Thursday, February 9, 2023

the last book I ever read (A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, excerpt nine)

from A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:

At the height of World War I in Paris, Black soldiers would spend some of their downtime playing instruments they’d carried over with them. Mostly horns and guitars. Tables became drums. Eventually, casual collectives formed among the soldiers, groups that would go out to the Parisian music halls and play blues, jazz, and ragtime music. Jazz had begun to reach a heightened popularity in the States but had yet to break big in Paris. Once the locals got a taste of the sound, it carried through and beyond the war. Even after many of the Black soldiers went home to America, back to a country where they were not the heroes they were in France. Back to a country where they quickly remembered that being willing to bleed for a land doesn’t mean the people of that land will require or desire your presence outside of that willingness.

Still, the impact of that brief burst of Black creation in Paris struck new chords. Paris became obsessed with American Black artistic culture, right as the Harlem Renaissance started to kick off in the States. Parisians were mimicking American Black culture, but also, after World War I, word got back to the States that Paris was a place where Black folks were treated well. Because the Black soldiers who fought in Paris were deemed heroes, the city revered its visiting Black artists as well. Black jazz musicians who couldn’t play in all parts of America traveled to Paris to do a stretch of shows. Many didn’t stay, however, which meant that Paris was left to try its best to merely mirror the experiences these artists gave to the city. Paris was ripe and eager for a Black artist to come and commit to its small artistic flourishing. Someone who could, perhaps, put their own stamp on what the city was attempting to offer.

And then, on a boat, arrived nineteen-year-old Josephine Baker.

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