Al Jazeera Special – The first episode of this three-part series looks back on what it meant to be both black and French in the decades before France’s African colonies achieved independence.
The first generations of African immigrants pioneered the fight for rights in France during the latter part of the 18th century. They were mocked with racist caricatures and campaigns depicting them as savages in need of civilising.
Black people became quite a spectacle in white France. They were paraded around the country in shows for whites to marvel at. And ‘Chocolate the black clown’, who was kicked when he misbehaved, became a popular symbol of colonialism.
For some, France meant freedom. African-American athletes, like cyclist Major Taylor and boxer Jack Johnson, competed in Paris because segregation in the US prevented them from doing so at home.
But for others, it was a death sentence.
When World War I broke out, France needed the support of African soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of black men joined France’s war efforts by working in factories and on the frontlines – thousands died after being promised French citizenship.
But when the war ended, blacks were excluded from peace negotiations. And black people living in France fought for decades to be both black and French.