The 1920s have long been known as an era of "negrophilism" in France, a time when everything associated with blacks and black culture became fashionable. The exotic appeal of the nègre manifested itself in a variety of ways—from the popularity of jazz and celebrity of Josephine Baker to a flourishing of love across the color line—and contributed to the reputation of France as a racially tolerant society. Yet upon closer scrutiny, Brett A. Berliner argues, it becomes clear that French attitudes toward blacks were at best ambivalent, and the ideal of racial tolerance more myth than reality.
Through a careful analysis of popular imagery, exotic fiction, travel writing, and other cultural texts, Berliner shows how the representation and reception of blacks in post-World War I France embodied competing, at times contradictory, perceptions. On the one hand, African and Caribbean blacks were depicted as a source of cultural renewal and a means for celebrating life and sexuality. On the other hand, interracial relationships were seen as a threat to French civilization, a notion reinforced by grotesque advertisements, ethnographic exhibitions, and other aesthetically repulsive images of "primitive" blacks.
On balance, Berliner concludes, negative representations of the exotic black "other" overshadowed more positive constructions in the French social imagination of the 1920s. Although negrophilism may have infused jazz-age France with new cultural energy, the focus on racial difference served another purpose as well: to define the boundaries and meaning of French identity after the horrific experience of World War I.