Bare- Breasted and Cross-Eyed: Performance, Subversion, and Josephine Baker

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Happy Birthday, Josephine! Shrine to Josephine Baker installed at Material Life. New Orleans, 2016.

Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine MacDonald in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. She began her entertainment career as an American vaudeville performer. Broadway roles in Shuffle Along and Chocolate Dandies, led to an opportunity to go to Paris at nineteen, where she became a literal overnight sensation with her “Danse Sauvage” in the La Revue Negre, a ten week show featuring a compilation of performances by black entertainers crafted for European audiences. In this same period that blackness was being gazed upon, consumed, and reinterpreted by whites, a simultaneous counter and intra-racial conversation was taking place between Black people of the diaspora. It is important to consider the works of Black writers and performers of this time in the context of their positions as both the objects of white Modernist curiosity and the conscious subjects and creators of their own movements that would have long lasting resonance in their communities.

In the years following World War I, Western society would engage a cultural response that would come to be known as Modernism. A marked disillusionment with the bourgeoisie values of “civilized” society colored much of the artistic expression of this time. In the light of the intense violence and the growing cognizance of the harsh realities of urban life, the Western gaze began to look outward for cultural inspiration. In a rebellious shucking of Victorian nineteenth century “decency”, Modernist literature, art, and performance looked to cultures it considered primitive, closer to the earth, and free from the trappings of Western social mores. France can be seen as the epi-center of this hunger with its period of vogue nègre,in which French audiences, and artists and intellectuals of various nationalities, located in Paris, consumed all things black for the purposes of entertainment and artistic inspiration.

Josephine Baker is a performer from this period that epitomizes this dual location of subject and object like none other. She occupies a quintessentially Modernist position in her role as exotic object, yet also is undeniably Black, international, historically, and artistically significant. To examine Josephine Baker, one must master the double gaze, become “cross-eyed”, as Josephine frequently was in her act, and look in at oneself. You must be aware of the dual gazes of both the audience and the performer. To examine Josephine Baker we must consider not just what Paris audiences thought of her, but also what she thought of them.

Josephine Baker successfully tapped into the desires of the time by incorporating Black vernacular expression into her performances. Writer Philip A. Ward described white audiences’ fascination with Josephine’s dance. “Where European dancers showed the front, presenting the body as a unified line, Baker contrived to move different parts of her body to different rhythms…” (Cheng 194).  Josephine’s dance was one in which white audience members could be fascinated with, intrigued, and repelled by its difference relative to their own sensibilities.

Baker was the most photographed women of her time. Performing all over the world, in various incarnations of herself, it is still the image of her at the Follies Bergère Theatre in Paris, the site of her famous “Banana Dance”, that remains her most iconic. Fatou, as this stage character was known, with her bare breasts and skirt of bananas, occupies a dual space as subject and object. Entering the theatre by climbing, slithering, and sliding down a tree limb, Fatou creates an overtly colonial scene for her audience. Fatou encounters a dozing white man, who is unknowingly surrounded by not just Fatou, but other “African” men who play music for her. She teases him with her banana skirt and suggestive movement, but he is not successful at “catching” her; she is only “teasing” after all.

It is in this teasing that Josephine Baker becomes a dynamic figure that resists binary interpretation. It is clear from her own letters and biographers’ quotes attributed to her that Josephine Baker was quite aware of her audiences’ fantasies and expectations of her. She quite successfully played into their notions of the exotic, however staged. Parisian audiences were more than willing to embrace an American girl from St. Louis as “Fatou”, as some exotic jungle primitive, merely based on the notion that her brown skin kept her connected to something inherently wild within her. The racially perverse comedy in their envisioning Josephine as this otherworldly exotic, when she is, in fact, a girl from Missouri, speaks to the comedy present in Josephine’s act. Fatou quite literally shakes her ass at all of western’s society’s desires, beliefs, and fallacies about her. Watching Josephine dance her famous banana dance one does not have to search for these moments. There is a constant preforming for and talking back to her audience that occurs during her encounter with the white man in the jungle. Josephine’s breaks from her dance routine periodically to cross her eyes at the audience, or quickly shimmy her backside at them, both to make them laugh and mocking them for their sense of humor.

The iconic costume, the skirt of bananas, can be viewed as a physical manifestation of all the internal and externals contradictions and ambiguities that made Baker so intriguing for international audiences (Sowinska, “The Dialectics of the Banana Skirt”). The bananas served a dual function in Josephine’s act. They were obviously phallic. Baker teased her audience with her strategic manipulations of them. The bananas strung about her brown body are also undoubtedly minstrel- like in their appeal to white audiences. This beautiful black girl presented a safe journey into the land of miscegenation. Baker was an aware and willing architect of her image as the primitive bombshell. However, we can also see the confrontation and challenge present in her performance. Her dance is the challenge put forth to her audience. For all its “savagery” and “primitivism”, it is a skill not duplicable by her audience. This fact denies her as the butt of the joke. Josephine is funny but it is pretty explicit in her performance that she herself is not the joke.

French audiences were able to accept colonial fantasies and challenges through the body of a Black American woman (not one of their actual African colonial subjects) and Americans soothed the threat of black performers by being able to laugh at them, with the performers themselves being the joke of the show. This comforting element was missing in even Josephine’s most stereotypical character, Fatou. Her show ultimately alienated white Americans and prompted awful reviews of her tusk-like banana skirt in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies (Sowinska, “The Dialectics of the Banana Skirt”).

 In the light of the phallic nature of the banana skirt, even more aggressive when they are re-imagined as tusks for America, it’s clear to see that it is Josephine that holds all the phallic control. She teases and taunts the audience and her white stage mate. Josephine crafts herself as the savage master of ceremonies in this construction of black female sexuality. It is Josephine’s queer space between binaries that is key to understanding her place in history. It is this undefinable quality of her act that preserves the “wild girl’s” agency and resists categorization and pigeon-holing despite its forthright languishing in the tropes of exoticism and primitivism. Besides her sexually provocative costumes, Josephine also performed frequently in men’s clothing. Decidedly un-Hottentot in her physical appearance and in her ability to talk back to her audience, Josephine played with notions of androgyny (Sowinska, “The Dialectics of the Banana Skirt”). Slim and athletically built, Josephine’s body appealed to both genders and a cross-section of sexual orientations. Critic Theodor Lessing remarked, “She dances so primitively and so genderless that one doesn’t now if one is watching a girl or a lovely boy.” (Sowinska, “The Dialectics of the Banana Skirt”).

Josephine Baker’s life off stage stands as an interesting case of the duality that marks the lives and perceptions of Black women in the West. Josephine Baker was a star among whites for her play on the exotic and the erotic and became something of a community role model for her achievements off-stage. Even the morally conservative Crisis magazine embraced Baker’s accomplishments. Nudity and the beliefs of whites being secondary to the impact that of such a famous and well- received black woman had on both society and the psyche of Black people.

While Josephine achieved initial fame and success due to white people’s desire to consume black female sexuality, she used this success to further an activism she saw fit. It appears for Josephine that what she did initially on-stage to garner attention was less important than what she did with her fame. Her secret role as an agent of the French Resistance during World War II has been noted for its daring and brilliance. Baker’s refusal to play to segregated audiences and her battle with the U.S. press after being refused service in 1951 at the New York Stork Club cost her a true American career. The role of segregated Negro was one role that Josephine was unwilling to play for white consumption or entertainment. The ability to both engage and disassociate from the exotic and primitive stereotypes of the French was not present with the American audience. This brand of racism and fascism for Baker was not distant, exotic, or metaphorical. It was domestic, ugly and she wanted no part of it apparently.

Josephine Baker’s life  journey from Missouri, where she was born, to the stages of New York, to Paris, back to the United States and then to France, where she would die, coupled with the staged Africa of her performances and the real Africa of her descent, personified in one body, the journey black people have taken historically. Baker embodies this journey of Black people dually both in terms of their physical migrations, forced and voluntary, and in the popular imagination of Western Colonial and Imperialist culture. This meeting up of the dual space that black people occupy in terms of their own inner reality and their appraisal by dominant society in all their various locations around the globe embodies the reality of Diasporac experience.

Josephine Baker crafted a portrait of the global Black experience. Yet, her life ends with an interesting paradox when examining her from the inside of this experience. As she was beloved and made into a heroine of sorts in the Black community, she did have to leave it and remain estranged, at least by geographical distance, from its masses until her death to attain success. The decision to expatriate is an important one to consider. It is a question that remains relevant to the contemporary female black performer. What are the consequences for contemporary Black female entertainers that do not occupy the spaces designated for Black women in American pop culture? Many, just as Josephine did,  make their livings overseas.

Approaching Josephine Baker from this vantage point, one can decide that her “life”, the moment when she decides that she will have one, begins with the now archetypal “flight” of the black artist. This flight is taken in response to white supremacy and violence. It is a quest where the search for that “better place”, that freer place, where the real you can exist is paramount. It is Josephine’s witnessing of a race riot in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri that she credits with giving her the desire to travel, to find that freer place, where she could live un-inhibited by white violence. In this regard her quest for something better than the violence from which she comes and her response to it parallels and expands the white Modernist desire for escape of the status quo. Josephine, in her banana skirt, finds some new space within them as they conversely find something “primitive”, yet new, in her. In charting her course, moving to, and leaving behind the boundaries of the United States, Josephine Baker comes to represent the paradox of Black Modernist Expression. Just how does one move genuinely in their own vernacular, while being very aware of its potential appropriation and misunderstanding by the dominant society?

By playing to all the European fantasies and fears about Black female sexuality Josephine Baker was able to subvert the global position of Black femininity. She was the highest paid entertainer in Europe and a woman almost universally accepted as “beautiful.  Baker was from East St. Louis, Missouri where Black women occupied the bottom rungs of economic earning potential. The image of an obviously Black woman as beautiful in any media was literally unheard of. Josephine occupied an inherently subversive position to white supremacy, no matter what she did on stage. For these reasons she is remembered, at least within the Black community, more for her subversion of white supremacy with her success than the stereotypes of the primitive that made her a sensation. Josephine’s ability to embody travel, success, and boundary crossing, to occupy that queer, indefinable place of “freedom” in the imagination of Black people, is what makes her a dynamic figure. Her performances and her life live on and continue to complicate the simple notions of the white and western notions of who is “primitive” and who constitute the “civilized.”

 

 

 

Works Cited

Cheng, Anne Anlin. Second Skin: Josephine Baker & The Modern Surface.New York: Oxford                    University Press, 2011.

Sowinska, Alicja. “Dialectics of the Banana Skirt: The Ambiguities of Josephine Baker’s    Self -Representation”. Michigan Feminist Studies JournalSpecial Issue no19, “Bodies: Physical and Abstract”: 51-72. Web. Mar 2012. < http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.ark5583.0019.003>