Expats: Le Tumulte Noir

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Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene.

Known as the “Black Pearl” and “Bronze Venus,” Josephine Baker, an African-American vaudeville entertainer, faced racist discrimination throughout her life in the United States but found unbridled success on stages across France and Europe. She even danced nude for integrated audiences during the boom of black American expats in Paris during the 1920s.

“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,” she once said. “I felt liberated in Paris.”

Born in 1906 to a washerwoman and vaudeville drummer, Baker began working when she was 8, first as a live-in domestic for a white family that reminded her not kiss their baby and burned her hands when she put too much soap in their laundry.

She dropped out of school five years later and lived in cardboard boxes in the slums of St. Louis, scavenging and performing on street corners for change until she caught the eye of producers who asked her to join the St. Louis Vaudeville Show. She eventually moved to New York and performed in Broadway revues at the Plantation Club during the Harlem Renaissance, becoming the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.

Before she even turned 20, Baker moved to Paris and made a name for herself in La Revue Nègre with her quirky charm and over-the-top comedy. She became a sensation with her kooky use of props, unleashing a diamond-collared leopard named Chiquita into the orchestra pit during performances and dancing with nothing on but a skirt made of 16 plastic bananas. “I wasn’t really naked,” she would say. “I simply didn’t have any clothes on.”

Finding a community in Paris among other black Americans, Baker felt freer in France than in the US. She remarked on her first time seeing the Eiffel Tower, “It looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what was the good of having the statue without the liberty? I preferred the Eiffel Tower, which made no promises.”

Baker returned to the States in 1935 to star in Ziegfeld Follies but was rejected by white American audiences who took offense to her level of sophistication. When TIME Magazine referred to her as a “negro wench,” she went back to Paris to stay. Baker married Frenchman Jean Lion, becoming a French citizen and renouncing her American citizenship “without difficulty.”

Baker returned to the US for certain occasions, including a memorable performance at Carnegie Hall that ended with a robust standing ovation, moving Baker to weep openly onstage. She passed away in her sleep at 68, just days after performing a retrospective of her five-decade career to a sold-out crowd at Paris’ Bombino Theater. In the biography, Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart, she described her art this way: “A violinist had a violin, a painter his palette. All I had was myself. I was the instrument that I must care for.”


Photo by French Walery.

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