John Bogucki ’12 – I sit here, the final day of our French adventure slipping into the west, on the terrace of our quaint hotel in Nice. As the clean Mediterranean turns a more royal shade of blue, I take time to reflect on the long road the Eng-370: American Expatriate Writer’s class has taken.
Being one of four seniors on the trip, it’s the bitter-sweet cherry on top of our undergraduate careers. From the gems of Paris to the jewel that is Nice, the class has looked at many of the works of Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, etc as well as the very places that influenced the writing styles of some of the United States’ most treasured authors of the early twentieth century. Instead of expatriate writers and what France provided them with for their crafts, the focus of my final project was another expatriate, Josephine Baker, analyzing not only what she got from the French nation but what she was able to give back.
Arriving in the midst of the Jazz revolution, Josephine Baker made her mark early when she stole the Revue negre show at the Theatre Champs-Elysees with her silly antics and her provocative dancing. The French audience, with colonial constructs ingrained in their heads of the black “other”, were awed by the expressive and life giving force that was embodied through Jazz music from the African-American musicians and artists. Still recovering from the atrocity that “civilization” had gotten them into with the First World War, the Jazz Renaissance in France allowed movement toward modernite; the French felt as though they could learn from the lively band of African-Americans whose own history was defined through fracture and tribulation, in an attempt to mend their own society. At the same time the African-Americans reveled in the liberation from second class citizenry as the had experienced it in the States.
Perhaps Baker’s most sensational and famous production was a show Folie du Jours at the famous music hall Folie Bergeres in Paris. It was here that Josephine Baker performed her famous “Banana Dance” which she performed clad in nothing but a skirt of bananas. So profound was Baker and Jazz on the French culture after the 1920s, that Jazz bars and clubs can be found across the country.
While in Paris I saw several of these clubs, thus confirming that Jazz is alive and well throughout the City of Light. Even in the metro station at Chatelet-les-Halles, a photo of Josephine Baker is plastered across a billboard, topless to boot. The influence of Jazz on French culture even found its way into a chance encounter with a Parisian at a café down the road from our hostel in Paris. Having a rather intellectual conversation in broken French and broken English, the conversation ranged from the national politics of the two counties, eventually shifting to films et cinema. At this point, the Frenchman, Christian, began telling me about a recent French documentary on black minstrelsy and the a popular character “Jim Crow” which was the center of such productions; what are the chances that an expatriate myself, would bump into a carry-on a conversation with a Frenchman about the very topic I was researching.
As I close this entry as well as my trip in the beautiful south of France, I’m disappointed, but excited for the commencement of the next chapter in this life. Bon soir, mes amis, just down stairs at the café bellow our hotel, they’re advertising a Jazz show which I am planning on catching, the American influence is alive and well in this republic that helped foster our own nation’s birth. Here’s to liberte, egalite, et fraternite.