• Tue, Sep 25 2012

Shelved Dolls: Josephine Baker – Topless Dancing Ahead

When she was 13, race riots swept through St. Louis. That was around the same time Josephine married to Willie Baker, and the same time that she began to dance in vaudeville.

The vaudeville circuit at the time wasn’t the way you think of the theater today. This wasn’t something people dressed up to attend; it was before movies were popular, and at a time when people needed a cheap form of entertainment. There would often be a tent set up in a hollow, which is where Josephine started performing.

The audiences – often tired out, using their small disposable income to watch the show – were famously difficult. However, if they loved you, they really loved you.

And, oh, audiences loved Josephine Baker. By 1921 she was in New York – a much, much better place to be than Missouri. The Harlem Renaissance was just beginning, and all black shows like Shuffle Along, which Josephine Baker had a role in, were becoming popular. However – in a super weird twist – African American performers at the time often wore blackface to be better accepted by white audiences. It wasn’t because they wanted to seem like they were somehow “in on the joke” (a weird, twisted, race-riot-y joke? As though they thought black people were hilarious caricatures of people?). It was because, if they “blacked up,” then white audiences would often assume they were white.

The audience might also have assumed the performers were white as most of the chorus girls were selected because they looked “almost white.” The African American performers in vaudeville were largely very light skinned, and Josephine’s naturally darker skin was considered a significant deficit. (She wore white face powder when she auditioned for Shuffle Along). She made up for her complexion by being a great dancer – one reviewer said that “her legs have no bones” – and having a terrific sense of comic timing. Her bit in the show revolved around her coming onstage, acting as though she had forgotten her part and then, over the course of the number, seeming to master it, and finally performing it better than any of the other girls with additional kicks and cartwheels. It was a standard gag in black vaudeville, but Josephine made it hers.

Remember – performers would (weirdly) be doing the act either entirely covered in white powder or in blackface.

It was completely okay to be a white person dancing like a black person, it just wasn’t okay to be an actual black person.

This seems so confusing to me that it makes total sense when Josephine decided to go to Paris.

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  • Celia

    I LOVE JOSEPHINE BAKER. Seriously. She is the most wonderful, graceful, warm, intelligent, talented woman to have ever walked the earth. Thank you so much for posting about her!

  • LCT

    One of the most beautiful things I’ve read in a very long time. What an amazing woman! I think I need to buy a biography or two.

    And I’m off to make a poster of that quote of hers about skin color.

  • Celia

    Just a sidenote, you did Eva Peron who wasn’t white as well.

    • Annie

      There are only three anthropological classifications of race (Caucasoid, Mongoloid anf Negroid). You can be one, or a combination of two or all three. Eva Peron was white (Caucasoid). Her socio-linguistic group was Hispanic/Latin.

      Back on subject, I love the Shelved Dolls series. This was the perfect way to write about Josephine Baker.

    • Celia

      Please, there are clearly more than three race classifications in use in the USA. Just look at any government form.

  • BeccaTheCyborg

    Beautiful.

    Josephine Baker will forever be the most inspiring, brave, stunning, talented, brilliant woman. I feel like she’s one of the better arguments made in favour of humans.

  • Jaclyn

    Fantastic Shelved Doll!! I love this series. I’d buy the book…hint, hint.

  • MR

    Is this a good time to say we’re all happy you didn’t do that Nazi, Eva? :)

  • Sara Wagner

    This has been my favorite installment of Shelved Dolls yet. I had never heard of Josephine Baker before today, now I think she might be one of my heros. She’s so charismatic! and funny! and athletic! From now on whenever I hear someone making the outrageous claim that funny and beautiful can’t go together in a woman, I will post a video of Josephine Baker.

  • Cate

    I have loved Josephine Baker for years and years now, but I never knew she had pet rabbits. for some reason this small fact makes me love her even more.

    I wish I could time-travel back to 1927 and we could have playdates with our rabbits and drink champagne and eat the bananas that her skirt was conveniently made out of. It would be so fun.

  • Chelsea

    Before I go on reading this… you’ve got Addy f***ed up. She is awesome. I feel like since I had the doll and all the books, I have to defend her.

  • ScienceGeek

    I am in awe. I mean, I’d heard of her, I knew she’d achieved fame as a dancer when being black was practically a crime, but I had no idea she was so amazing.
    Thank you.

  • Elwar

    “I believe she probably just liked the fact that for the first time in her 19 years, her black skin was considered something erotic and beautiful, and not something ugly, to be ashamed of and covered up.”

    My favorite line. Cuts right to the heart of all that crazy stuff about feminism and the black female body. So many feelings are in that line. Thank you.

  • Katrina

    Jennifer, you really outdid yourself on this one! Well done!

  • Sharron

    “I know certain politicians talk a lot about the “good old days” but I am not sure if this is what they’re referring to.”

    I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what they’re referring to. A time when it was okay to hate and hate freely. When they didn’t feel like their “supremacy” was being challenged.

    Nice article, btw.

  • julia

    a beautiful woman who led a beautiful life.

  • Renee

    “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak to one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

    Damn. Perfectly expressed. Josephine Baker gets added to the list of awesome women I admire. I hadn’t really known anything about her before, so this was delightful.

    Can’t help but ask, based on previous Shelved Dolls articles, did she have ANY dirty secrets? Cause she sounds pretty perfect. “Fight the Nazis! Adopt a dozen children! Be a sex symbol!” What else could you want? Warrior, mother, lover, artist…damn.

  • …erg…

    She did some great things, yes, but she also had some MAJOR personality flaws. She was also kind of batshit insane, not to mention a spoiled brat. Her kids had some major issues with her, she seemed to think of them more as a collection of symbols than actual people. She allowed people to tour the chateau and peer at them like they were animals in a zoo. She dragged a long-time friend through the mud all over the media for years because she had to wait a while for her table at his restaurant on a very busy night. I am just not a fan. I’m a fan of the good things she’s done, sure, and I’m not making light of those things, but there’s just a lot more to her as a person than this somewhat one-dimensional image.

  • Whitney

    Hmmm…while I don’t think this essay or any of the Shelved Dolls essays are particularly well written I am glad that this one about Josephine was written. It has given me an inspiration to research more into her history.