Shelved Dolls: Josephine Baker – Topless Dancing Ahead

And it did not go well.

I had always heard that her performances in America was lambasted, and wondered if that was perhaps because she was, understandably, nervous to be returning.

But then, I’d never read the New York Times Review. It said, “In France a Negro wench always has a head start” (this statement is insane) and then went on:

“To Manhattan theatergoers last week she was just another buck-toothed Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night-club show, and whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris.”

Critics almost universally complained when she performed the French cabaret songs that had made her famous rather than “Harlem songs.”

A reviewer from an Amsterdam paper was outraged by this condemnation and claimed, “Harlem should rally to the side of this courageous Negro woman. We should make her insults our insults.

America simply wasn’t ready for a black woman to be considered an object of intense desire, rather than someone out of a minstrel show. They probably also weren’t ready for her leopard leaping into the orchestra pit, the way people in France were prepared.

America during this period kind of sucked, you guys. 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.

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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


      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.

      • phillymiss

        She died broke.

    • …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.

    • phillymiss

      Not a fan — she fits the image of the highly sexualized “exotic” Negress and she was never very comfortable with her blackness. During the “Dance Sauvage” she actually climbed down a tree! What’s empowering about being a fetish for white men?