The Josephine Baker Story 
by Ean Wood.
Sanctuary, 327 pp., £16.99, September 2000, 1 86074 286 6
Show More
Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s 
by Petrine Archer-Straw.
Thames and Hudson, 200 pp., £14.95, September 2000, 0 500 28135 1
Show More
Show More

Travelling to Paris recently, I was surprised to see advertisements for ‘Joséphine Baker, Music-hall et paillettes’, an exhibition at the Espace Drouot-Montaigne commemorating the 75th anniversary of her electrifying Paris debut and the 25th anniversary of her death. With its pictures of Baker costumed and nude (and often both at the same time), with some fantastic outfits she actually wore and film of her dancing on stage, with snapshots of her among friends and admirers, the show recaptures the self-knowingly playful acrobatics and the heart-stopping clothed elegance of this unthreatening sexual being, a femme vitale but not fatale. How uncanny to find her exhibited in a space that normally serves as an auction house. Josephine Baker for sale: what is the continuing enthusiasm for this black American expatriate Parisian exotic dancer, and is one entitled to share it?

The three faces, the three bodies, of Josephine Baker appear together on the first page of photographs in The Josephine Baker Story. At the top, in blackface, she wears an infantilising gingham outfit: eyes crossed, lips exaggerated and legs akimbo, she is costumed for the Broadway show Chocolate Dandies, from which she was recruited for La Revue nègre in Paris. The second picture shows her in the Revue, performing ‘La Danse sauvage’: she writhes upside down on top of her black male partner, Joe Alex, her legs spread wide and her apparently naked crotch hidden only by his head. In the third picture, a glamorous Berlin studio portrait, her nudity is accentuated by the dangling necklace and white scarf that cover her trunk. Although these photographs all date from 1925, the year she became an international celebrity at the age of 19, they also chart the successive stages – blackface minstrelsy, African fantasy, cosmopolitan Modernism – that mark Baker’s journey from home, a ‘primitive little black girl’, as Paris Soir saw it, who was becoming a ‘great artist’. Or as Time magazine’s insulting review of her 1935 American tour put it, ‘a St Louis washerwoman’s daughter’ had ‘stepped out of a Negro burlesque show into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris’ thanks to the dubious tastes of ‘jaded Europeans’.

Two years after her triumph in La Revue nègre, Baker announced her marriage to a Roman count. She had actually formed a liaison with a Sicilian gigolo called Giuseppe Abatino, but although their marriage was as much of a sham as his title, Pepito protected her money, shaped her career and endured her affairs until his death a decade later. Josephine had by then metamorphosed into Joséphine, the empress of entertainment, allegedly the most highly paid performer in Europe and the richest black woman in the world. She had also become a Modernist enthusiasm. Among her fans were Picasso and Gertrude Stein, Cocteau and Le Corbusier (he imagined making her the star of a musical production in which she would evolve from monkey to modern woman), Kurt Weill and Max Reinhardt, E.E. Cummings and Janet Flanner, Sartre and de Beauvoir. Alexander Calder’s wire caricature of her (it seems to move on the page of Petrine Archer-Straw’s book) was the prototype for his subsequent mobiles.

‘I never saw anybody move the way she did. She was part kangaroo and part prizefighter. A woman made of rubber, a female Tarzan,’ wrote Paul Colin, who sketched her for La Revue nègre. Baker’s notorious horizontal movements were propelling her to the top of the world. Hers was the American dream, the assimilationist success story that (as Tylor Stovall argues in Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, 1996) black Americans between the wars could realise only by emigrating. ‘When the Statue of Liberty disappeared over the horizon, I knew I was free,’ Baker later wrote, fully aware that the huddled masses yearning to breathe free had (like the statue itself) made the crossing in the opposite direction.

A white mob had burned the black neighbourhood of East St Louis and murdered innumerable of its inhabitants less than ten years before Baker left the US in 1925, and she had certainly heard stories of the panicked flight across the Mississippi River bridge into St Louis, even if she did not witness the scenes herself, as she was later to claim. ‘The Negro has no rights whatever’ in the United States, she said in 1952, and when the US Immigration Department responded that she ‘would have to prove her right and worth’ if she ever wanted to return to her own country, her answer was: ‘To be barred from the United States is an honour.’ Nonetheless, on two subsequent occasions Baker came back in triumph. In 1963 she performed at Carnegie Hall and spoke from the platform during the March on Washington. (Ean Wood wonders if Langston Hughes, who knew Baker in Paris in the 1920s, had her in mind when he included the verse ‘Look at that gal shake that thing./We can’t all be Martin Luther King’ in the second edition of his anthology, The Poetry of the Negro; the lines were originally written for the first issue, in June 1960, of the Student Voice, organ of the Student Non-Violent Co-Ordinating Committee, by its editor Julian Bond, now chair of the NAACP. The Paris exhibition places side by side photographs of Baker and King on the March on Washington.) Baker reappeared at Carnegie Hall in 1973 to sing, among other numbers, Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’.

There is a fourth picture on the opening page of illustrations in The Josephine Baker Story. Taken in the 1950s, it shows Baker’s mother and sister with her nephew’s French wife and child in the Baker family château, Les Milandes. As well as bringing black St Louis to the French countryside, Baker had acquired what she called a ‘rainbow tribe’ of adopted children. At Les Milandes, which received nearly half a million tourists a year, she issued postage stamps and bought up village property in an effort to create her own peaceable kingdom. There, thanks to her hero Charles de Gaulle, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for her Resistance work transmitting military information to the Free French during World War Two. Les Milandes failed as an interracial utopia. By 1969 Baker’s enormous debts had caught up with her, and the final picture of The Josephine Baker Story shows her sitting alone outside the château door, evicted by its new owners. The contents of her pantry below her on the steps, she looks like a bag lady. But that was not the end of the Joséphine Baker story. She returned to the Paris stage for the 50th anniversary of La Revue nègre in 1975 and died later that year at 68 after the second performance of her acclaimed show Joséphine. It was a triumphant career, honoured by a full-scale military funeral, and yet it was contaminated at every major turn.

Begin with blackface, a deeply contentious subject which has recently been in the news again. The reason on this occasion is Spike Lee’s brilliantly corrosive satire, Bamboozled. Pressed to improve the ratings of the network at which he is the only black staff writer, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) comes up with the idea of reviving blackface minstrelsy. Although he imagines that the racist stereotypes of shuffling, lazy, nonsense-talking Negroes will discredit the form, his white boss, his white writers, and his black and white audiences all love it. As viewers black up, as Delacroix is flooded with Mammy and Sambo dolls and the other paraphernalia of mass-produced racist folk art, as the blackface performances of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Amos ‘n’ Andy and their fellows flash across the screen, Bamboozled exposes the burnt-cork roots of contemporary American entertainment.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times responded with illustrated features dismissing Bamboozled and celebrating the Mammy singer Al Jolson. Although both papers have a self-discrediting, self-protective stake in the history of US mass culture, which they exercised at Lee’s expense, Bamboozled offers no easy alternative. In using minstrelsy against itself, Lee leaves no black role in the world of white entertainment unmarked by burnt cork.

Minstrelsy originated as a white way of approaching and appropriating black entertainment that allowed varying mixtures of mockery and envy, ecstasy and contempt. By the late 19th century, burnt cork had not only taken over black vaudeville, but had also become the ticket of admission for the very few African Americans who appeared in white shows. When Shuffle Along unprecedentedly brought black chorus girls to Broadway, the exaggerated comic clumsiness of a blacked-up Josephine Baker ridiculed the precision act and disrupted the assembly line. Chorus lines offered up interchangeable girl mannekins for male pleasure and Baker was throwing sand in the gears. Her grotesque excess seized control of the spectacle. In keeping with the theatrical taboo on depictions of black romance for white audiences, however (white supremacy could not countenance black grown-ups with adult emotions), the price was desexualised self-ridicule.

Like Shuffle Along, Chocolate Dandies mixed blackface denigration with modern black performance styles and jazz dancing, but now a newly sexual Baker crossed the burnt-cork line, vamping the blackface male comics in one number after joining their minstrel antics in another. Had she remained in the US, she might have risen to the position of Ethel Waters (originally offered La Revue nègre role) who, before falling into Mammy motion picture parts, was the one glamorous black woman permitted to perform for whites. Instead, she graduated from minstrel fantasies of black Americans to Parisian fantasies of Africa.

‘No more bars to beat against,’ Joel Augustus Rogers wrote, comparing the experience of his fellow African American expatriates in interwar Paris to canaries released from their cages. He was reporting back to a Jim Crow country that had prohibited the black American soldiers who fought in France from marching (along with their white American and black French and British counterparts) in the 1919 Bastille Day victory parade. Many returning black veterans were targets of the 1919 race riots in Chicago, Tulsa and other cities, but those who stayed in Paris mingled freely with whites in ways unimaginable in the United States. Some attended the 1919 Paris meeting of the Pan-African Congress along with W.E.B. Du Bois: for black Americans living in Paris, as for the Harlem Renaissance figures who visited during the 1920s, the route to an anti-colonial, diasporic African identity, however entangled with the imperial imagination, lay through the city of light.

Maybe Paris released black men from jail, but when Paul Colin sketched Josephine Baker for La Revue nègre, he placed her in a cage. At least this explosive feline figure, ‘Josephine behind Bars’, has a modern elegance absent from Colin’s ‘monkey-like dancing girls’, another caricature in his album, Le Tumulte noir, with its extraordinary mixture of blackface stereotype, African savagery, Cubist-inflected urbanity and what Rosalind Krauss has called black art deco. African primitivism was already revitalising Parisian high culture. Josephine Baker, Le Tumulte noir and La Revue nègre decisively extended the revolution to popular entertainment.

Whether in fine art, Surrealist ethnology or mass culture, negrophilia did no favours to Africa or to its diaspora, Petrine Archer-Straw argues, because it ripped African artefacts from their cultural contexts and replaced actual African peoples with white fantasies about them. Negrophilia is packed with revelatory, disturbing illustrations; Archer-Straw has little time either for Man Ray’s 1926 photographic series Noire et blanche (Kiki of Montparnasse’s head alongside an African mask) or for the much attacked 1984 Museum of Modern Art Primitivism exhibition, which juxtaposed modern painting and sculpture with African prototypes and parallels. Yet unlike blackface those photographs and that show honour the originals, the influence, the association. The real black woman, Josephine Baker behind bars, was constrained by (free) associations that pushed together black/savage/ female sexuality.

For her first, comic, blackface-derived entrance in La Revue nègre – I quote from Phyllis Rose’s 1989 biography, Jazz Cleopatra – Baker ‘looked more like an animal than a human being, a weird cross between a kangaroo, a bicyclist and a machine gun’. She transformed herself into a sexual animal for ‘La Danse sauvage’, where the focus was less on her naked breasts, to quote Rose again, than on her ‘hips, stomach and rump’. When excited observers compared her movements to those of animals (‘some say a panther, some say a snake, a giraffe, a kangaroo’), when they salivated over ‘her rear end sticking out’ (‘it moved at incredible speeds and seemed to take on a life of its own’), should we be thinking of earthbound African dance and of the place of animals in African and African American vernacular performance? Or is the more accurate association Archer-Straw’s, moving from Baker’s rear end to that of Sarah Baartmann, exhibited as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, and to a white imaginary that reduced Africans and African Americans to animals, children and creatures of concupiscence? When Baker acquired her own menagerie, when she walked the streets of Paris with a cheetah, was she playing to white fantasies or playing with them?

Pan-Africanists, like the negrophiliac Surrealists and sousréalistes (Michel Leiris, Georges Bataille and the Documents group), deployed Africa against the imperial metropole, but Baker was being put to the opposite use. She was picked as queen of the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, whose display of native peoples made Paris the gateway to Africa. As Phyllis Rose writes, the exhibition advertised the raw materials, and Baker furnished the sex. Although protests that she was neither African nor French forced the invitation to Baker to be rescinded, she nonetheless represented the ‘living body’ with which France must ‘enter into relations’, in a French West African administrator’s metaphor about the dark continent, ‘if we are to govern it with full knowledge of what we are doing’. In Paris qui remue, timed to coincide with the Colonial Exhibition, Baker performed a series of what Tylor Stovall calls ‘colonialist sexual fantasy skits’. She played native girls from the Empire in love with dashing young Frenchmen – a role Baker and Pepito had anticipated in their novel, My Blood in Your Veins, where the heroine’s blood transfusions save a white man’s life. She would repeat it in her variant of Offenbach’s La Créole and in her films of 1933 and 1934, Zou-Zou (opposite Jean Gabin) and Princesse Tam-Tam (which gives its name to a Paris lingerie shop). The films deprive Baker of both intelligent self-awareness and spontaneity, confining her to exaggerated primitivism. Camera cuts chop up her dancing body, rarely giving her the freedom simply to move on her own. Songs allow her more authority, but it comes at a price: after Zou-Zou saves Jean from a murder charge and he goes off with her best friend, she swings from the perch of a birdcage in the final shot of the film, singing behind the bars.

The theatre produced a different effect, according to all reports. Even where spectacles sacrificed Baker to the male metropole, she triumphed in her performances. Like the Parisian negrophiliacs, moreover, she was using ideas of African savagery to create a new identity. Paris qui remue introduced what became her signature song, ‘J’ai deux amours’. She sang it every night during the 481 performances of the show, and tens of thousands more times for the rest of her life. Not only did the number entertain French and American troops in North Africa: it also supported Baker’s spying activities by providing cover for her underground work and – as sheet music – the paper on which she recorded the information she and her comrades collected. As a member of the French Resistance would later explain, ‘The destiny of our Allies and consequently the Free French was written in part over the pages of “J’ai deux amours”.’ The song leads off the double album of Baker chansons issued to honour the 50th anniversary of La Revue nègre; it constitutes her appearance (alongside Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Mireille, Damia, Lys Gauty, Ray Ventura and his Collegians, and two dozen others) on the three-record set commemorating the music of ‘les années folles’, Paris between the wars.

The ‘mon pays’ of Paris qui remue originally suggested equatorial Africa (‘ma savane est belle’), with Paris as the dream city she would never see. But from her home in Paris over the next four decades the singer’s ‘country’ shifted from the French colonies back to the United States. The conjunction of the two loves, ‘Mon pays et Paris’, lent itself to universalisation, moreover, since in French it could conjure up both the capital and one’s native region, and ‘J’ai deux amours’ also marked Baker’s transformation from primitive African into Parisian chanteuse. ‘Not all Negroes have to jump around as though they were monkeys or African savages,’ she would insist on her 1935 American tour, as if she were not talking about her own performing self in films released over the previous two years. The poignancy would come to reside neither in the split between Africa and Paris nor in the appropriation of the former by the latter, but rather in Baker’s deracination, for although in performance she sometimes turned ‘Mon pays et Paris’ into ‘Mon pays c’est Paris,’ this happy ending was shadowed by her separation from the extraordinary African American achievements that fell under the expansive rubric of jazz, which blossomed in her absence and left no mark on her art. In repudiating what she called ‘coloured Mammy, back to Alabammy songs’ and blackface, Baker had not turned into Pierre Delacroix, Spike Lee’s rootless black entertainment executive. Called ‘De La’ in the film, a name surely meant to evoke black nostalgia for France, he seems to come from no ‘pays’, whereas she remained a citizen of Paris. Still, Baker had lost something more than burnt cork. And although for a time she tried to supplement ‘J’ai deux amours’ with ‘Dans mon village’, it was not Les Milandes that secured her a new identity but her persona in the eyes of her beholders. As she put it in 1931, the year she first recorded ‘J’ai deux amours’, ‘the white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks.’ She knew this because it made her career.

Ean Wood steers clear of that territory (the territory of Negrophilia) in what remains, for all its intelligent reliability, a show business biography. Phyllis Rose, by contrast, was entirely aware of her own implication in the Joséphine Baker fantasy. Coming to Baker by way of ‘the French infatuation with black America’, Rose’s cathexis centred on Baker’s dancing body parts, especially that rump. And as the writer came to understand the hard work and self-withholding underneath Baker’s bravado and apparent spontaneity, she only felt closer to the performer. For my companion and myself, dividing our time as much as we can between notre pays et Paris, ‘J’ai deux amours’ has always been the hook. A few years ago I was lecturing in St Louis while my friend, whose father came from East St Louis, was in Paris. Hearing Baker singing our song on the soundtrack of the ‘Ragtime to Rock and Roll’ exhibition at the Missouri Historical Society, I made a transatlantic phone call from the museum. Adding coincidence to coincidence, my friend had seen for sale that very day one of the rare photographs of Baker that was not a familiar publicity shot. Taken c.1935, it shows an elegant woman recognisable as Baker seated in a Paris café, a small band in the background and a French child on her lap. After my phone call my companion bought the picture. The suitcase carrying it was stolen a few days later on the way to the airport, and despite our applying to all its cherished objects Baudelaire’s line about having ‘perdu ce qui ne se retrouve jamais, jamais’ (the stanza begins ‘Je pense à la négresse’), Joséphine Baker came back. For, some months after the robbery, a fax informed us that the identical shot had reappeared in the shop on the rue des Francs-Bourgeois. It hangs on the wall as I write.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 23 No. 5 · 8 March 2001

The ‘March on Washington’ photos mentioned by Michael Rogin (LRB, 22 February) are of Josephine Baker and Martin Luther King – not, as we had it, of Julian Bond.

Editor, ‘London Review’

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences