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The St. Louis Woman Of Paris
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
The past keeps no secrets more securely than those of the stage. Little that happens behind the footlights survives for long in front of them, and the theatrical enthusiasms of one era invariably puzzle the next: Sarah Bernhardt, universally admired onstage for more than half a century, looks ludicrous sawing the air on the silent screen; recordings of Paul Robeson’s rumbling Othello are filled with sound and fury that now seem to us to signify mostly overacting.
Josephine Baker is a particularly puzzling case in point. Chasing a Rainbow: The Life of Josephine Baker , a British-made television documentary shown last spring on PBS, includes film clips of the kind of dancing that made this girl from a black St. Louis slum the queen of the Paris music hall. Slim and long-legged at nineteen, she races, bare-breasted, onto the stage of the Folies Bergère in 1926 and tears into the Charleston, knees bent, elbows flapping, feet stomping; she bumps and grinds and writhes and shimmies and, from time to time, puffs out her cheeks and crosses her eyes and grins into the camera.
The poet E. E. Cummings thought her an “incomparably fluid nightmare.” But the French, who have never been wholly reliable judges of American culture— they revere Jerry Lewis, after all—were genuinely undone by this frantically eager-to-please young performer whom they first called simply Joséphine. A critic called her “the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire,” and she was compared to a snake, a giraffe, a kangaroo; when she began to parade along the boulevards with a live cheetah, admirers speculated on which “animal” was more wonderfully savage, the one at the end of the leash or the one holding it.
The fact that Baker and the other members of the cast of the Revue Nègre , in which she first triumphed in Paris, grew up on gritty American streets and had never even seen Africa was cheerfully overlooked. “Their lips must have the taste of pickled watermelon, coconut, sweet pepper, and guava,” one critic assured his readers. “One sips in through the eyes the sweet saltiness of their perspiration, the sweat of a hamadryad bounding across jungles filled with poisonous flowers.”
“The white imagination,” Josephine once said, “sure is something when it comes to blacks,” and she was derisive when asked by a French reporter if she preferred black lovers to white ones: “ La peau! Pfftt! Nothing.” But the color of Baker’s own skin—and what it then symbolized for whites on both sides of the Atlantic—was very nearly everything at the start of her career, for better and for worse, and the most compelling parts of Phyllis Rose’s new biographical essay Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time (Double-day, $22.50) examine the strange workings of color that forced Josephine to serve “as a focus for decades of theorizing about race.”
To many Frenchmen, Rose writes, Caker’s tawny, writhing body was the old colonial dream made flesh—primitive, sensuous, abandoned, and, above all, exotic . “Compared with racism, exoticism is merely decorative and superficial. It doesn’t build death camps. It doesn’t exterminate. Exoticism cares mostly for its own amusement and tends to find differences of color amusing where racism finds them threatening. Exoticism is frivolous, hangs out at nightclubs, will pay anything to have the black singer or pianist sit at its table. Racism is like a poor kid who grew up needing someone to hurt. Exoticism grew up rich, and a little bored. The racist is hedged around by dangers, the exoticist by used-up toys.
“If one is to be treated as a thing, one would rather be treated as a rare and pretty thing than as a disgusting or dangerous one. But that is still to be treated as a thing.”
There was nothing remotely exotic about the girlhood Josephine fled for France, and being treated as a thing was nothing new to her. She was born in St. Louis in 1906, the daughter of a vaudeville drummer, who did not stick around long, and a would-be dancer, who blamed the baby’s arrival for driving him away and largely ignored her firstborn in favor of three younger children fathered by a second husband. Josephine wore shoes snipped from sacking, scavenged bits of coal from the railroad yards, and at the age of eight was farmed out to a white woman who forced her to sleep in the cellar with the dog and deliberately scalded the little girl’s hands when she used too much soap for the laundry. Josephine’s mother got her a new job right away, working for a woman whose husband tried to molest her.
It was clear to her early that she could rely on no one, that if she were to survive at all she would have to seize control of her own life. “There is no Santa Claus,” she resolved on her tenth Christmas. “I’m Santa Claus.” The following year she was a horrified witness to a race riot, watching as thousands of black refugees fled their burned-out homes, a searing memory that never left her. To pre-empt ridicule and mask her fear she began making the goofy faces that would one day delight Paris.
“That such a childhood produced an expatriate,” Rose writes, “is not surprising. What better response to the fear of exile than voluntary expatriation? They’ might drive you out of your home any minute, whether ‘they’ were your parents or rampaging white bigots.” Josephine left St. Louis at thirteen and rarely looked back; she worked in a bar, got married and divorced, danced for pennies in the street, and was married again—all by the time she was fourteen.