Josephine Baker’s life story – both what we know and what we don’t/can’t know – is fascinating. For our purposes today, her life story is a perfect case study for complexity in historical thinking. Not only was she an icon of contradictions, but the way she lived and interacted with the world has allowed historians and feminist scholars to really tease out the complexity of her lifetime. Josephine Baker lived from 1906 until 1975. She was both a Civil Rights activist and a performer who used blackface and racialized tropes to entertain. She was both a woman who had intimate (probably sexual) relationships with other women, and exiled an adopted son when he came out to her as gay. She was both a deeply private woman and opened her home to the public like an amusement park. And for most of her life she lived in France, which was both deeply enamored with Black American culture and music and deeply racist. As Josephine Baker shows us, historical moments, like life stories, are rarely simple.

Transcript for: Vaudevillian, Countess, Spy, Activist: The Complicated Life of Josephine Baker

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD, Marissa C. Rhodes, PhD, and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Sarah: Between five autobiographies, another dozen or so biographies, and hundreds (maybe thousands) of news and magazine stories about her, few American stars have been as chronicled as Josephine Baker. She was a poor kid from East Saint Louis, a vaudeville and chorus line star, a slapstick comedian of the highest regard, an American ex-pat who built a life and a following in Paris, a French resistance soldier, a champion of civil rights, a wife five times over, a lover of dozens (maybe hundreds) of men and women, an adopted mother of twelve international children, a keeper of exotic pets, a fashion icon, and a fierce business woman. And those are just the personas she let us see – or, perhaps more accurately, that she cultivated for the world to consume. Getting to truly know the woman who went by “Josephine Baker” is some kind of impossible task, and it’s unclear from the various accounts if anyone felt they truly knew her.

Averill: Her life story – both what we know and what we don’t/can’t know – is fascinating. For our purposes today, her life story is a perfect case study for complexity in historical thinking. Not only was she an icon of contradictions, but the way she lived and interacted with the world has allowed historians and feminist scholars to really tease out the complexity of her lifetime. Josephine Baker lived from 1906 until 1975. She was both a Civil Rights activist and a performer who used blackface and racialized tropes to entertain. She was both a woman who had intimate (probably sexual) relationships with other women, and exiled an adopted son when he came out to her as gay. She was both a deeply private woman and opened her home to the public like an amusement park. And for most of her life she lived in France, which was both deeply enamored with Black American culture and music and deeply racist. As Josephine Baker shows us, historical moments, like life stories, are rarely simple.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Karl, Hanna, Lauren, Colin, Edward, Iris, Susan, Denise, Agnes, Jessy, Karen, Maria, and Audrey! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to to learn more

Averill: As always, I relied on the work of other historians to piece together this podcast episode. Perhaps even more than usual, this is a synthesis of multiple secondary sources (aka, books and articles written by scholars, rather than first-hand accounts). There is a LOT written about Josephine Baker, including five of her own memoirs, almost a dozen biographies, most (but not all) written after her death in 1975, and even more journal articles. There’s even a 2017 critical reader from feminist, Black/Africana, and cultural studies scholars, The Josephine Baker Critical Reader, edited by Mae Henderson and Charlene Regester. I’ve consulted a lot of these works, but not all, and I’m drawing most heavily on the essays in the Critical Reader, plus Jennifer Sweeney-Risko’s really interesting analysis of Baker as an icon of Black feminism in the Australian Feminist Studies journal, as well as Phyllis Rose’s 1989 biography of Baker and Jean-Claude Baker’s 1993 biography of Baker. Jean-Claude Baker was unofficially adopted by Josephine Baker. He spent a few years trying to parse out fact from the fiction in her memoirs, interviewing dozens of people who knew her throughout her life, and comparing Jo Baker’s various memoirs with the historical record, which I’ve found particularly helpful, in part because some scholars (including Rose) repeated a lot of Jo Baker’s self-representations from the memoirs as fact without corroboration. I do also want to say that I’ve also cribbed some of the material that Marissa, Sarah, and I put together back for an episode on Jo Baker in 2016 when we were the History Buffs. That episode was pretty good for a HBP episode in terms of audio quality, but it was in the old style where we’d each do a little bit of research on a topic on our own and then come together to share what we’d learned. It lacked adequate citations, and was a little on the short side anyway. I’m also hoping to offer a bit of nuance back into the story that may have been neglected in that format, particularly around the issue of “Negromania” and racism in Europe during Baker’s rise to stardom. It’s all about complexity today 🙂

Also, just as a content warning, parts of this episode include descriptions of racial violence, including lynching. Proceed with care.

Sarah: Josephine Baker was born Freda McDonald in East Saint Louis in 1906. East Saint Louis, for those of you who haven’t looked at a map of Saint Louis in a while, is actually in Illinois, not Missouri. Her parents were into the local music/dance scene. Her biological father might’ve been white – we don’t actually know. Her mother, Carrie McDonald, did not write out her father’s full first name on the birth certificate, but Carrie gave birth in a hospital that almost exclusively served white people, and was tended to by a doctor who almost only worked with white women. But there’s no evidence other than those tidbits to identify the baby’s birth father. The man who claimed her – Eddie Carson – was a drummer – and he left the family when Jo was a baby. Her mom, Carrie, remarried Arthur Martin a few years later. For the most part, Josephine was raised by her grandmother and aunt, because Carrie played pretty fast and loose with men, and had kids by at least three different fathers before Josephine was 5. Notably, no one called Josephine “Freda”; her mother nick-named her Tumpty when she was a baby, and the name stuck with her until she made it in showbiz in NYC. When she made it big, she went exclusively by Josephine Baker. We’re going to call her Jo, Josephine, or Tumpty in this episode, just to keep things simple.

Averill: At age 8, Jo’s mama farmed her out to do housework for a local family to make money for the family. In her memoirs, Baker remembers these experiences as various degrees of traumatizing. In two live-in maid situations, when she was legally required to go to school, she had to get up early, do chores, go to school, and then spend the evenings cleaning, cooking. In her first full-time live-in placement, she said that the employer was cruel. The woman beat her, underfed her, and emotionally abused her. Baker writes that she befriended the family’s dog and chicken, and then the woman made her kill the chicken for dinner. A different employer was kind, took care of her, clothed her, and fed her well, but when the husband tried to get into bed with Josephine, she was sent home (as if it was her fault).

Sarah: Baker’s own autobiographies give different accounts of her childhood, including these early employment experiences, but in all versions it was not particularly good. Like her mother, she was difficult to control; even when she was enrolled in school, she skipped a lot, leading her little “gang” of half brothers around St. Louis, stealing coal and sneaking into the local theater to watch the performers. She was also a hard worker and did what she could to help support her family, doing odd jobs for mostly white folks, sweeping steps and collecting laundry, so that she could get her brothers treats.[1] Whether these stories were true or not, Josephine Baker certainly wanted it understood that she had a sad, painful childhood.

Averill: One of the formative memories that Baker repeated in all her memoirs was the East Saint Louis riots of July 1917. Though she may have exaggerated the direct impact the riots had on her family – the rest of her family members remember being pretty safely distanced from the mob violence of East Saint Louis, and even sitting on the roof of their building, watching East Saint Louis burn – there can be no doubt that the massacres of 1917 would have affected Baker and all of her family members.[2]

Sarah: In May 1917, racial tensions in the city were high. White laborers believed they were being displaced by Black laborers (even though Black laborers tended to do the work that was underpaid and undesired by white workers). When the workers of the Aluminum Ore company went on strike, 470 Black workers were brought in to break the strike – ie, “scab workers.” The white workers lodged a formal complaint against all Black migrations to the Mayor of East St. Louis. When rumors about a white man allegedly being robbed by a black man flew through the city, white mobs formed, beating and even lynching whatever Black men they found. Illinois Governor Grank Lowden called in the national guard, which forced the mobs to disperse. The National Guard left in June, and nothing else was done to diffuse the tensions in the city. There were no unions created to protect laborers from strike-breaking, and it was clear to everyone that it was only a matter of when, not if, the violence would resume. On July 2, 1917, white mobs started attacking Black folks again. The mobs started setting fire to Black-occupied houses, forcing the inhabitants to die in the fire or flee into the gunfire outside. White men and women lynched Black folks. By the time the National Guard showed up again, an estimated 100 Black men, women, and children were dead.[3]

Averill: The NAACP sent investigators, who reported on the violence in the organization’s magazine, The Crisis. Children marched in protest in New York City; one held up a sign that read “Does God Take Lynchers?” Marcus Garvey, president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) said “This is a crime against the laws of humanity; it is a crime against the laws of the nation, it is a crime against Nature, and a crime against the God of all mankind.”  He also believed that the entire riot was part of a larger conspiracy against African Americans who migrated North in search of a better life: “The whole thing, my friends, is a bloody farce, and that the police and soldiers did nothing to stem the murder thirst of the mob is a conspiracy on the part of the civil authorities to condone the acts of the white mob against Negroes.” A year later, members of the East Saint Louis police were indicted, as a Special Investigation Committee found both the police and National Guard’s response to the riots inadequate. The damage, of course, was already done by then, and the investigation came much too late.

Sarah: At the time of the Riots, the Martins lived on the east side of St. Louis, far from most of the fray, though folks on their side ended up sheltering Black families from East St. Louis proper. The following year racial tensions were worse – over 60 people were lynched, and only four were white.[4] Though her family wasn’t impacted directly, the violence imprinted on 11-year-old Josephine, and in her adult years she both sought communities that would accept her and fought racial injustices in the United States.

Averill: Tumpty had always been a hyperactive girl, and in her memoirs she claimed that her mother was always trying to get rid of her. But according to her half brother, Josephine was a handful, and always getting into trouble. The truant officer had to visit her mother’s home regularly because Jo skipped school almost as often as she attended. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, came when she was just 13. According to Jean-Claude Baker’s account, which is based on interviews with Jo Baker’s brothers and friends, Josephine had been playing house with a man known locally as  “Mr. Dad,” a creepy old man who employed – and eventually had sex with – girls like Josephine. In Baker’s recollection of the events, she’d been working for him, and he tried to get her to sleep with him, she refused, and her mother forced her to return to his house. According to her brothers’ memories of the events, Josephine had moved in with Mr. Dad and was “playing house” with him for several weeks before her great aunt and mother dragged her out of there and decided that if she was going to grow up so fast, she was going to do it honestly. They found her a husband of a slightly more appropriate age, and the two got married. Willie Wells was in his early 20s, and a steelworker. Though Josephine’s aunt put on a nice dinner reception, the entire thing was illegal, as Illinois had a law at the time preventing marriage of anyone under 15, regardless of parental consent.[5] But the two moved in to an apartment in East Saint Louis, and Josephine took to being a wife – with a husband’s wages to spend – quickly.

Sarah: Regardless of whether she was old enough, Josephine seemed to like Willie Wells enough. According to her family members, she didn’t really reform her ways, however. When he was going to leave her, she told him she was pregnant, and he stayed. The two moved in with Josephine’s great aunt and grandmother, until Willie figured out Josephine wasn’t pregnant – and maybe never was – and left her for good. If he broke her heart, she filled it shortly thereafter with the adoration of fans, and a string of lovers – and husbands – in the decades following.

Averill: Josephine was obsessed with the musical and dance acts that came through East Saint Louis, particularly at the Booker Washington theater. She cut her teeth in the business hauling equipment for the Joneses, a family of performers who took her in for a time, before getting her chance on the stage herself. What she wanted more than anything to be on the stage herself. She was a quick study – she would watch the chorus girls do their dances, and be able to replicate them quickly. But observers commented constantly about the frenetic energy she seemed to possess, which rocketed her beyond the staged choreography of show directors. She took what was taught to her and made it her own, blending sure-footed dancing with goofy comedic routines based on the vaudeville and blackface shows she’d seen pass through the city. She had a natural ability to make people laugh, and she used every asset to engross and entertain audiences.

Sarah: Josephine was a comedian. Sometimes she’d play like she didn’t know what she was doing, stumbling around, making a mess of the choreography, contorting her body and face; and then, suddenly, she would launch into perfect chorus line dancing, stunning the audience into furious applause and uproarious laughter. Sometimes she’d perform in blackface, like most of the great vaudeville actors of her time. Later she’d learn to sing, and emulate the drag queens who traveled with the variety acts she worked in. She was a quick learner, but more than that, she knew how to take choreography and bits and make them her own, bringing the crazy energy to them for which she was eventually famous.

Averill: At 15, she got her first real job. Clara Smith, a singer, took Baker under her wing, asked Bob Russell to hire Jo into his company. When the show left Saint Louis, Josephine Baker went with them. According to Jean Claude Baker, she left without telling her mother, but when her mother found out, Carrie Martin just said “She has chosen her path. Let her be.”[6]

Sarah: Jo traveled with the company first to Memphis, then to New Orleans. In Philadelphia, she met the man who would give her a new last name, and one upon which she’d build her empire. Billy Baker was handsome, not particularly talented or hard-working, but his parents owned a restaurant. Jo and Billy were married in New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia, because the marriage laws there were lax there and didn’t require that she provide proof of age. She lied, said she was 19 to his 23 (though she was still just 15), and started the second marriage of her young life. Billy’s dad grew very fond of Jo, and treated her like the daughter he’d never had. But even finding a loving father, a kind and good-looking husband, and some steady gigs working for the Russell group, it was never enough for Josephine Baker. She’d auditioned for Shuffle Along, a variety show, and was turned away because of her age. When she turned 16, the chance came to audition again. When she got the call, she left her new family in Philadelphia and went to follow her dreams.[7]

Averill: She auditioned in New Haven, CT, and got cast for the chorus line. In New York City, she rented a room from the Sheppard family, three of whom were also members of Shuffle Along. Jo and “Little Shep,” or Evelyn Sheppard, grew very close at that time.[8] The Sheppards were all good to Jo. She couldn’t write very well, but she wanted to send news home with money. So she gave half her weekly wages to Evelyn’s mother to send back to Josephine’s family in St. Louis.[9]

Sarah: By the time the show moved on to Boston in July 1922, Josephine was making a name for herself. One review proclaimed that “One of the chorus girls is without question the most limber lady of whatever hue the stage has yet disclosed…Her name may be printed somewhere in the program–if it is, I can’t find it–but it should be placed outside in lights. The knees of this phenomenon are without joints…the eyes of this gazelle also defy all known laws as they play hide-and-seek with the lady’s nose as goal. I’ve seen nothing funnier.”[10]

Averill: Another paper delighted in revealing the name of the “gazelle”: “The chorus girl who makes such a hit in Shuffle Along, that real jazz baby, is not mentioned in the Selwyn program, but if you can keep a little secret, we’ll divulge her name. She is Josephine Baker, Washington, DC is her native city. Her father was a prominent …lawyer.”[11]

Sarah: After Boston, Shuffle Along went to Chicago. Chicago, like many northern cities, had a substantial Black population in the 1920s. The Great Migration, starting in the 1910s and stretching into the 1970s, saw some six million Black Americans moving from the South into northern, midwestern, and western states to escape Jim Crow and seek economic opportunity. As historian Christopher Robert Reed demonstrates, Black citizens rapidly transformed Chicago into a “Black metropolis” in the 1920s. Because of a population boom facilitated by the Great Migration, the emergence of a large Black working class, and the expansion of Black churches throughout the city, Chicago fostered racial consciousness and solidarity, as well as a substantial Black professional class.[12] By 1920, there were 109,000 Black people in Chicago, and that number would double again by 1930.[13] Though Chicago’s response to the Harlem Renaissance would not develop until the 1930s, a few key artists – like sculptor Richmond Barthe and dancer/dance instructor Hazel Thompson Davis – were visionaries who established Chicago as a hub of creativity and intellectuality.[14]

Averill: A few years after Josephine Baker’s Chicago run in Shuffle Along, former chorus girl Vivienne Russell doled out advice to aspiring Black dancers through the Chicago Defender. Reaching out to those hopefuls, Vivienne wrote “Attention audience! Especially those of you that are commonly called stage struck” in the Chicago Defender’s Stage Page of November 7, 1925.[15] Vivienne claimed that she had “received a number of letters from girls and boys desirous of going upon the stage. I have answered them personally, however but not in detail. Hence this article ‘Stage Struck….[I want to assure you that] show business is a good business [if you have] plenty of grit,” but only “folks that are endowed with talent” should consider the entertainment industry, and that they should “fight for their place” on the stage amid a racially segregated entertainment system.[16] According to scholar Michelle Scott,“Black newspapers including the Baltimore Afro-American, Pittsburgh Courier, New York Amsterdam News, and Chicago Defender, often dedicated at least two pages (out of twenty) to national and local Black entertainment occurrences, from discussions of how blues singer Sarah Martin was a “hit in Baltimore” to laments of the separation of the “Crosby and Jackson” comedy team in San Diego.”[17]

Sarah: So the Chicago that Josephine stepped into was certainly on the rise, particularly in its fostering of Black creative talent. But it was also, like so many of the cities that both benefited from and chafed at Great Migration population booms, hostile to Black people. The city and its police force had been pushing vice – prostitution, gambling, etc – into Black neighborhoods since at least the 1890s. As historian Simon Balto points out, the Chicago Police Department established itself as unwilling to give aid to Black communities from very early on, and ultimately as an active hostile force against Black communities. As Black folks moved into white neighborhoods, seeking better living conditions, away from the taint of prostitution and other vices, whites lashed out, and the CPD did nothing. According to Balto, between 1917 and 1921, “white citizens and neighborhood associations bombed 58 homes, all of them belonging to black people moving to white areas.”[18] The CPD did little in response. And then, in July 1919 – two years after the East Saint Louis riots – racist violence exploded across Chicago, aided by the CPD. It started when a Black teenager and his friends sought refuge from an oppressively hot Chicago summer on the shores of Lake Michigan. He drifted over an invisible line dividing “Black” and “white” sides of the beach, and some white swimmers, outraged, threw rocks at the Black children. One struck Eugene Williams, and he drowned. The police refused to arrest the white man considered responsible for Williams’ death. The angry crowd turned riotous.

Averill: White mobs descended on Black communities, beating men, women, and children, destroying property, and wreaking havoc. Black folks armed themselves. The police joined in attacking Black men, claiming to want to disarm, but beating and killing unarmed people. For seven days the city raged. Finally the Illinois National Guard showed up, but by then 15 whites and 23 blacks were dead, with an additional 537 injured (195 white, 342 black). And of course, as in East Saint Louis, the cessation of gunfire and mob violence did not end racism or racial tension in Chicago. If anything, the growing Black population was resisted by white supremacists – and unfairly policed by the CPD – for the rest of the 20th century (and beyond). But, as Balto reminds us, “Chicago’s persistent strains of racism did not crush black freedom dreams, nor did they stem the influx of African Americans into the city.”[19]

Sarah: Though their show was built on the talent and labor of the Black performers, the producers of Shuffle Along were as racist as the cities they booked. The Chicago Star reported that the Olympic Theater, where Shuffle Along performed, “did not want colored patronage” and that the producers had intentionally not advertised in Black “and Jewish newspapers.”[20] The talent of Shuffle Along experienced various levels of discrimination in every US city they visited, as did those Black folks who might’ve wanted to see the popular variety show live. We can’t know how deeply this scandal, or the general tensions in Chicago or the other cities she performed in registered with Josephine Baker. But later in life, when she was more than just the “comedy chorus girl,” she would refuse to perform in venues that didn’t allow Black patrons, or that tried to make her use “Black only” entrances and restrooms. As a teen still trying to make it in show business, though, she had little power to challenge the Shuffle Along producers.

Averill: Perhaps the reappearance of Billy Baker was sufficient distraction from the city’s racist drawbacks. In Chicago Josephine was reunited with her husband, who’d been trying (and failing) to make it as a dancer. He was waiting tables at a popular club instead. Each night he’d wait for Josephine to finish at the Shuffle Along theater.

Sarah: Not that Josephine had been pining particularly hard for her husband. As Maude Russell, one of Baker’s dear friends and another chorus girl, said, Josephine had many intimate friendships with women in show business. The first was Clara Smith, a popular singer who took Josephine under her wing in 1920, and got Baker a place with her traveling show. Russell said that Josephine was “crazy about Evelyn Sheppard–Little Shep…I didn’t think she was gay, but she didn’t talk about those things.” Russell also said that “girls shared a room because of the cost… and girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers, but lesbians weren’t well accepted in show business, they were called bull dykes. I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call it today.”[21]

Averill: When Shuffle Along left Chicago in March 1923, it headed for St. Louis. Josephine and Billy Baker stayed behind. Though she’d sent money home for several years, and even brought Billy Baker to meet her family shortly after they were married, biographer Jean-Claude Baker notes that Josephine Baker preferred to leave the past behind her.[22] She invented histories for herself – like a lawyer father, Washington DC as a birthplace, stories of having her hands boiled in laundry water by a cruel employer – and slipped them into newspapers as well as the five autobiographies she published between 1927 and 1977. From the time she left home at 15 until her death, Josephine Baker was constantly cultivating and reinventing a persona for the public to consume.

Sarah: For whatever reason, she decided she couldn’t take her performer persona home. Maybe she was worried that Willie Wells would show up and make demands of her as his (un)lawfully wedded wife, or maybe she just didn’t relish the idea of spending the show’s run with her dysfunctional family. Whatever the reason, she didn’t join back up with the Shuffle Along company until they hit Atlantic City in June 1923. Billy didn’t go with her, and the two would never again be reunited.[23]

Averill: By the age of 18, Baker had been through 2 failed marriages. After Shuffle Along split up, Josephione stayed with two of the producers to perform in The Chocolate Dandies, a musical in two acts, which ran on Broadway between September 1, 1924 until November 22, 1924. In the New York Interstate Tattler, F.J. Accoe said that the Chocolate Dandies was “without doubt the most picturesque product that a colored company ever presented to Broadway, with the possible exception of Williams and Walker’s classical production Abyssinia [1906]; and it is not overstepping bounds in comparing its beautiful settings with the best that Broadway affords.”[24] After Dandies ended, Baker found work for another variety show or “revue,” and it was there that she was seen by Caroline Dudley Reagan, who wanted to capitalize on Europe’s fascination with exotic primitivism. Baker’s comedic performances, a sort of blackface pickaninny combined with chorus girl dance and slapstick follies, were a hit in New York. Reagan convinced Baker to join a group of dancers and musicians for La Revue Negre, to perform at the Theater des Champs-Elysees. Baker would be highlighted as the featured dancer.[25]

Sarah: La Revue Negra was intended to introduce Black American culture to France, but of course African American and African culture had been making its way to Europe for decades.  Traveling German musicians from the Pfalz area, for example, performed popular American songs from as early as the 1870s, which included a number with Afro-American influences, like cakewalks, twosteps, and rags. In that same region of Germany, artisans crafted musical instruments, and arranged and produced the music for piano rolls and metal-disc music boxes.

Averill: In the 1890s, there were strong motivations for African American performers to travel to Europe. The KKK, Jim Crow Laws, and economic turmoil made life difficult to black Americans in the Southern US. It was less dangerous to appear on stage or even in mixed-ethnicity couplings around Europe. There were a number of very successful married couples, like Dixy Davis, a white woman, and Yambo, a black man, who performed American style songs and dances for European audiences. Additionally, early European sound films featured black vaudeville acts. According to Mae Hendersen, dances like the cakewalk, blackbottom, and Charleston were introduced to France by Black performers before WW1. Black American entertainers and performers were featured in Le Nouveau Cirque as early as 1902.[26]

Sarah: Most European encounters with American jazz from the 1920s onward were through recordings. Britain and Germany hosted the major record companies of Europe, and American “jazz” was largely represented by now forgotten white performers such as Ed Kirkeby, Vincent Lopez, and Paul Whiteman. “Authentic” Black jazz performers were rare in Europe from the 1920s onward. So there was a strong heritage of cultural connection between Europeans and black Americans, facilitated through music before Josephine Baker set up shop in Europe, but her decades-long career and performance circuit there was still phenomenal and unusual.

Averill: The French, and most Europeans, were obsessed with African art, music, and culture, but significantly, their obsession was more with an imagined “African” product born of colonialism, rather than actual cultural artifacts. The “exotic primitivism” that was en vogue in Europe stemmed from the European perception of “Africans” – and by extension, African AMericans – as being closer to nature, children of nature, or, in other words, more primitive. Europeans perceived Africans as being more intimately connected to their bodies. Their ‘naturalness’ and ‘primitiveness’ was both childlike and sexy.

Sarah: In other words, the French exoticization of Blackness was reductionist – it reduced Black people’s value down to the color of their skin and shape of their bodies. American racism is also reductionist in all the same ways. Whether rooted in the legacies of racial slavery and white supremacy or colonialism and white supremacy, both ways of thinking were hierarchized, eugenic, and supremacist ideologies, presuming that skin color and body shape were the origin of art, culture, and identity.

Averill: Josephine Baker played on these presumptions. Just as she’d used blackface back in the US to entertain white audiences – turning a schtick traditionally associated with white men impersonating Black men to play on stereotypes – she invented a primitivist persona to play on European stage. Her “dance sauvage” was shocking and exhilarating to European audiences. She was an instant star in Paris. Poet and playwright e. e. cummings said she was a, “tall, vital, incomparably fluid nightmare which crossed its eyes and warped its limbs in a purely unearthly manner.”[27] Critics and fans described her movements as exotic, dangerous, physical, gangly, sexy, and funny. Her ability to tap into what would make audiences laugh on both continents, speaks to her comedic genius. And while some criticized her for playing into racist stereotypes, others applauded her for manipulating the colonial gaze and making a farce of the exotic “Other” trope that Europeans were so infatuated with. On stage, she performed topless, sometimes wearing only a few strategically placed feathers or bananas. Her performance was a caricature, but also sexy; she manipulated the gaze of her audience, but was still within the gaze.

Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance Costume | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: La Revue Negre ran for six weeks between October and November 1925. By 1926, she had her own headline at the Folies Bergère, where she debuted the banana dance that she’s most famous for. We’ll post the video of her dance on our blog, but you’re probably already at least somewhat familiar with Baker’s signature look and dance. She’s mostly naked, wearing nothing but a skirt made of bananas. She dances provocatively while sometimes comedically shaking her booty. This is the look and vibe that Beyonce Knowles paid tribute to on the 2006 Fashion Rocks live television broadcast.[28] The Parisians were entranced. It was a bewildering blend of comic and erotic, with movement and steps borrowed from ballet and the Charleston, as well as South American and Caribbean influences. It was a total fabrication, and exactly what the Europeans desired.

Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance

Averill: Race riots and massacres in the United States are representative of the tensions between white and Black Americans that persisted from the end of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction. I think we like to pretend that this was limited to the “South” — where Jim Crow laws reigned supreme and the Ku Klux Klan was celebrated as heroes of white supremacy. But in reality, segregation was formally and informally enforced throughout the US, and the legacy of the racial hierarchy that was the foundation of American slavery permeated life throughout the United States. Baker ran into those forces everywhere she went, from Philadelphia to NYC to Chicago. She fled the injustices of the US: “I ran away from home. I ran away from St. Louis. And then I ran away from the United States of America, because of that terror of discrimination, that horrible beast which paralyzes one’s very soul and body,” Baker said.

Sarah: Conversely, in Europe, slavery had ended decades earlier than the US. The abolition of slavery impacted some enterprising business men, those responsible for the capture, transportation, and sale of slaves in the Atlantic slave trade, but for the most part, the impact of the end of the slavery of black Africans was not as drastically felt in Europe as in the US and other slave states. As you’ll recall from our sugar and slavery episode, the sugar lobby – which was built on the backs of enslaved Africans – was pretty powerful in the United Kingdom. When slavery was finally abolished, the enslavers were compensated by the British government – rather than the formerly enslaved. But still, most of the day-to-day interactions between white Europeans and Black people happened away from the continent. Plantation slavery took place on Caribbean islands or distant colonies. There weren’t significant influxes of Black or even brown Europeans into the continent until the mid-20th century. There were always Black folks in Europe – Africa is, after all, just across the Mediterranean! – but continental Europe and the British isles weren’t (arguably) a ‘slave society’ like the US was, with large populations of people enslaved based on the fiction of bloodlines and skin color. Perhaps the distance between Black and white in Europe is why slavery was abolished so much earlier in most parts of western Europe than in the US, but also not particularly quickly. Slavery was, for example, abolished in France in 1794, only to be reneged on by Napoleon in 1802. He then abolished the slave trade in 1815, but slavery wasn’t finally abolished until 1848. Similarly the slave trade was abolished in the UK in 1807, but slavery wasn’t abolished until the 1830s. By the 1850s, though, all western European countries had declared their opposition to slavery.

Averill: So in someways, they had slightly less stakes, they didn’t see these populations of Black people every day, but that’s also a detriment, because  they didn’t see the suffering every day either. So they weren’t moved to action quicker. That’s the point I’m trying to make there. Not very ground breaking, but there you go.

While race riots and racially motivated massacres like the East Saint Louis riots in 1917 and the Tulsa massacre of “Black Wall Street” in 1921 shook American cities to their core, Europeans could not seem to get enough of Black American art, music, and entertainers. Maybe that is unsurprising, because the legacy and direct impact of slavery was very different in those two places. But that is not to say that a racial hierarchy did not continue to dominate Europe as much as the US — it just took a different trajectory.

Sarah: While lawmakers, non-governmental agencies, and individuals promoting the separation of the “races” carried on the legacy of the exclusion and oppression of Black population in America, blackness was not particularly visible in Europe. The dark-skinned population in any given European country was very small, and European contact with Blackness tended to be limited to colonial encounters.  For decades, centuries even, Europeans had been attempting to penetrate and dominate the African continent–and I think the sexual innuendo here is relevant, particularly because the sexual fascination with “Africanness” coincided with the eventual domination of Africa.

Averill: Throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th century, the Europeans, and particularly the British, shifted their colonial rule model from one of explicit exploitation and political dominance to a self-described humanitarian or philanthropic imperialism. In British colonies, locals were trained to be the administrators, school teachers, judges, and jailors. To some policy makers, British rule in colonial Africa was meant to prepare the native peoples for self governance. (As if they weren’t self governing themselves before the Europeans got there.) Europeans saw dark-skinned Africans and African-Americans as different–innately, irrevocably different–and they treated them like children, in need of protection and education, that they might grow up and become “Little Frenchmen” or “Little Englishmen.” This ideology was intertwined with the emergent eugenics movement, which functioned around an invented hierarchy of the races.

Sarah: Europe’s relationship to dark skinned peoples was an imperial one; a sexually-charged, paternalistic, racial ideology that was fully charged in the European obsession with Black performers like Josephine Baker.

Averill: Josephine Baker’s rise to fame was certainly located within the trend of the globalization of American culture; but we want to complicate that a little bit. After all, we’re focusing in this series on complexity! Many scholars have pointed out that Josephine Baker’s popularity was not just attached to her American-ness, but also to the fact that she tapped into Europe’s fascination with the exotic – and I don’t just mean that in a broad, generic way, but in the very specific way that they conceived of the meaning of the word “exotic” – relating to the “Orient,” meaning Asia and the Middle East, but also the Caribbean, and Africa.

Sarah: Baker entered Paris at a moment during the interwar period when France had a serious case of “Negrophilia,” what scholars called the French love of black culture. This wasn’t a movement to celebrate *real* Black culture, or to learn more about actual Black people or African people or African-American people, but rather a fetishization of a perceived Black culture that was filtered through the lens of colonialism. The French held colonies in the Caribbean, which were dominated by Africans brought by force through the Atlantic Slave trade, during the 17th and 18th centuries. They still hold some of these colonies, like the French Antilles, which includes islands like Guadeloupe and Martinique. They also had extensive colonies in Africa – including the French Congo in Equatorial Africa; Chad; Gabon; Ivory Coast; Benin; Sudan; Niger; Nigeria; Gambia; as well as territories in North Africa – probably the most famously French-influenced colonies because of movies like Casablanca – like Morocco, Algiera (Algiers), Tunisia. They also had colonies in Asia, in places like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka; and the Middle East, such as the area around Aleppo and Damascus in Syria, and Yemen.

Averill: Their understanding of the cultures of people of color, whether from Africa or Asia, was filtered through the lens of colonialism. The cultures of the colonized peoples were overly simplified in two separate but concurrent ways: they were denigrated for being uncivilized, backward, savage, barbaric, and inferior in ways determined by scientific racism; but aspects of those cultures were also appropriated and used in ways that highlighted the beautiful, colorful, and exotic.

Sarah: An example of this is paintings of artists like Paul Gaugin. Gaugin was a French post-impressionist painter who lived between 1848 and 1903; so just a bit before the height of Baker’s popularity. Gaugin was overwhelmed and disenchanted with the rapidly industrializing Europe, and seeking a reprieve,  traveled through the French colonies in the Caribbean, spending a great deal of time, for example, in Martinique and Tahiti. No small part of his desire to escape Europe had to do with what he perceived as sexual repression in France — he believed he would find a more sexually free culture in the tropics, which right there demonstrates some very old, very racist thinking about cultures in warmer climates populated with people (specifically women) of color. He travels to these places because he conceives of them as being more natural, more honest, more ‘authentic,’ than Europe. He was heavily influenced by the landscape and people of Tahiti, and spends a great deal of time painting the Tahitian landscape and people – but the images he creates are filtered through his European beliefs about the tropics and natives. For example, his paintings of Tahitian women are largely nudes, or semi-nudes. He believed that painting Tahitian women nude allowed the viewer to enjoy the erotic beauty of the female form without connotations of shame – because women of color, according to European and American assumptions, were inherently promiscuous. An example of this is his painting “Delightful Land”, also sometimes called the Tahitian Eve – he wrote that “To do something new, you have to go back to the beginning, to the childhood of humanity. My chosen Eve is almost an animal; that’s why she is chaste, although naked. All those Venuses exhibited at the Salon are indecent, odiously lubricious….”

Averill: This was the same culture that allowed Josephine Baker to become so famous: a blend of racism and fetishization of the exotic black body. Her most famous dance, The Banana Dance, exemplifies this. Baker climbs down a tree, not unlike a monkey, then shakes her hips very provocatively before a white man dressed in the stereotypical white explorer’s suit and pith helmet, surrounded by African servants, as comes for her.

Sarah: e. e. cummings saw the first performance of the banana dance and described it: “She enters through a dense electric twilight, walking backwards on hands and feet, legs and arms stiff, down a huge jungle tree—as a creature neither infrahuman nor superhuman but somehow both: a mysteriously unkillable Something, equally nonprimitive and uncivilized, or beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic.” Baker became an embodiment of Gaugin’s paintings, according to biographer Phyllis Rose, who wrote that the audiences at the Folies Bergere were “reenacting Gaugin’s escape from bourgeouis morality, his nurturing plunge into color. They were the explorers voyaging to the edge of civilization, encountering the savage, incorporating it into themselves by making love with a savage woman.”[29]

Averill: It was in Baker’s Other-ness, her connection to the ‘exotic’ that she became fair game in terms of sexual fantasy – it was inappropriate to objectify white women thus. The idea that the “other” enjoyed more sexual freedom was also strongly associated with other groups, particularly so-called “Oriental” cultures such the Middle East — as an example, American condom and other prophylactic wrappers used Middle Eastern imagery like the domes, arches and minarets of mosques; camels; even suggestive images of women with names like Salome, who in Christian traditions is a dangerous female seductress who was the daughter of King Herod, ruler of what is now the southern part of Palestine. (Judea). In other words, “exotic” places were more authentic – wild, untamed – (like the Eden in Gaugin) but the people were also – wild, untamed, and for women that meant more naturally sexual.

Sarah: As scholar Ylva Habel demonstrates, European reception of Baker varied, but was always couched in the same colonial/racist ideological foundation, whether it was positive or negative. In Stockholm, Sweden, for example, critics and supporters both use racialized language. Baker was described as being either a savage baring her breasts or a “child of nature” whose dancing can’t possibly be erotic.[30] The Swedes, like a lot of Europeans at the time, were obsessed with her blackness. On the stage, the darker tones of her skin were readily apparent, and Swedish journalists often referred to her as a “chocolate” or “cafe-au-lait” in coloring, which they celebrated. When she started making films, however, the celluloid washed her out and she appeared much lighter – a fact that critics almost always commented on and/or lamented. Notably in the US, darker skin was a disadvantage to performers, and in comparison to some Black women in show business at the time, Josephine Baker was quite brown. Her coloring was a point of contention in her family, because she was the only light-skinned child of the Martins. On the US stage, where directors gave priority to lighter skinned dancers and singers, Baker was advantaged. In Sweden, where the audiences craved darker skin in their entertainment, her coloring was more likely to be commented on than in the US. 

Averill: Baker may well have seen Europe’s racism for what it was. But she was not an “African” (and I am using that term loosely here; though  pan-Africanism was a mid-20th century concept, the average Igbo woman would have found little in common with a Kikuyu man in 1920). Instead of growing up under the shackles of European imperialism, she grew up in the midst of racial violence and the legacies of slavery. When Josephine arrived in Paris in the 1920s, France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, Norway, and other European countries did not yet have large African and Black American populations. They weren’t yet mishandling Black soldiers, as they would during and after WW2, or the waves of migrants who arrived to help rebuild Europe through citizenship laws like the UK’s 1948 British Nationality Act. Instead Europe, very much in the throes of the “Roaring Twenties,” was consuming American culture at an alarming rate, and was particularly enamored of Black American culture. Jazz music, the literature and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, and of course Black performers and intellectuals were treasured novelties. So if the condescending, primitivist, fetishizing terms that Europeans used when describing her rankled Josephine, she didn’t let it show.

Sarah: In France, she became known as the “Black Venus”. She was a fashion icon. On the stage she wore next to nothing, but off stage she wore an entirely different sort of costume. She sheathed herself in expensive furs, silks, leathers, and all manner of form-fitting but sumptuous fabrics. She dressed boldly because she wanted to be seen; even before she started to amass wealth, she spent what dance wages didn’t go back to her family on outrageous looks. At the height of her fame, she was the highest paid performer in the world. Ernest Hemingway (though we can take his opinions with a grain of salt, since he was a notorious misogynist and all around POS) called her the “most sensational woman he’d ever seen.”[31] By 1935, she had two films on the big screen – Princess Tam Tam and ZouZou – and a hit memoir in the bookstores. She “married” a “count” (though, as Time Magazine pointed out, a little “Research proved first that the count’s title was bogus, next that they were not married.”) She was a star. A decade after the premiere of La Revue Negre, Baker returned to the US with her Italian lover/manager, seeking to make the same kind of impact in America as she had in France.

Averill: She was booked to star in the Ziegfield Follies, but she was not the star in New York she’d been in Paris. In Paris, she had creative control; in ny she had to do and wear what the producers wanted. In Paris, she could go and stay where ever she liked; in Harlem, she couldn’t get a room at the hotels she wanted to stay in. And worse still, she encountered the particularly blistering rebuke of both American racism, and the rejection of the Black community of Harlem. One reporter wrote that Harlem was “laughing up its collective sleeve at the rebuffs Josephine has received in her attempts to crash bigtime Manhattan society because of her countess title. Shoulders cold enough to freeze a polar bear are reputed to have been turned in her direction. While Josephine ritzes her own people, she is in turn being ritzed by those she most wants to accept her.”[32] She got an even chillier reception in Boston. When the troupe moved to Philadelphia in January 1936, she retreated. According to the Philadelphia Tribute, “Joe Baker Hides from Town Where she made her start” and went on to say that “Although the artist…got her start in Philadelphia in the colored district, no one would have known it from the way she very friggidly ignored the existence of such a place. Attempts to contact her were fruitless…about the same time as the Ziegfeld Follies arrived in Philadelphia, there appeared an interview in which Miss Baker said that her father was Spanish, and her mother half Indian, which left the other half colored. This she said in denying that she was colored, or anything near colored… It might seem that in Europe where color isn’t the handicap it is here, Miss Baker does not mind being known as a Negro, but over here it is something else again. And who can blame her?”[33]

Sarah: Critics were not kind in their assessment of her performance. Brooks Atkinson said “After her cyclonic career abroad, Josephine Baker has become a celebrity who offers her presence instead of her talent… her singing voice is only a squeak in the dark and her dancing is only the pain of an artist. Miss Baker has refined her art until there is nothing left of it.” Percy Hammond commented that she “exhibits herself and her person…in African displays too exotic for me to talk about.” Burns Mantle suggested that her lackluster performance evidenced that “it just goes to prove that fifty million French press agents can be over-enthusiastic.” Even more harshly, a reviewer for Time magazine said that “In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type [read here: Black-loving] [a Black woman]… always has a head start, but to Manhattan theater goers last week she was just a slightly buck-toothed young …woman whose figure might be matched in any nightclub show, whose dancing and singing could be topped practically anywhere outside France.”[34] Like the Swedish reviewers, the New York theater reviewers were as fixated on her race as on her performance; to Josephine’s deep disappointment, though, New York and the United States was evidently unable to love her for the color of her skin.

Averill: Her manager/lover, Pepito, had left her in New York. He would die from cancer shortly after he got back to Paris. But in May 1936, she proved she didn’t need him. Paul Derval of the Folies-Bergere came to her, offered her a place in his next show, and she was able to negotiate her own contract. She returned to Paris, and set the America that could not or would not love her behind her.

Sarah: As Jean-Claude Baker illustrates in his biography of his “mother,” Josephine took many lovers. She had a lot of sex. With a lot of different people. Though she only officially pledged herself to five men, she said herself that she’d loved a thousand men.[35] In addition to the young and older women she had intimate relationships with while she was touring in the US as a teen, there were even (unsubstantiated) rumors that she had an affair with Frida Kahlo in 1939. But she never spoke openly about those relationships, and certainly didn’t self-identify as bisexual. Jean Claude Baker suggests that his “mother” was lonely and hated to sleep alone at night. She surrounded herself with people who loved her – intimately, or publicly – because it eased the ache of loneliness inside of her.

Averill: Time Magazine reported on Baker’s next legal marriage – and arguably one of her most important marriages – to Jean Lion. “Married in earnest was Josephine Baker last week to Jean Lion, wealthy French manufacturer and amateur aviator. Crevecoeur-le-Grand was chosen for the nuptials, the village mayor, six-foot Jammy Schmidt performing the ceremony.” He wasn’t, it would turn out, particularly wealthy, and ended up spending much of her fortune during their short marriage. But he was handsome and exciting, and she hoped to find happiness with him.

Sarah: She married Lion after Pepito Abatino died. Her marriage to Jean Lion was short-lived. They garnered a lot of attention from the press – they were two fabulously beautiful people, seen out at the races, at restaurants. But more importantly, through their marriage, Josephine became a French citizen. She claimed that she was retiring from show business to focus on building a family. She wouldn’t get that chance with Lion. She divorced him after she figured out he was spending all her money. And then marriage and the stage hardly mattered, because the National Socialists in Germany invaded Poland, and then France, and Josephine cultivated a new persona for the public: soldier and spy.

Averill: Baker joined the French Resistance and used her status as an international star to penetrate the upper echelons of Nazi circles. She traveled Europe, entertaining soldiers, and rubbing elbows with France’s enemies. She carried messages across closed borders, and collected intelligence. After the Allies won the war, Baker bought the Château des Milandes, married the French composer Jo Bouillon, and finally started the family she’d wanted for years. In 1957, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for military service.

Baker in her French Resistance uniform | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: By 1950, her celebrity – and war heroism – shifted in the US. Though she’d committed her life to fighting (and potentially dying, if she’d been caught) for France, she’d entertained American troops alongside the various European armies. She still wanted Americans to love her like the Parisians did. So she returned to the US, and took a firm stand against the doublespeak and outright racism of the American entertainment circuit. She refused to perform anywhere that Black patrons weren’t allowed and refused to be relegated to “coloreds only” entrances. She was denied a contract at 39 establishments across the US because of the terms she demanded. In 1951, she made a highly publicized stand when Manhattan’s Stork Club refused to serve her a steak. Before she walked out of the place, she called her lawyer, and the police. Her friend, Grace Kelly, walked out with her in solidarity. The NAACP picketed the Stork Club in response. Baker challenged journalist Walter Winchell, who was in the club that night, for condoning discrimination. He responded by printing in the newspaper that she harbored “Communist sympathies.”

Averill: Winchell’s suspicions of communist leanings were supported by a fan letter he received after his column about the firestorm incident at the Stork Club. The letter states that its author ran into Baker in a Leningrad club in June of 1936 where she was “surrounded by Red Commisars and French Reds & actually singing and drinking with them to her heart’s content.” The writer goes on to explain that she was quite a novelty in the USSR, being the “only colored person there” and that she seemed to have communist sympathies. Winchell also found an old article wherein Baker gave a positive review of prime minister Benito Mussolini but the article, and her words, dated from before 1935. This was before Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler’s Germany. He disregarded her work for the French Resistance during the war. Winchell forwarded the letter to the FBI which opened a case file on Baker on October 25, 1951. The FBI revoked her visa, and started one of their famous anti-communist files on her – that file is entirely online! We’ll link to it in our show notes.

Sarah: Her final public persona, then, was cultivated around her fight against racism. She was one of two women invited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, where she “pledged to use her ebbing flame to light a fire in them.” This visit to the U.S. shocked her. She had been treated as an equal to white Parisians for most of her life and strongly desired to achieve this same level of acceptance for people of color in the U.S. To this end, Baker represented French interest in the success of the American Civil Rights Movement, aligning herself with the NAACP, giving speeches in the U.S. about race relations in France, and donning her Free French uniform at the March on Washington in 1963.

Averill: While her intentions were probably genuine – after all, she experienced first-hand over and over the trauma and violence of American racism – there was still an element of spectacle to her anti-racism persona. She and her husband adopted 12 children from all over the world – what they called their “Rainbow Tribe” – in an effort to demonstrate, through their family, that racial harmony was possible. She’d wanted a family for years by then, and had struggled with reproductive health her entire life, suffering many miscarriages and eventually a hysterectomy. She was never able to have biological children. And Jean-Claude Baker does say that she loved those 12 adopted children like they were her own, so much that sometimes loving them brought her to tears.

Sarah: And yet, she turned their family home into a tourist destination. She dressed the children up in their “traditional” ethnic garb — often an imagined “traditional,” much like her own “African” performances. Château des Milandes included a wax museum with statues of her from various eras of her performing, and visitors were encouraged to observe her children at play. The children were: Akio (Korean), Janot (Japanese), Jari (Finnish), Luis (Colombian), Marianne and Brahim (North African), Moïse (Jewish French), Jean-Claude and Noël (French), Koffi (Ivory Coast), Mara (Venezuelan), and Stellina (Moroccan) had a range of memories.

Averill: Josephine went bankrupt, Jo Bouillon left her in massive debt, and in 1968 her castle was sold to the highest bidder. Her old friend, Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, helped find her a place to live. Baker went back to work to pay off her debts.

Sarah: Though she’d been banned from performing in the US during the McCarthyism period, she was able to perform there again in the early 1970s. In NYC in 1973 she came out on stage on a motorcycle wearing a white form-fitting leather pantsuit. According to biographer Phyllis Rose, the entire ensemble was explicitly marketed to an American gay audience.[36]

Averill: Like other rising stars of the period, Josephine Baker cultivated her stardom through spectacle, and by making a curated version of her private life public. She took walks with large exotic animals, she published details of her many love affairs in books and news stories, and she consciously displayed her multiracial family in an ‘experiment’ in racial harmonizing. Money was an essential element of her life and image. Most of the time she earned it herself, as through her best-selling memoirs, her makeup line, and her property investments; sometimes she acquired it through advantageous marriages.

Sarah: Her public persona was shored up by her memoirs. She co-authored at least five in her lifetime, and they included a lot of fabrication, as demonstrated by Jean-Claude Baker’s corrective biography. She spent her money on opulence. She bought fancy clothes, yes, but also maybe Marie Antoinette’s bed, and a hotel. Her public persona, so distinct but also inextricable from her stage persona, was a carefully designed image of chicness. She had all kinds of exotic pets, and her pets wore diamonds: Chiquita the cheetah; Chimpanzee named Ethel, Tomato the Horse, Kiki a snake, a tortoise, a parakeet, monkeys, pig, and more. On one occasion, Baker took Chiquita the Cheetah to the movies. She was loud, took up space, demanded respect even as she shook her literal and figurative ass at the world. She put her children on display for public consumption, and loved them as best she could.

Averill: Josephine Baker, like the France that she loved and the American she tried to save, was complicated. Black feminist scholar Birttney Cooper refers to the contradictions of Baker’s public persona as the “Emancipatory power of being problematic,” an expansion of the “politics of disrespectability.”[37] In the early 20th century, in order to be taken seriously and to fight for change in the US, Black women had to conform to white respectability politics. They couldn’t be too sexy, too loud, or take up space; both Black men and white folks demanded that they conform to a particular ideal of femininity. Respectability politics dominated early civil rights organizing, and middle class reformers carried those standards into working class Black homes in an effort to “lift up” the race. (PS – this is stuff that Elizabeth talks about in her forthcoming book, and will also feature in the book project she just won a HUGE fellowship for… we’re so proud of her!!)

Sarah: But Baker did not conform, did not make herself small, did not contort her body in any ways that she did not want to contort it. As Cooper argues, “A disrespectable black feminist embraces the ratchet, snaps respectable notions of black femininity, and celebrates the disturbance despite the potential for violent backlash.”[38] Though she wasn’t always prepared for the violence of white supremacy, she returned again and again to confront it. Though she sometimes leveraged the systems of white supremacy when they suited her – as in the ‘negriphilia’ of the European stage – she did her thing no matter who or how folks talked about her. She died surrounded by clippings of reviews of her performances. The good with the bad, right up until the very end. In other words, it’s complicated.

Averill: In this series, we’ve been talking about complexity. As we’ve mentioned before, this year we’re working through the “5 C’s of History” that Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke focused on in their 2007 essay for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives magazine, in which they discussed what it means to think historically. Complexity is one of the areas that Andrews and Burke suggest differentiates professional historians from the sort of average, untrained person (even those who sometimes self-identify as ‘historians’). Andrews and Burke write:

“Moral, epistemological, and causal complexity distinguish historical thinking from the conception of “history” held by many non-historians. Re-enacting battles and remembering names and dates require effort but not necessarily analytical rigor. … Chronicles distill intricate historical processes into a mere catalogue, while nostalgia conjures an uncomplicated golden age that saves us the trouble of having to think about the past. Our own need for order can obscure our understanding of how past worlds functioned and blind us to the ways in which myths of rosy pasts do political and cultural work in the present.”

Sarah: In other words, those trained in ‘historical thinking’ have to engage with the inconvenient bits of history: the messy, violent, confusing, contradictory, and off-putting, the nuances of a complicated past, shaped by complicated people. This is, I think, some of the most exciting work that historians can do. This is why “historiography” exists – because history is constantly being rewritten as we uncover and incorporate new sources – or perspectives – that ultimately complicate the previously accepted narratives of history. In Andrews and Burke’s words, “Making sense of a messy world that we cannot know directly, in contrast, is more confounding but also more rewarding.”

Averill: I think it’s funny, actually, when people say to me “oh I hated my history class in high school because I wasn’t good at remembering dates and names.” I can’t remember the last time I asked my students to be able to recall a specific date in a timed test. Because recall is not historical thinking. Being able to think through the complexity of historical moments is far more valuable. For example, how could France and Sweden have been enamored of Black culture and Josephine Baker but also be soaked in racist, colonial, and white supremacist ideologies? In a simplified history of Josephine Baker’s life, even the one she sometimes told in her autobiographies, or that others have told in their biographies of her, France accepted Josephine Baker “without hesitation” when the racist Americans could not. Without historical thinking, then, one might jump to the conclusion that Europe was not racist, and Bob’s your uncle. But hopefully we’ve communicated in this episode that things were not that simple – at all. And that’s true of every episode we’ve ever done on this podcast! If you go back through the catalog – even just focusing on the one’s for this year-long investigation into the “5 Cs of History” – it will not be hard to pick up on our efforts to demonstrate the complexity of the historical moments we narrativize for you. Sometimes we demur a bit and say “it’s complicated!” and offer some sources that can help you pick through that complexity yourselves. Sometimes we dig deep into just how complicated it really is.

Sarah: This is work that historians are doing at all levels, and we’re often in direct conflict with the simplified narratives that get more air time. There are entire television networks dedicated to history that don’t always do the work to engage in any of the 5 Cs of historical thinking, and certainly not complexity. For any of you tuned into the current conversations about what can or cannot be taught in primary and secondary schools in the US, you will be aware that there are right-wing politicians in this country seeking to eliminate complexity from curriculum, because teaching the complexity of the past – whether it be the founding of this country, the experiences of people of color on these lands, or the different ways that people can and have loved each other – means asking questions. Folks in power don’t want you to ask questions. They also don’t want you to trust people with expertise. And honestly, it’s hard to ask questions, and it’s hard to accept that the past was not as simple as we want it to have been.

Averill: So we’re thankful to all you listeners out there tuning in, seeking some complexity in your engagement with the past. I know we say it all the time on here, but you make this work (and sometimes, it is a serious slog) worth it. As long as you keep coming back, we’ll keep doing the work.

Sarah: Seriously, thank you for joining us today. As always, we invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad. If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, We realize that recent changes to curriculum in states like Florida and Texas will complicate being able to use our podcast episodes in the classroom, so please reach out if there’s something we can do to be helpful to you and your classroom. You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at


Josephine Baker – You’re Dead to Me

East St. Louis Riot

The Covert History of the American Condom

Paul Gaugin,” Tate Modern

Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, (Random House New York, 1993).

Peggy Caravantes, The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015) 151.

Luca Cerchiari, Laurent Cugny, and Franz Kerschbaumer, Eurojazzland (Boston: Northwestern University Press, 2012)

Ed. Mae G. Henderson and Charlene B. Register, The Josephine Baker Critical Reader

FBI Records: The Vault — Josephine Baker

Patrick O’Connor. “Josephine Baker.” American National Biography Online

Mary McAuliffe, When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s paris of hemingway, chanel, cocteau, cole porter, josephine baker, and their friends (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Incorporated, 2016)

Alan Schroeder and Heather Lehr Wagner, Josephine Baker: Entertainer (New York: Chelsea House, 2006)

Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).

Phyllis Rose, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, (DoubleDay, 1989).

Thomas J. Saunders,  “The Jazz Age,” A Companion to Europe 1900–1945. Martel, Gordon (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online.

Alicja Sowinska, “Dialects of the Banana Skirt: The Ambiguities of Josephine Baker’s Self-Representation,” Bodies: Physical and Abstract vol. 19, Fall 2005-Spring 2006

Jennifer Sweeney-Risko, “Fashionable ‘Formation’: Reclaiming the Sartorial Politics of Josephine Baker,” Australian Feminist Studies 2018, VOL. 33, NO. 98, 498–514

Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkleman, eds.. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Routledge, 2000).

[1] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 20-45. For Baker’s accounts of her childhood, see Marcel Sauvage & Josephine Baker, Les Memoires de Josephine Baker (1927); Sauvage and Baker, Voyages et Adventures de Josephine Baker (1931; Sauvage and Baker, Les Memoires de Josephine Baker (1949); Piet Worm and Josephine Baker, La Tribu Arc-en-Ciel (1957); and Josephine Baker and Jo Boullion, Josephine (1976) (English 1977).

[2] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 26-45.


[4] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 23-40.

[5] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 26-45.

[6] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 40.

[7] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 50-60.

[8] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 60.

[9] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 60.

[10] Quoted in Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 61.

[11] Full quote reads “prominent Negro lawyer” but I don’t like saying “Negro” or other terms that are today considered derogatory if I don’t have to. And in this case, I don’t have to. Quoted in Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 61.

[12] Christopher Robert Reed, The Rise of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, 1920-1929 (University of Illinois, 2011).

[13] Simon Balto, Occupied Territory : Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (University of North Carolina Press, 2019) 19.

[14] Clovis Semmes, Roots of the Black Chicago Renaissance: New Negro Writers, Artists, and Intellectuals, 1893-1930, (University of Illinois Press, 2020) 166-182, 183-204.

[15] Quoted in Michelle R. Scott, “To Help Enlighten Our People”:”People”: ‘Theater Folk’ and Stage’: Stage Advice Columns in the 1920s,” Lawrence Vol. 59, Iss. 3, (2020): 55-76,144.

[16] Quoted in  Scott, “To Help Enlighten Our People” 55.

[17] Scott, “To Help Enlighten Our People,” 55.

[18] Balto, Occupied Territory, 24.

[19] Balto, Occupied Territory, 19.

[20] Quoted in Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 64.

[21] Quoted in Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 62-64.

[22] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 40-65.

[23] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 68-69.

[24] “‘Chocolate Dandies’ is Scoring Heavily,” by Ferdinand J. Accoe, New York Interstate Tattler (weekly), September 28, 1924, p. 7.

[25] Mae G. Henderson, “Josephine Baker and La Revue Negre,” in The Josephine Baker Critical Reader (McFarland & Co, 2017) 67-80.

[26] Henderson, “Josephine Baker and La Revue Negre,” 77.

[27] Quoted in Joanne Dee Das, “Dance That “Suggested Nothing but Itself”: Josephine Baker and Abstraction,” Arts 2020, 9(1), 23

[28] Jennifer Sweeney-Risko, “Fashionable ‘Formation’: Reclaiming the Sartorial Politics of Josephine Baker,” AUSTRALIAN FEMINIST STUDIES 2018, VOL. 33, NO. 98, 498–514.

[29] Phyllis Rose, Naked at the Feast.

[30] Ylva Habel, “To Stockholm, with Love,” The Josephine Baker Critical Reader (McFarland & Co, 2017) 30-47.


[32] Quoted in Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 198.

[33] Quoted in Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 199.

[34] Quoted in Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, 203-204.

[35] Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Chapter 1.

[36] Phyllis Rose, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time (Doubleday, 1989) 250-253.

[37] Josephine Baker – You’re Dead to Me

[38] Jennifer Sweeney-Risko, “Fashionable ‘Formation’: Reclaiming the Sartorial Politics of

Josephine Baker,” AUSTRALIAN FEMINIST STUDIES 2018, VOL. 33, NO. 98, 498–514; 503.


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