Thursday, March 14, 2013

Josephine Baker and the Black Aesthetic

The association CAPDIV (Cercle d’Action pour la Promotion de la Diversité [Circle of Action for the Promotion of Diversity]) and the Université des Mondes Noirs (Black Worlds University)* hosted another excellent event last Saturday on the occasion of International Women's Day and in honor of Black History Month. Previous events heralded the contribution of African soldiers fighting in the two World Wars (2011) and paid homage to Angela Davis (2012). This year, Josephine Baker was the focus of an afternoon that was meant to explore the meaning of the Black Aesthetic.

The formula for these events - a musical interlude, a film screening, and a panel discussion - continues to work well. After a brief introduction by CAPDIV president Ferdinand Ezembe, Laetitia Ndiaye warmed up the audience with several songs, including Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" and a moving rendition of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."

Ferdinand Ezembe
© Discover Paris!

Laetitia Ndaiye
© Discover Paris!

Next, the French made-for-TV movie Josephine Baker en couleur (Josephine Baker in Color) provided an unusual look at "The Black Pearl". Rare footage of Josephine's performances as well as an interview during which she discusses the adoption of her children made this film a delight to watch. The commentary did not neglect to mention that young Josephine bathed in lemon juice to lighten her skin at the same time that white French women sought to become darker to emulate her. It also includes film of a performance that she did in whiteface.

Josephine Baker in Whiteface
© Discover Paris!

The film set the proverbial stage for a lively debate that began among five panelists and ended with a question and answer period during which several women and men in the audience expressed themselves. The panelists, pictured from left to right below, were:
Black Aesthetic Panel
© Discover Paris!

All the panelists spoke of many issues in response to various questions posed by moderator Heutching. Among the numerous sentiments expressed, Mata Gabin spoke of the well-known difficulties that black actresses have in getting non-stereotypical roles and said that she discourages fellow actresses from depigmenting their skin because (aside from the health risks associated with this activity) it will make things even more difficult for talented, dark-skinned actresses to land the roles they seek. Patrick Lozès spoke of his opposition to the Miss Black France beauty pageant held in 2012, comparing it to an effort to launch a black university to counteract inequalities in the current system of higher education in France. Gillette Leuwat stated that black babies are not born with nappy hair - she contends that the natural state of hair in babies of all races is the same at birth and that the use of soaps and shampoos created for white people is what causes black hair to become nappy. Isabelle Mananga Ossey spoke passionately about her mission to have voluntary skin depigmentation recognized as a health hazard by the French authorities and indicated that men as well as women subject themselves to skin whitening.

The abovementioned statements only scratch the surface of what was debated during the event and the audience eagerly joined in once the floor was opened for questions. Even though the weather was picture perfect, the conference room was filled with participants.

Conference Attendees
© Discover Paris!

The discussion was so spirited that the event lasted several minutes longer than scheduled. Afterward, it continued in the main hall over snacks, soft drinks, and wine.

*L’ACSE (Agence National pour la Cohesion Social et l’Egalité des Chances [National Agency for Social Cohesion and Equal Opportunity]), Afrique Conseil (Africa Council), and the mayor’s office of the City of Paris provided support for the event.


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