoked to demonstrate how négrophilisme and négrophobisme became intertwined in the French social imagination in the 1920s. Thus this dissertation offers a complex account of French history that problematizes the myth of a non-racist France. ^

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology|Black history|European history|Modern history

Recommended Citation

Berliner, Brett Alan, "The "exotic" Black African in the French social imagination in the 1920s" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9932294.