The Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation

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Written by Michele Langevine Leiby

Paris – I’m black. But in France, I’m white.

No, I’m not delusional or oblivious to my skin color – I’m just American. And that, for all intents and purposes, makes me an honorary white person in France.

France, with its love/hate relationship with all things American, has long served as an escape hatch for U.S. blacks who tired of discrimination in their home country: The refugees stretch from Josephine Baker to James Baldwin. Here their color was of little consequence, and their names still summon in the French imagination scenes of smoky jazz clubs and literary cafes of Saint Germain and Montparnasse. The cozy history between African Americans and the French is reread by every Frenchman who fancies himself an intellectual who reveres tolerance and artistic expression.

But now, finally, France may be coming to a reckoning with the reality behind the black exile experience. Many artists, writers and other luminaries left the United States behind because of raw racism. There was nothing romantic about it for them.

A timely and surprising new art exhibition in Paris, “The Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation,” helps fill this historical gap. It explores for the first time in France—and perhaps all of Europe—the great divide between white and black that has governed the American experience from slavery to today. The exhibition is staged by the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, a museum known for its emphasis on non-Western cultures and now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Europe and France in particular are “significantly behind in understanding this important period of the American history and recognizing this cultural movement,” as the museum pointed out in promotional literature for the new exhibit. It should serve to provide the French a solid grounding in the antecedents for the modern U.S. black experience.

“The Color Line” exhibition is well worth a visit if only to see how outsiders see us—and to ponder questions of whether, when and how France might come to terms with its own discrimination toward the Other, including people of color and refugees. The Syrians, Iraqis and other Middle Eastern refugees who are now being eyed with suspicion in many Western nations may not be considered “black” here, per se, but still face special forms of racism just the same.

“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line,” W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote, and this exhibition—densely packed with both artwork and historical items—illuminates many sources and examples of the problem. The exhibit walls brim with content well beyond paintings to include hundreds of posters, photos, sheet music, sculptures, film clips, books and magazines. The content covers lynchings to Jim Crow, minstrelsy to Michael Jackson (with a series of album covers charting his transformation from normal-featured black child to grotesquely disfigured, bleached older performer).

“Most [French] people with education have no real idea of what racial discrimination was in America in the 20th century,” museum president Stéphane Martin said over lunch in the Branly’s rooftop restaurant with its stunning view of the Eiffel Tower. “Most people believe everything stopped after the Civil War and that everything was fine. … The French were not so aware until maybe the Sixties of what was happening in the Southern states of the United States.”

But the French “were racist in their own way,” Martin is quick to note. Not toward black Americans or the African-born in general, but toward Arabs and North Africans, such as those of Algerian or Moroccan heritage, who have been in France for generations.

In France the concept of race does not exist in many government documents. One’s race is not specified in the census. It’s effectively illegal for the government to ask one’s race.

This might lead you to believe that racism in France does not exist. In my experience as someone who spent several years in the country it’s true that there is not a lot of in-your-face blatant racism, but, even in the capital, it exists if you scratch the impossibly well-dressed surface. Somehow American-ness transcends blackness—you can find acceptance in some of the most notoriously snobbish Parisian circles—but accents from poor and Muslim countries in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere do not fit into the picture.

As Martin noted, most French people would see the race problem manifested as “unpleasant economic discrimination” toward immigrants. But it goes deeper. Racism exists in French attitudes toward not just Muslims but Jews and the Roma. It exists in attempts to ban burkinis worn by women who practice Islam. The Paris suburbs are full of frustrated Muslims who feel they are unwelcome and ostracized by society at large. Consider the thousands of Algerians and other immigrants from France’s former colonial outposts, who are consigned to housing projects and who live in separate worlds.

And now the wider world is well aware of the foothold radical Islam has found in France, as demonstrated by murders of members of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff, the horrific shootings at Bataclan concert hall, and the Bastille Day massacre in Nice. The killers ran the gamut but several had north African origin (and French citizenship).

It seems perhaps a stretch to link such episodes with an exhibit on discrimination against American blacks. But the ravages of discrimination are universally felt, and lead to anger and backlashes that are sometimes not yet foreseen. In the Donald Trump era, what could policies to deport immigrants and register Muslims lead to?

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The art in “The Color Line” both screams and whispers. Copies of “The Crisis” magazine, “A Record of the Darker Races” edited by Du Bois, celebrate the pride and accomplishments of black people; whereas sheet music for “Coon Coon Coon,” identified as “The Most Successful Song Hit of 1901,” traffics in the worst stereotypical caricatures of its time. (A video clip celebrates another hit song: rapper 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” from 2003.)

Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of 1930s black life dispel the Other in their depictions of the quotidian experiences of all people: playing pool, dining at a barbeque joint, hailing an ice peddler, attending a funeral. By contrast, Faith Ringgold’s disturbing “The Flag is Bleeding” from 1967 shows a black man and white couple peering from behind a stars and stripes dripping blood.

There sits Rosa Parks placidly in the police booking photo for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Here is an FBI wanted-for-murder poster for 1960s radical Angela Davis (born in Birmingham, Alabama; “race: Negro.”).

The quantity of materials in exhibitions such as these “can be overwhelming,” Martin concedes, but they also can be appreciated “like chorus music where you can follow two different lines. In this exhibition you can follow either a purely artistic line; it can be just an African American art exhibition, which you can see in Atlanta, for example, at the High Museum. Or it can be a purely historical exhibition…informative.”

The isolation and despair that victims of discrimination everywhere feel can be summed up in the story of a 33-year-old black French man I read about last year. He was repeatedly shoved and prevented from boarding a Metro train by soccer fans in central Paris. The behavior of the presumably English Chelsea fans was shocking. But what wasn’t shocking at all was the attitude of resigned acceptance of the victim. The man, identified in media reports as Souleymane S, says he simply went home and didn’t say a word to anyone. Not his wife, not his kids. No one.

He was puzzled to later find out that the incident was covered in the news. “I live with racism,” he told a Paris newspaper. “I was not really surprised by what happened to me, even if it was a first in the Metro.

“What can I tell my kids? That papa was shoved in the Metro because he was black?” the man continued. Later, encouraged by the public outcry, he decided to file a complaint with the police.

The incident could have occurred in the U.S. South 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 20 years ago. Or, for that matter, on any given day in any given American city today. If “The Color Line” tells us anything, it’s about a stubbornness of racism—anywhere—that has yet to be erased.

About the author: Michele Langevine Leiby is a Washington-based writer and attorney whose articles on global, cultural and political topics have appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, the Guardian and the Financial Times. She also wrote a weekly column from Pakistan for a year and a half as a correspondent for the Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service.

Featured Image: Title: Moon over Harlem | Author of the work: William H.Johnson 1943-1944 | Copyright: © Washington DC, Smithsonian American Art Museum