Le Bal Nègre ("The Negro Ball") was a popular Paris night spot in the 1920s and '30s that featured black artists. It was patronized by black Parisians, as well as the white crowds that came to revel in — and exoticize — the music and culture of French colonial territories in the Caribbean and Africa.
The French word "nègre" was commonly used back then to refer to black artists, especially musicians and dancers, but today it's considered offensive — the same way "negro" is in the US.
Guillaume Cornut, a white former day trader and pianist, is reopening the original "Negro Ball" venue in March and wanted to keep the old name — but people weren't having it.
The response to his announcement was swift and not exactly positive.
Cornut fanned the flames when he told Africultures: "Parisians already live with the Palace of the Colonies and its murals glorifying Imperial France, and the façade of the Happy Negro on Rue Mouffetard."
Cornut's project has received support from the city of Paris and a regional cultural authority, and has been covered by several French media outlets.
"No one questioned the name of the venue except the website Francetvinfo. Makes you wonder how this was possible," a journalist at Africultures wrote.
Soon the criticism began rolling in: "In the year of our Lord 2017, people don't get why black people are against naming a cabaret 'the negro ball.'"
Following the criticism, the venue's Facebook page and Twitter account shut down and its website went dark.
Cornut told BuzzFeed France: "If this genuinely affects people's sensibilities, I'll respect it... If I have to change the name, I'll change the name." But he still wanted to call it the "Negro Ball."
"A documentary was filmed during the construction work. We brought in 200 or 300 artists, including a large number of [black artists], and they all evoked the memory of the location with lots of nostalgia, saying that it was an enormous tribute to blackness," he said.
"My approach was extremely sincere and open. I wasn't looking for controversy or anything else, or to hurt anyone at all. If [the name] changes, those who are defeated will have been in the wrong fight. They will have buried a place with a magical history."
Cornut said Claude Ribbe, a French writer of Caribbean descent, "told me that keeping the name was an homage to the community."
But Ribbe would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.
The author, who has written extensively about the racism suffered by those of African descent in France, said he was still angry about being caught up in the controversy.
"I noticed three days ago that my name was mentioned by Guillaume Cornut as 'vouching' for the title of his establishment. Although I was thrilled four years ago that the establishment on Rue Blomet would be saved (which Guillaume Cornut said he wanted to do), I obviously never approved the fact that it would open under the name 'Negro Ball' and I'm surprised that he would quote me without warning me or even telling me that his establishment would be opened, which I just found out about," Ribbe told BuzzFeed France in an email.
"I'm very disappointed to see that after being informed of this, the establishment with such a controversial name today should be totally indifferent to the black community in France and to its history, which Cornut seems not to know very well. No surprise that the name 'Negro Ball' along with its logo representing a caricature of Josephine Baker dancing with a banana belt has stirred up controversy. I want to detach myself completely from this project and I deplore that I was caught up in it unwillingly."
"The fact that he spoke on my behalf without informing me and misquoting me as saying things I never said says a lot about his respect for me, for my struggles and more generally, for those of African descent in France," the writer added.
The city of Paris told BuzzFeed France that though it supported Cornut's construction work, the venue is private property and "as such, it is not up to the City to decide its name."
"It is not up to the City to decide its name, to ask that it be changed, or even to make any statement about the choice made by the owner, who chose to use the original name of the establishment. Private law is applicable here and the owners are free to choose the title they desire as long as it complies with the law, which is the case here," a representative for the City Hall of Paris told BuzzFeed France.
"This location is rooted in the history of Paris and holds a special place in the history of art and culture. In this respect, the City has supported the construction work, and it has done for other establishments of this type, through its endowment for modern-day music halls."
Last Saturday, the Representative Council of Black Associations, or CRAN, the best-known black rights organization in France, convinced Cornut to change the name.
"He was rather cooperative, and accepted the idea of the change," Louis-Georges Tin, the head of CRAN, told BuzzFeed France. Cornut confirmed the change in a email to BuzzFeed France. According to a report by Le Monde, the venue will be called Le Bal de la Rue Blomet.
But some people still weren't happy with the project. On Sunday, around a hundred people gathered in protest in front of the bar, which still had "Le Bal Nègre" written on it. The protest was held by a network of activists called "Ferguson in Paris."
"Non to the Bal Nègre," and "We are not your singing negroes," chanted the protesters.
"Changing the name doesn't change the problematic [nature of the project]", Chloé, an activist with the Afro-feminist collective Mwasi, told BuzzFeed France, "because it doesn't bother people to use the colonial past for profit."
This post was translated from French.
Jules Darmanin est journaliste chez BuzzFeed News France et travaille depuis Paris.
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Susie Armitage is the Global Managing Editor and is based in New York.
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