Général Lavine – eccentric bears the name of Edward Lavine, the blackface circus artist who frequented the Théâtre Marigny in Paris. As Debussy points out, the prelude is to be played with the groove of a cakewalk, a dance that sprang from the slave quarters of the plantation complexes in the United States. The cakewalk was refreshing and suggestive to European ears as it was first heard in venues such as the Folies Bergère, performed by actors in blackface—theatrical makeup used predominantly by non-black performers to portray a caricature of a black person. It may have seemed cheerful to some, but the exaggerated practice carried with it the tragedy of African-American history. Even today, the cakewalk on its own escapes definition: it is alternately described as either grotesque or satirical; as a symbol of African American empowerment or of white supremacy; as a dance that reinforces the slaves’ submission to their masters or as a ritual towards their liberation.
The images utilized during this prelude provide commentary on the complex history of the cakewalk. The promotional video of the Harlem Hellfighters introduces this infantry regiment of the New York Army National Guard that mainly consisted of African and Puerto-Rican American soldiers. This became one of the first regiments that served with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Their controversial participation in the war helped draw awareness towards their wish to be considered full citizens of the United States. James Reese—Harlem Hellfighter’s lieutenant—contributed to heighten the dignity of African Americans as he became renowned in Europe as a jazz band director during the war. In 1915, while the Harlem Hellfighters were risking their lives in Europe, D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation became the highest-grossing film of its time in the United States—and remained so until the release of Gone with the Wind in 1939. Griffith’s film openly slandered African Americans by depicting them as ignorant and dangerous savages incapable of curbing their desire to rape white women. It portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic organization that safeguarded American values and white supremacy. The success of the film inspired new waves of racism and prompted the revival of the KKK. Meanwhile, in France, at a geographic and artistic distance, Debussy’s prelude and Georges Méliès’s Cakewalk Infernal employed the suggestive sounds and imagery of African American music with carefree imagination.