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Lafayette, Lady Liberty, And France’s Unique Relationship With The United States

Jan 28, 2016

In 1777, a 19-year-old French aristocrat arrived on the eastern shores of an infant nation and forever changed the course of United States history. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette received a commission as a major general in the Continental Army, and played a key military role in battles at Brandywine, in Rhode Island, and at the eventual British surrender at Yorktown. His participation in the American Revolution entrenched France’s status as the oldest U.S. ally.

A century later, a token of French generosity became the quintessential symbol of America, seen by thousands of immigrants entering the United States through Ellis Island and New York Harbor. But New York University historian Edward Berenson says Americans have forgotten that transformation, which he traces in his book The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story.

French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi visited the United States in the early 1870s, not knowing anyone, or even a word of English. But Berenson says he did have plans to create a giant statue, the largest in the world, and already knew what it would look like, where it would go, and expected Americans to accept the idea on faith.

“Most of the Americans he encountered thought this was incredibly presumptuous, this French guy designs something without consulting any of us,” Berenson said. “So it suggested a kind of French arrogance in a way, but at the same time a French generosity, because they had taken it upon themselves to pay for and create this monumental statue, and they wanted to give it to the United States.”

Berenson said many U.S. residents were skeptical of this generosity, wondering what France wanted in return. But the statue depicting Liberty enlightening the world also expressed admiration for the U.S. political system, and its influence on the French Revolution in 1789.

In the days after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, Arizona Republic cartoonist Steve Benson drew the Statue of Liberty, climbing down from her pedestal, hoisting an assault rifle over her head, wading into the Atlantic Ocean saying, “I’m coming.”

Berenson says that cartoon says everything about the close historical relationship and friendship between France and the U.S., and for 130 years there’s been no greater symbol. History even repeated itself when it came to Benson’s 2015 illustration.

“At the end of World War II, right after the liberation, directed of course by American troops, there was a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty erected in France, and the caption of that Statue of Liberty is, ‘Lafayette: We’re back. And we’ve repaid you for what you’ve done for us.’”

Jazz, Josephine Baker, And Racial Differences

Nearly 30 years before U.S. troops toppled the Nazi-backed Vichy government in France, thousands of American troops traveled to the Western Front to support the French and British in World War I. Berenson says there was a large African-American presence in France during World War I, including some of the country’s best African-American music. In order to develop good relations with the French, an Army colonel formed a band to play ragtime, syncopated marching band music, and other music new to the country that French audiences loved.

“This group of African-American musicians, they reported back home about how open the French people were to them as being blacks, and they didn’t face the same kind of discrimination they faced at home,” Berenson said. ”French people were so glowing that they attracted a lot of other African-Americans to come to France after the war.”

A decade later, there was no bigger American entertainer in France than Josephine Baker. Born in St. Louis, she arrived in Paris in 1925 for La Revue Nègre. Artist Paul Colin designed the poster that plays into every early 20th century stereotype of black culture, and during the show Baker wore nothing but a thin skirt of feathers, and then eventually a thin skirt of bananas. Berenson says Bakers performances were inspired by the prevailing French view of blacks as primitive, colored by the Africans affected by colonization.

“They made her conform to the stereotypes that French people had about African women, which was that they were mostly naked,” Berenson said. “That they did these sort-of erotic dances, and that there was something really tittilating about their primitive sexuality.”

Berenson says at first, Baker embraced the role and understood what was expected of her. But after criticism by female black intellectuals in France, she starts to change her music hall performances from African stereotypes to becoming a symbol of bona fide French culture.

“All of a sudden she starts appearing on stage fully clothed. She starts doing more traditional French operettas,” Berenson said. “And she gets into situations where what’s emphasized now is not her blackness, but her lightness. What you see happening is that blackness is seen as “not French,” and whiteness as a requisite for being French.”

By World War II, Baker had married and become a French citizen. The still-beloved artist was recruited by French intelligence as a sort-of cultural ambassador with covert responsibilities. 20 years later, she appeared in her Free French army uniform at the 1963 March on Washington – the only woman to speak during the same program where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1968, King’s widow offered Baker his place as the leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, but she declined out of her children would lose their mother.

Josephine Baker climbs the steps to the LIncoln Memorial during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

BRIAN HARDZINSKI, HOST: Edward Berenson, welcome to World Views.

EDWARD BERENSON: Happy to be here.

HARDZINSKI: You’re a historian of France, and specifically France’s relationship with the United States. And part of the reason you’re here today is to talk about jazz, and specifically jazz in France. Most people have some understanding of America’s history of jazz. It took off in the 1920s, which was a time of economic prosperity, Prohibition, and it really kind-of became America’s art form. But World War I and the preceding decade didn’t really affect American shores the way it did in France, where the landscape was scarred by a half-decade of shelling and trench warfare. What was the climate like that allowed jazz to flourish?

BERENSON: Well, there was a really large African-American presence in France in the American Army during the First World War. And it turns out that some of the very best African-American musicians were in the Army and stationed in France. And there was one battalion of the Army that came out of the New York State National Guard, and one of its most prominent leaders was this great musician from New York City. And a colonel, kind of to develop good relations with the French, the colonel asked this guy - his name was James Reese Europe - to put together a band.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED MUSIC RECORDING - MEMPHIS BLUES)

And so Europe went around and he saw all of the musicians, African-American musicians who were there in France. He collected them together and he formed a band. And they played ragtime and other kinds of syncopated music. Not exactly quite yet jazz, but they played a kind of music that was generally new to France, and people there liked it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED MUSIC RECORDING - MEMPHIS BLUES)

And they traveled all around the country playing mostly ragtime music. They played some marching band music, but they gave it a kind of syncopated beat, and they were really popular. And one of the things they did, this group of African-American musicians, is they reported back home about how open the French people were to them as being blacks. And they didn't face the same kind of discrimination that they faced at home. And the reports about France and French people were so glowing that they attracted a lot of other African-Americans to come to France after the war.

HARDZINSKI: I want to expand on that a little bit more, because I want to ask you about one of the most famous images of French jazz. It's Paul Colin’s post for La Revue Negre. It’s a poster that advertises a famous music hall performance by Josephine Baker. She's an American-born black dancer, singer whose greatest success came in France. But this poster, I mean it really plays into every early 20th century stereotype of black culture.

BERENSON: Absolutely.

HARDZINSKI: And I know Baker would wear dresses made of bananas during her shows. I’m curious about the relationship between race and jazz music during this period.

BERENSON: Right. So France's main relationship to black people was with the Africans they had colonized. And the prevailing view of black people, of African people, was that they were primitive. And there were a number of people in France sort-of on the "left" who saw that primitivism as a good thing. That they injected some new vitality into a stale French culture. But people on the sort-of cultural right thought that was a bad thing, because primitivism would set advanced French culture behind. And so what the French kind-of empresarios who created this music hall thing with Josephine Baker, what they did is they basically turned her from an African-American into just a plain old African. So they made her conform to the stereotypes that French people had about African women. Which was that they were mostly naked. That they did these sort-of erotic dances. And that there was something really tittilating about their primitive sexuality. And that's what they turned Josephine Baker into. And that's why she appears on stage wearing nothing except for at first a thin skirt of feathers, and then a thin skirt of bananas, and played the role to the hilt. She understood what was expected of her, and she did it beautifully. And the male commentary on her, it's really quite amazing. They are just absolutely kind-of jazzed by her exotic sexuality.

HARDZINSKI: Did she have a problem with how she was portrayed? You said she embraced it, but...

BERENSON: She embraced it at first. And then she took a bit of criticism. There were some black women intellectuals in France who were from the Caribbean, from France's colonies in the Caribbean. And they criticized her for playing in to the white stereotypes. So Josephine Baker took that in, and she loved being in France, so she decided that she was going to engineer a transition from being basically this African stereotype to becoming a bona fide French person. So what you see then is her music hall performances changing. All of a sudden she starts appearing on stage fully clothed. She starts doing more traditional French operettas and things like that. And she gets into situations where what's emphasized now is not her blackness, but her lightness. Because it's not unlikely that one of her parents was white. So she has relatively light skin. So more and more she presents herself as a light-skinned person. The French refer to her as having skin the color of cafe ole. And she gradually creates this perception of herself as a person who is becoming white, and therefore possibly French. And so what you see happening is that blackness is seen as "not French," and whiteness as a requisite for being French. And so then Josephine Baker figures out how to play that to the point where after World War II, she appears in the uniform of de Gaulles's Free French army. And she actually is the only woman who speaks in Washington, D.C. in 1963 in Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" demonstration. And she appears at that demonstration wearing the uniform of the Free French army.

HARDZINSKI: You just mentioned World War II and her relationship with Charles de Gaulle. What happened as World War II broke out? I know the Nazis had very strong feelings about jazz music. They didn’t care for it at all. What happens to French jazz at the beginning of Nazi occupation in the 1940s?

BERENSON: Well, it's really interesting. That's what I thought when I started doing the research for this project, that the Nazis didn't like jazz music. And it turns out that the Germans who were stationed in Paris were kind of advanced culturally. They sort-of liked jazz. The Vichy people liked jazz. What they didn't like about jazz was its association with Africans and African-Americans, and also just with the United States in general. And so what the French jazz players did during World War II was to de-emphasize the blackness of jazz. And they began to say that jazz was really French. It had always been French. It had started out in Louisiana, which was a French colony. And then they took these American jazz tunes and they translated them into French to kind-of disguise their American origins. And some of the translations are really bizarre. They're completely unrecognizable. And so during the occupation, during Vichy, France produced a form of jazz they claimed had European roots, and not African or African-American roots.

HARDZINSKI: I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about one of your more recent books. It's called The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story. What is that story? What were you trying to convey?

BERENSON: So what I was trying to convey is that the Statue of Liberty started out as being a French thing. Its iconography is French. Its conceptualization is French. The idea behind it all comes out of French culture and French politics. And so the Statue of Liberty is kind of herself an immigrant from France. And so one of the things I wanted to do was to trace the transformation of the Statue of Liberty from being a representative of France to being something that is quintessentially American. And most Americans either didn't ever know or have forgotten that transformation. So I wanted to make that really explicit, and I think that's one of the things that makes the story really interesting. So, for example, when the sculptor who created the Statue of Liberty - a man named Auguste Bartholdi - when he first came to the United States in the early 1870s, he didn't speak a word of English, and he didn't know anybody. He came with these plans to create this gigantic statue. The largest statue in the world. And he told people in New York that he had decided where it was going to be, what it was going to look like, and he wanted the Americans just to accept it on faith. And most of the Americans he encountered thought this was incredibly presumptuous, this French guy designs something without consulting any of us. He decided where it was going to go, and he wanted us to help pay for it. So it suggested a kind of French arrogance in a way, but at the same time a French generosity. Because they had taken it upon themselves to pay for and create this monumental statue, and they wanted to give it to the United States. And so there were some people in this country who were suspicious. Why do they want us to take this gift? What do they want in return? And in fact, they did want some things in return, but it was also designed as an expression of a certain French admiration for the kind of political system that we have in this country.

HARDZINSKI: I'm glad you mentioned that relationship between France and America, and that generosity coupled with that skepticism, because I remember in the few days after the Paris terrorist attacks in November, there was this fantastic editorial cartoon by Steve Benson from the Arizona Republic. I don't know if you saw it or not, but it’s the Statue of Liberty, she's climbing down from her pedestal, an assault rifle hoisted over her head, wading into the Atlantic, and the caption bubble over her head says, "I'm coming." What does that say about America’s relationship with its oldest ally?

BERENSON: It says everything. And that use of the Statue of Liberty to demonstrate the friendship, the incredible close historical relationship between France and the United States, the Statue of Liberty has been, for over 125 years, the symbol of that relationship. So, another great example of this, is that at the end of World War II, right after the liberation, directed of course by American troops, there was a cartoon very much like the one you just mentioned, of the Statue of Liberty erected in France, and the caption of that Statue of Liberty is "Lafayette: We're back. And we've repaid you for what you've done for us."

HARDZINSKI: And of course, Lafayette is the French general that played a key role in the American Revolution, and there are memorials, and streets named after him all throughout the country. One of those Lafayette Streets is actually in Lower Manhattan, and that's actually where I'd like to shift the conversation to next, your work with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City researching memory and memorialization. It's not an unfamiliar concept here in Oklahoma.

BERENSON: Right.

HARDZINSKI: In a lot of ways our two cities are linked because of the terrorist attacks we’ve both experienced. 

BERENSON: Absolutely.

HARDZINSKI: What did you take away from your time studying 9/11?

BERENSON: A lot of things, and one of the things that we did when I was working with the group that conceptualized the 9/11 museum, and they were very much influenced by the Oklahoma City museum. And so one of the things that I took out of that is for historians, the incredible importance of memory. Of the way we remember things, what we choose to remember, and what societies choose to forget. And so that work that I did on 9/11, it really helped with my book on the Statue of Liberty, because it was really interesting to think about the things, say, about immigration, that we remember as a society, and the things that we forget as a society. And since unfortunately, terrorism is something now apparently that we have to deal with all too often, it's going to be really interesting to see over the years that come, what we in the United States, what people in France, what different countries around the world together remember about these events. And obviously it's too early to tell. So when you go into the 9/11 museum, there is a phenomenal exhibit about what happened during that day. So they have done an incredibly good job reconstructing the day of 9/11. What is much less well done, or much less elaborately done is what led up to 9/11. And that's partly because it's an incredibly controversial subject. Why did it happen? Who did it? And so some of the people who were involved in the planning of the exhibit - and these were mostly family members, members of the families that had people murdered and community members - they didn't want to say anything about what caused 9/11, for fear of giving too much publicity to the terrorists. Whereas the historians involved, we were eager to develop that analysis as much as we could. We wanted to really try to understand why 9/11 happened, what it meant, and to make that a really big part of the exhibit. So I think that what will happen as we get further away from 9/11, it may become easier to do more and say more at the museum about what the antecedents were, and how we should understand them.

HARDZINSKI: As those future generations look forward, especially the ones with no memory of the attack, how will they look at 9/11? What's going to color their perspective?

BERENSON: It's a great question, and I think it's going to depend very much on what happens over the next couple of decades. And if, I hope to God that we don't have more of these attacks, but I think if these attacks become part of our landscape, then they're going to color the way we remember 9/11. And I think that there are an awful lot of dangers that we would, if there are more of these attacks, would remember 9/11 as something that is created by Islam in general, rather than some small nihilistic offshoot of the Islamic world. And so I think that's one of the things that we have to be careful about, that we have to hope doesn't happen, but which is something that could happen if there are more attacks of the sort that we just experienced in Paris.

HARDZINSKI: Edward Berenson, it’s been a wide-ranging conversation, and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. Thank you so much for being here.

BERENSON: It was a pleasure.

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