When I was 18 years old I had a postcard of Josephine Baker on my wall that I’d bought from a bouquiniste stall in Paris. In the portrait, she wore an elaborate hairclip and earring. I copied down the pattern the two pieces of jewellery made and got it tattooed on my hip.
It was partly the beauty of the shape. It was partly a reaction to a period of depression and a determination to claim my body as my own. It was partly 1920s Paris and the obsession with its women growing within me. And it was partly Josephine herself – a woman whose ambition, determination, sense of justice and fairness shone like a beacon across the decades into my early-00s teenage bedroom.
I may be wrong, but I suspect Josephine Baker is one of the better known subjects in this series. She’s the fabulous singer and dancer who arrived in Paris to take to the Montmartre stage and whose playfulness and beauty seduced a city. She proved to Paris, according to Janet Flanner in the New Yorker, that “black is beautiful”. But meanwhile, male reviewers lingered on her physicality and responded to her in highly-racialized terms, describing her as “exotic”, “primitive”, and her dancing as “savage”.
This raises interesting and uncomfortable questions for a modern audience looking at Baker’s performing career. We could argue that Baker’s act fuelled stereotypes about black women’s bodies and sexuality as exotic and other – that she was the black woman subjected to the white male gaze. Questions around the othering of black women’s bodies and black culture are key here – that according to those watching at the time, Baker represented the “primitive” performer and her audience the “civilised” spectator.
That narrative, however, positions Baker as a victim rather than as her own agent. Is there instead a reading of Baker’s performances as challenging and teasing the white, French colonialist attitudes towards black women and their bodies? Can we see Baker as knowingly playing, subverting and fundamentally mocking the Parisian society that fetishised their own idea of “black culture”? Some have argued that in playing the stereotype on stage, she was in fact reclaiming the stereotype that society had put upon her; that she took hold of society’s stereotypes of black women’s sexuality and manipulated them to work for her. Because one cannot ignore Baker’s absolute brilliance as a performer and her ebullient joy in her comedy, her dancing, and her singing. She was a force of nature – and her extraordinary life demonstrates that force.
Baker arrived in Paris when she was still a teenager. Born poor in St Louis in 1906, she was married as a very young teenager and then left her “husband” to join a black vaudeville group. With no official dance training, she turned out to have a genius for movement and incredible comic timing. She performed around the USA for a short while and then went to Paris aged just 19.
On arriving in France and discovering that with no segregation laws she could sit anywhere she liked on the train, she decided never to leave.
Her career started in the Revue des Negres and then in the Folies Bergeres. She became close friends (rumoured lovers) with Colette – that other showgirl. There’s a lovely story about Colette quizzing Baker on whether, 15 years or so after her own time in the music halls of Montmartre, there was still always an English girl backstage at the Folies, knitting baby clothes. “Yes!” Baker replied, to which Colette said “there’s always one”.
Unlike many American ex-pats, Baker didn’t leave France when war broke out in 1939. In fact, she did better than that. She became an “honourable correspondent” for French Military Intelligence, AKA The Resistance. Using her fame and her contacts, she rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty, gathering secrets that she could pass on to those fighting the Nazis. What a woman!
Baker was a passionate advocate of civil rights. When she visited America in the 1950s, she was refused entry to numerous hotels under segregation, leading to her writing articles about racial equality and campaigning with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She refused to perform in segregated venues – even when the fee offered was in five figures.
In 1963, she joined Martin Luther King Jr on stage to speak at the March on Washington, introducing the “negro women for civil rights.” Baker understood the impact of segregation and institutionalised racism from her childhood in St Louis, as well as from the disgustingly racist reception to her career in the States.
And it’s this that convinces me that she was more in control of her sexy, joyful performances on those Paris stages than is often said; that she was subverting and mocking the white colonialist stereotypes put upon black women, rather than propping them up.
Dancer. Singer. Resistance fighter. Civil Rights campaigner. Let’s raise a glass to the force of nature that was Josephine Baker.