Race and the legacy of the First World War in French anti-colonial politics of the 1920s

Murphy, David; Ewence, Hannah and Grady, Tim, eds. (2017) Race and the legacy of the First World War in French anti-colonial politics of the 1920s. In: Minorities and the First World War. Palgrave Macmillan Ltd., Basingstoke, pp. 201-225. ISBN 9781137539748

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The history of ‘black France’ in the interwar period has long been dominated by accounts of artistic and student life in Paris, or the ‘discovery’ of African art by European artists (most famously Picasso). However, alongside and often intertwined with the world of jazz, la vogue nègre and Negritude was also to be found an emerging community of black workers in the major cities (Paris and Lyon) and port towns (Marseilles, Toulon, Bordeaux, Le Havre). The single biggest group of black people in France throughout the interwar period though were the tirailleurs sénégalais (African infantrymen), most of whom were stationed at the major colonial military base in the small Mediterranean town of Fréjus. As the US historian Tyler Stovall has argued, the First World War constituted a watershed in race relations in France: during the war, the French authorities brought over half a million soldiers and labourers to the Metropole from its colonies in African and the Caribbean, as well as from Asia (and this is without taking into account both British colonial troops and African-American soldiers).1 The flood of publications that has accompanied the centenary of the war has included some illuminating work on this submerged history, examining the full extent to which this really had been a ‘world’ war, drawing in men from all continents.2 This new material builds on the pioneering body of incisive historical work that has emerged, over the past two decades, on the role of France’s colonial subjects in the First World War (in particular the work of Richard S. Fogarty, Joe Lunn, Gregory Mann and Stovall3 ), but far less has been written on the relatively small group of African tirailleurs who stayed on in France and were involved in black community groups and or/became militants in 2 the radical anti-colonial movements created in the wake of the 1920 split between French communists and socialists.