A better world is possible
by Sheldon Weeks
Matthew Pratt Guterl (2014) "Joséphine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe". Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 250 pages, including 30 black and white photos, notes and index. Hardcover, US$26.95. ISBN 978-0-674-04755-6. Reviewed by Sheldon G. Weeks
Joséphine Baker is one of the famous African American women of the 20th Century. She rose out of the segregated slums of St Louis, Missouri, where she was born on the third of June 1906, to become a leading star at nineteen on the stage in Paris, France and around the world. She developed a multifaceted show that entertained and astounded. Baker, clad only in her banana skirt, became a sex symbol of the 1920s. She was immortalized in an abstract painting by Paul Colin in 1927, one of her many lovers. She also had a series of husbands. In 1931 at 25 she was "Queen of the Colonies" at the Expedition Coloniale Internationale.
Baker was befriended by heads of state, including President Charles De Gaulle of France and Juan Peron of Argentina. She spoke out against Jim Crow, American racism, and became an exile and a French citizen. During World War Two she sided with free France against the Nazi occupation. She spent most of the war in Morocco, where what really happened to her there remains obscure.
For her activities as a spy in support of the liberation of France she was awarded in 1961 a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour. But the Victory against tyranny in Europe and Asia had not led to freedom at home in the United States. The Cold War against communism made possible attacks against people by Congressmen and columnists and their labeling as Un-American, people called to testify before Congressional investigative committees. People who wanted "the walls of desegregation to come tumbling down" instead encountered a clamp down "on internal dissent".
When visiting the States Baker refused to perform before segregated audiences, even in the Deep South. In 1951 she personally confronted the onslaught of racism and anti-Communism when she organized a demonstration-walkout from the Stork Club in Manhattan (Grace Kelly joined her in leaving). Gossip Columnist Walter Winchell directed his poison pen at Baker. She was imprisoned in Cuba by dictator Batista, and later, after the revolution, a guest of Fidel Castro.
She was in Argentina for six months in 1952 and was inspired by Evita Peron’s activities to help orphans. Baker created the World Anti-Racial Discrimination Association with branches in South Africa, El Salvador, Cuba and the United States. Becoming more French than the French, she refrained from criticizing French excesses in their colonies, while continuing to speak out against racism in the United States.
Baker spoke at the famous March on Washington led by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr in August 1963. She stood firmly against racism, but also affirmed race, opposing trends pushing for assimilation as a solution to social problems and separation. She believed a better world was possible and first acquired her estate in southern France in 1949. In 1953 she launched her own experiment to prove it. Unable to have her own children, she adopted from the far corners of the globe a dozen children whom she ensconced as her Rainbow Tribe in a 15th Century castle in the Dordogne Valley, southern France that she renamed Les Milandes.
She declared that she would adopt children from around the world that were "red, yellow, white, and black". It is claimed she is the first African American to adopt white children. She set out with great enthusiasm to create her "Village of the World" and "Capital of Brotherhood". She gave lectures on "Why I Fight against Racism". In 1965 at Kwame Nkrumah’s invitation, she performed before the Organization of African Unity in Accra. When Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966 she offered Les Milandes as a sanctuary.
In the beginning she adopted only boys as a symbol that she was not endorsing interracial marriage. At the same time she believed that the end of racism would come through mixing. She saw the myth of Brasillian racial harmony as being due to blending -- "People will mingle more quickly and easily until racial purity gradually disappears. But I’d like to see that happen through love and not hate".
Baker turned her chateau grounds into a theme park, including a J-shaped swimming pool, a modern music hall, an outdoor Cuban theatre, a hotel, post office, a farm and children’s zoo rides and entertainment, tennis courts, and an old chapel. This venture required extensive resources and Baker performed worldwide to raise money for it. She delegated her financial management to others who took advantage of her, as did contractors, ripping her off for their benefit. She pronounced her experiment at Les Milandes a "success", yet in February 1968 her estate was sold. There are many videos on YouTube showing it today--look for the one featuring the current owner, Angélique de Saint Exupery (yes, related to the author of The Little Prince). Baker moved her family, at the invitation of Grace Kelly, to Monaco.
At 69, Joséphine Baker, in order to raise funds because she had gone deeply into debt staged a great revival in Paris of her famous shows. She died following the second performance on 12 April 1975. She is remembered as the woman who said, "I am very rich in my soul".
Matthew Pratt Guterl, a professor in African and American studies at Brown University in Rhode Island, has set out to retell Baker’s story, with the emphasis on the parts of her life either distorted, neglected, or fictionalized in her own autobiography with one of her husbands, Jo Bouillion, and in the many biographies that followed her death, and the multitude of articles written about her. Yet little has been written that considers fully her passion for a "symbolic adoptive family" and her "faith in utopian alternatives to an increasingly harsh reality".
In Joséphine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe Professor Guteri focusses on the dozen children Baker eventually adopted, including one girl. He confesses that he found this a much more difficult task than he had anticipated. Not only were there too many versions of Baker’s life and doings, but also those interlaced by her to create myths designed promote her as an entertainer. Her personal records were in chaos--the little that survived destruction. Many possible informants have died, while others who could have helped were not forthcoming, including some of the adopted children, now already elderly people. Koffi, who was from the Ivory Coast, is now involved in a Baker enterprise in New York City.
Guteri has one documentary film to his credit, Race: The Power of Illusion, and three previous academic books. His classic is The Color of Race in America--1900-1940 (2001). He also wrote, American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation (2008), and Seeking Race in Modern America (2013).
Guteri is keenly aware of the many other attempts to create so-called Rainbow Tribes. His well-written book, including detailed notes and an extensive index is strengthened by a comparative perspective. Guteri says that his commitment to the exploration of racism is based on his own personal experiences growing up as an adopted Black child in a home where his white parents wanted to have two of each "color-coded as white, black and yellow". His take on race as a child began with his being labelled at school, at six years old, by his classmates "Nigger Lips". By eleven he wanted plastic surgery, only to find on return to school that he was still "Nigger Lips".
(1,223 words) e-mail email@example.com
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.