Hips that Changed History

If you are going to indulge earnestly in a Mid-Life Crisis, Scotland is not a bad place to do it. An American expat cancer survivor (who credits her survival to drag queens and Dobermans), Victoria currently lives in Glasgow with her rock star of a husband. Her research and writings focus on inherited narratives and their impact on identity development. She is a lover of dogs, cigars, books, fine dining, beach houses, traveling, art, music, and Netflix.  Victoria’s pet peeves are seahorse birdbaths, cypress clocks, and velvet paintings of Elvis.

“Oh, you young people act like old men. You are no fun.”

Allegedly, these were Josephine Baker’s last words. Which makes me love her even more. There is very little about her life that does not speak to me. She was the ultimate ex-pat.

Josephine Baker was born a black woman in a country that told her she had very little value. To be a woman meant you had limited options in life. To be a black woman meant those options were full of back-breaking work, inhumane treatment, and degrading segregation. Dreaming was a life-risking business. She watched her mother lather, rinse, repeat, hang, fold, and iron her dreams of being a music hall dancer into the laundry of wealthy whites. These same whites of the Midwest employed her to babysit, but always made sure that she knew her place.

Her Missouri said it had changed (then), but has it (even now)?  The blackness of 1906 “be sure not to kiss the baby” bubbles just under the 2016 surface, ready to ignite into Ferguson riots.

At thirteen years old, she left home for a job in a theater, honing both her dancing, and comedy skills in clubs and street performances. Shuffle Along made her a chorus girl and she moved to New York City, where she appeared on stage with Ethel Waters. Chocolate Dandies made her as popular as a black female entertainer could be, shaking her hips with belly-dancer finesse and crossing her eyes to make the audience giggle. She was the unflappable stage presence and physicality of all five Marx brothers rolled into one sexy, singing, swinging diva. But New York was still America, and she couldn’t be truly adored where she was a second class creature with a separate water fountain.

Josephine found her tribe in France and found her adoration there, rising to unprecedented fame. She lived in as all colours of the rainbow and spent money on shoes and exotic pets. I shall name my next rescue dog Chiquita in homage to her pet leopard. Her with the powerful hips and Danse-Sauvage-turned-Ziegfeld-Follies.

First in Germany and then Paris, welcomed by diversity, enveloped in the European passion for Jazz, Josephine achieved stardom. Sixteen bananas got her the attention of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and E.E. Cummings, who affectionately called her a “Black Pearl.” More than one thousand marriages proposals. Tens of thousands of fan letters. Her fame and wealth, expanded on recordings of her singing performances, purchased an estate in Castelnaud-Fayrac, where she moved her family.  Good-bye St. Louis.  Hello Les Milandes.

She danced in nothing but feathers. I shall endeavor to wear on at least one fancy dress occasion a skirt composed of bananas. She was beloved for her talents, yes, but more so for her sense of self and sense of humor, both worn like battle armor, and polished in equal measures.

She was driven out by Hitler’s party of nationalism and moral policing but not before her sexuality and celebration of life was cemented, virtually worshipped in Europe. She would not be erased, not be unseen by the newspapers and propaganda that sought to demonize her because of the color of her skin and the particulars of her performance. The Reich could remove her, but never erase her. She used her fame to work for the French Resistance and the Red Cross during WWII, giving hope to injured soldiers and smuggling important communiques in her cleavage and in her sheet music. She used her brilliant smile and the poise of the stage to conceal her dangerous missions.

An original warrior, Josephine broke the boundaries of race and prejudice, adopting a rainbow of children along the way, all in defiance of the country that birthed her, that shamed her, that, much too late in the game (and in her life) owned and honored her.

Venerated in Paris where restaurants and hotels knew no segregation, she was booed from the stage in New York, even following on the heels of a war whose roots were those of fear and hatred.  She thought the Americans would have learned. But her native country threw racist slurs onto her while the French showered her with military honors. She became obsessed with her ‘Rainbow Tribe’ working to strip the power from prejudice with love and the collection of happy children. She became embittered by that battle. But she was never broken. Never broken.

I live abroad now, an American born like Baker, once proud but now frightened and ashamed at so much of what I see happening there. From afar, it has a distinct flavor on the palate, a chalky feeling with a metallic after taste that smacks of something rotten or suspect. Like rotting pumpkins before you move them.  Or New Coke.

I live in relative peace in a country that voted against xenophobia, but my visa expiry date looms like that of the sour cream in my fridge; I hope it can be stretched one more day or two, but since it’s sour, how will I know exactly? I wonder when I go – if I go – if my country, my tribe will embrace me? Who among us is privileged to know such adoration? America remains a land of horror and beauty, often in equal measures. More than 400 thousand children there live in foster care. Heart-breaking. Rights for the LGBTQ community have been legalized and, better yet, normalized. Beautiful. Change is possible if we use our voices. Josephine may have been denied admission to New York’s Stork Club, but she received with open arms next to Martin Luther King, behind the podium in Washington. She used her voice to champion the Hope in the World.

There is nothing so boring (or as dangerous) as young people (young women, young warriors) who act like old men, said Josephine. They are no fun because they do not embrace the joys in life that surround them if they would only take the time to look. They have inherited limited imaginations and stifled potential and small dark hearts that see only twisted perverted joys. It is the duty of the dangerous woman to confront the injustice she sees in the world.

Josephine lived life out loud, an enviable feat for any woman. Of any color. In any time. And she met the world on her own terms. She adjusted her sails and tacked into the winds of change. She served Humanity evert chance she could, whether it be evading Nazis or battling racism. She moved through the currents with costume jewelry and class, moving those hips to the rhythm of change. She called the crowd at Washington DC “salt and pepper, as it ought to be.” What will it look like in in 2017? In 2023? Without risk, there is no joy. We must march again. And again.

There is a call for organized protesting of the New Elite Regime that threatens all women of America today. Threatens to legislate their bodies, to re-establish them as separate and unworthy, to break their spirits, to damn what is seen as dangerous. I will march. I will be heard. I will not let the inspiration of Josephine, that ‘Black Venus’ with the feather headdress atop an indomitable spirit, be forgotten.

Women who do not live dangerously are not worth knowing. We are all worth knowing.

Shall you visit my grave in Monaco and say a prayer for me?


Sources & places for further reading:

  • Rose, P. (1989). Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time. Vintage.
  • Jules-Rosette, B. (2007). Josephine Baker in art and life: the icon and the image. University of Illinois Press.
  • Baker, J. C., & Chase, C. (1993). Josephine: the hungry heart. Rowman & Littlefield.