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.