It was Paris of 1983 and the title was designed to provoke. It’s large font gobbled up most of the first page of the A5 sheet, dwarfed only by the intentionally scandalous photograph of the muscular, bare back of a black man standing face to the wall, and a naked, androgynous, slender white young man kneeling beside his thigh, eyes gazing hungrily into the camera.
The title is difficult to correctly translate. The attempted play on words – “black” and “white” – gets lost in translation. Desir Black: Les Grands Noirs de Mes Nuits Blanches, it read.
Transliterated, that would be Black Desire: The Big Blacks of my White Nights. Yet, a more just translation of the title would be something along the lines of Black Desire: The Big Black Men Who Keep Me Up All Night. And even that translation is inadequate.
In any case, these were the early 1980s and saying such things was edgy. The magazine was G.I., one of many publications targeted at a newly-identified market of Parisian gay men.
While the notion of a gay urban market was decades old in the US and had even became a bit passé, the party was only getting started in Paris. The provocative article on desiring black bodies emerged within this context of a gay Paris that was being created in the image of the American gay urban market. Both the medium of communication and the message where reflections of American cultural and economic power and influence at play.
Here, however, the notions of “power” and “influence” cannot be understood in the sense of the American state strategically projecting its power to influence French minds. Perhaps we could rather talk about Joseph Nye’s abused concept of “soft power” here. Noone was being coerced to use American language to speak about race in France. Rather, adoption of Americanisms stemmed from an attraction to American myths and language(s) about blackness, black masculinity and sexuality.
However, even Nye’s concept of “soft power” may not necessarily elucidate what form of American power was being adapted here to speak about blackness in early 1980s Paris. It was a form of American power that emerged from, and was transmitted through, the capcity to shape discourse and craft imagery.
The American concept of “black” is still used to speak about race, without being transtated in colloquial French, as if to suggest the alienness of race and blackness itself to the French imaginary. The article is peppered with American-English terms to speak of race: apart from le(s) black which is used to speak of people with dark skins even if they had been a part of the French republic from its early days or had become part of the national project more recently following the official demise of colonialism.
The importation of the language of blackness also seemed to carry with manifestations of bias and discrimination typically associated with the other side of the Atlantic. Where skin color in the US had a long history of being a signal of where one belonged in urban space, France had never really enforced a state-sanctioned policy of racial segregation.
Yet, as an Americanized gay life began to emerge in Paris, and its language around race and identity began to resemble that of its American prototype, racial segregation appeared to impose itself in its new spaces. The composition of space appeared to follow the Americanizing tongues of gay Paris.
“As in New York (comme c’est le cas à New York)” one interviewee for the GI magazine article asserted, ” a place is considered to have fallen into disrepute when more than 15% of its patrons are black (la place est considérée comme “tombée” … dès que la fréquentation dépasse plus de 15% de noirs)”. To be sure, this was not considered and is still not,considered a particularly French vision of urban space.
The GI article gauged gay men (which seemed to be shorthand for white gay men) about their views about les black and found almost all of them to recycle American images of black masculinity. While not denying that Paris and France had a long history of interactions with Africa – this fact was largely dismissed as old fashioned.
Le black was a new creation who was “à la mode” (in fashion) in the early 80s. Sure, Paris had its “Brasilians of the Bois du Boulogne” (Black Brasilians who adopted a famous city forest/park as their haunt for casual sex or rough trade) and it also had what respondents called “pure Africans”, those fresh off the boat from several different African language and cultural groups. “Black” had now arrived and all of these groups could now be collectively simply called “black.”
A certain Charles, 25, interviewed for the G.I. article expounded on who les black were: They were those who were as close to “Yankee” as possible. “Un vrai black” ( a “real black”) was American or extensively Americanized. He was also rarely “truly gay” (“ils sont rarement franchement pédés)”, that was to say he slept with both men and women. He was “macho”, sensual, and could be classified according to different body types: ranging from chocolate-skinned and slim like late 70s Michael Jackson to athletic and muscle-bound like Cassisus Clay.
The cultural references for a black male aesthetic were not to be found in Senegal, Mali, or Benin, but on screen, through American television series like Roots, the landmark series on slavery; Streamers, a 1983 gay themed film set in the military; and Cruising, the famous thriller set in the hypermasculine world of New York’s leather bars.
“Black” was a reference to virility, athleticism, and was perfectly embodied by a certain image of the black American man. That there were effeminiate black gay men, was simply dismissed as a dull anomaly that did not interest too many people ‘(” Il y a bien quelques folles noirs mais elles n’intéressent plus grand monde”).
American cultural references, aesthetics, language, symbols, imagery, and histories were now being used to talk of French-speaking West Africans and French from the Caribbean and measure their blackness. Those white men who found themselves attracted to les black were said to have contracted “Jungle Fever”, and inversely for black men who loved white skin, “White Fever”. Both terms remained untranslated. Using a (mis?)quote from James Baldwin, the article justified this view that being attracted to a different skin color was a beinign pathology. Baldwin was quoted as having explained attraction between black and non-black as animalistic attraction and nothing more. “Who were they, then, to question this great black American author?” they argued.
For better or worse, American mytholigies of blackness and masculinity were being repurposed to the Parian context. The cost of doing so was the activation of a process of erasure of the specificities of black African experiences of living in black skin and of inhabiting male bodies. An imagined idea of a virile black American masculinity was beginning to play the role of an supposedly universal standard of what it meant to be black and male.
In a perverse way, the American term “black” and all that it represents (resistance, resilience , self determination…) appeared to be participating in a familar form of American power abroad: At home it captured valiant struggle against injustice, abroad it seemed to be displacing or rendeirng invisible other African-descended experiences of masculinity and race.