Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 176–187 | Cite as

Discursive encounters: dance, inscription, and modern identities in interwar Paris

  • Tayana L. HardinEmail author


Although scholars have studied the impact of black cultures upon French identities and interwar culture, the more fundamental relationship between black dance and the articulation of modern French, African diasporic, and American identities awaits critical treatment. Through an examination of references to the black entertainer Josephine Baker in journalism by Martinican intellectual Jane Nardal, French dance critic André Levinson, and American poet e. e. cummings, this article explores their ‘discursive encounters’ with black dance, which provides a language for these writers, artists, and intellectuals to grapple with their own modern subjectivities.


Black Internationalism black dance modern identities Josephine Baker 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Les années folles, literally the ‘crazy years’, refers to the French equivalent of the era known in the United States as the Roaring Twenties.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    André Levinson, ‘The Negro Dance: Under European Eyes’, in André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties, ed. Joan Acocella and Lynn Garafola (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1991), 70.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Jane Nardal, ‘Black Internationalism’, in Negritude Women, ed. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 105. Sharply-Whiting offers an English translation of Nardal’s article (105-7), which was originally published in French as ‘L’internationalisme noir’, La Dépêche africaine 1 (1928): 5. All references to this article will be taken from Sharpley-Whiting’s translation.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Nardal, ‘Black’, 105.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Nardal, ‘Black’, 107.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Jennifer Boittin, Colonial Metropolis: The Urban Grounds of Anti-Imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 139–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 6a.
    Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 119–86Google Scholar
  8. 6b.
    T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 38–51.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    My use of ‘black dancing body’ is derived from the work of dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild, who conceptualises the term as the site at which conceptual or phenomenal constructions of blackness meet with the materiality of the black physical body. See Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996). See alsoGoogle Scholar
  10. 7a.
    Susan Manning, Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Baker starred in La sirène des tropiques in 1927. For more on Baker’s visual iconicity, see Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, ed., Josephine Baker: Image and Icon (St. Louis, MI: Reedy Press, 2006).Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Edwin C. Hill, Jr. Black Soundscapes White Stages: The Meaning of Francophone Sound in the Black Atlantic (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 75.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Also, for more on the changing notions of gender and womanhood in the French capital, see Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer, eds., The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    Carole Sweeney, ‘Resisting the Primitive: The Nardal Sisters, La Revue du Monde Noir and La Dépêche Africaine’, Nottingham French Studies, 43, no. 2 (2004): 45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 12.
    Sweeney, ‘Resisting’, 45.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    Levinson, ‘Negro’, 70-3.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    Ibid., 74.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    e. e. cummings, ‘Vive la Folie!: An Analysis of the ‘Revue’ in General and the Parisian Revue in Particular’, Vanity Fair, September 1926, 55, 116.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    cummings, ‘Vive’, 55.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
  21. 18.
  22. 19.
    Mae Gwendolyn Henderson offers a close reading of Levinson’s and cummings’s articles in order to ‘flip the script,’ and argue that Baker’s dance performances do not only operate in the service of white, European identity-making. Rather, they are ‘a set of mediating, self-constituting, and potentially oppositional practices shaped within the context of black vernacular and diasporic culture.’ See ‘Colonial, Postcolonial, and Diasporic Readings of Josephine Baker as Dancer and Performance Artist’, S&F Online 6, no. 1–2 (Fall 2007/ Spring 2008), (accessed May 31, 2016).
  23. 20.
    For a substantive biography of Jane Nardal and her six sisters, see Emily Musil Church, ‘In Search of Seven Sisters: A Biography of the Nardal Sisters of Martinique’, Callaloo 36, no. 2 (2013): 375–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 21.
    Brent Hayes Edwards and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting write extensively about the salons that the Nardal sisters hosted in their home.Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    Boittin, Colonial Metropolis, 133.Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women, 25.Google Scholar
  27. 24.
  28. 25.
    Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora, 20.Google Scholar
  29. 26.
    See Josephine Baker and Jo Bouillon, Josephine, trans. Mariana Fitzpatrick, 1st paperback ed. (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1988). The opening pages give an account of her recollections of the St. Louis race riots.Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    The article was originally titled ‘L’ Internationalisme noir’. All references to Nardal’s articles come from Sharpley-Whiting’s English translations of Nardal’s French texts offered in her book Negritude Women, 105-7.Google Scholar
  31. 28.
    Nardal, ‘Black’, 106 (emphasis mine).Google Scholar
  32. 29.
    Ibid., 106, 107.Google Scholar
  33. 30.
    Alain LeRoy Locke, ed., The New Negro, with an introduction by Arnold Rampersad (1925; repr. New York: Touchstone Books, 1997), 14–15.Google Scholar
  34. 31.
    Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora, 20.Google Scholar
  35. 32.
    Nardal, ‘Black’, 107.Google Scholar
  36. 33.
    Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora, 20.Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    Nardal, ‘Black’, 107.Google Scholar
  38. 35.
    Jane Nardal, ‘Exotic Puppets’, in Negritude Women, ed. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 108. Sharpley-Whiting offers an English translation of Nardal’s article (108-13), which was originally published in French as ‘Pantins exotiques’, La Dépêche africaine, October 8, 1928. All references to this article will be taken from Sharpley-Whiting’s translation.Google Scholar
  39. 36.
    Nardal, ‘Pantins’, 109.Google Scholar
  40. 37.
    Ibid., 111.Google Scholar
  41. 38.
    Ibid., 109.Google Scholar
  42. 39.
    By my reading, the ambivalence with which Nardal associates black dance with the black past contrasts with her cousin Louis Thomas Achille’s theorisation of black dance as ‘the best proof of the ethnic bond existing between the African, the West Indian and the American Negroes’. As the ‘best proof’ of an extant ethnic bond, dance exudes a kind of psychic, symbolic vitality that, for Achille, lends itself to theorisations of blackness and shared history. Achille wrote at length about the particularities and similarities between black African, West Indian, and American dance cultures in ‘The Negroes and Art’, which was published in the December 1931 issue of The Review of the Black World. See Achille’s article in the reprint of La Revue du Monde Noir — The Review of the Black World: 1931–1932 Collection Complète, No. 1–6 (Paris: Jean Michel Place, 1992), 98–101.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Board of Transatlantic Studies 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EnglishUniversity of DenverDenverUSA

Personalised recommendations