At age 19 she was offered a spot in an all black Paris company – the Revue Negre. Josephine reflected, “[I] was a girl who left St. Louis to come to Europe and to find freedom.”
And she did.
For the first time Josephine Baker was able to walk into any restaurant and eat there. The French were actually at a point where they embraced all things African. Okay, it was partly because they were colonizing Africa at the time, but it meant that Josephine was going to have a fantastic time.
The Revue Negre convinced her to perform in an erotic dance, supposedly done in an “African style” which simply meant Josephine would have to appear entirely nude. Well, not entirely. She had to wear a pink flamingo feather.
It was beyond a hit. The audience was dazzled. A critic wrote:
“Her lips are painted black, her skin is the color of a banana, her hair, already short, is stuck to her head as if made of caviar. Her voice is high-pitched, she shakes continually and her body slithers like a snake. The sound of the orchestra seems to come from her.”
I can’t imagine how – when nearly a hundred years later it is still considered scandalous to see people topless in their own homes - Josephine summoned the courage to perform that number. Apparently she wasn’t completely naive. When the producers told her they wanted her to perform, she responded that she would take the night to consider it. And then she decided to go ahead. How do you think she came to that decision? She was, after all, very young, and probably possessed a properly puritanical American system of values. Do you think she wanted to feel free?
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.