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Somewhere Over the Rainbow: remembering the banane femme on Josephine Baker Day

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Many years have passed since the death of Josephine Baker, and the charismatic Broadway chorus-girl turned Parisian music-hall legend, actress, comedian and French fashion icon is still widely remembered for her many achievements. Josephine was, amongst other things: a theatrical genius, a talented musician and extraordinary dancer, a humanitarian and civil rights campaigner, a message courier for the French Resistance during World War II, and the first African American entertainer to break through the ‘colour barrier’ in both Europe and America. She was courted by Hemmingway, painted by Picasso, Henri Laurens and Rouault, sculpted by Alexander Calder, and was the most photographed woman of her time. Josephine was also, perhaps most incredibly, a single mother to the twelve adopted children who comprised her multi-racial and multi-religious Rainbow Tribe family.Gyrating across the stage energetically to the mad unearthly rhythms of the jazz band accompanying her, naked but for a short skirt made of pink ostrich figures, her dark skin glistens under the stage lights, glowing terracotta-mahogany. The eyes of the audience follow her every hip-sway, sashay, gyrate and slide. She pauses briefly every so often to peer cheekily over her shoulder, her short pixie hair-cut emphasising her impish grin…

Josephine Baker was born Freda McDonald in the ghetto slums of St Louis, Missouri in 1906 to a washerwoman mother and vaudeville drummer father. A descendent of Apalachee Indians and black slaves on her mother’s side, and of Spanish and African origin on her father’s, she was an eleven-year-old witness to the violent East St Louis race-riots of 1917, and survived the extreme poverty of her early years by cleaning and child-minding for well-to-do white families.

Baker’s theatrical career began when she toured the United states with The Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers in 1919, and she went on to become a Broadway performer when she was elevated from costume girl to member of the chorus line in the hit black musical Shuffle Along, which played to sell-out audiences in New York, Boston and Chicago during the mid-1900’s. Josephine’s entertainment career continued with a role in The Chocolate Dandies in 1925, and a stint at The Plantation club in New York, however it was when her dance performance in la Revue Negre, an all-black jazz extravaganza, took her to Paris, that Josephine Baker’s career skyrocketed. Her signature performance was an energetic dance accompanied by a live jazz band. The dance was mid-way between the Charleston and the tango, performed naked, but for a short skirt comprised entirely of bananas or flamingo feathers and imbued with burlesque elements.

The racial integration of Parisian society provided an excellent back-drop for her blossoming career, and by 1927 Josephine could command a higher fee than any entertainer in Europe for her performances. She starred in two movies in the early 1930’s and, during World War II, performed for troops as well as utilising her celebrity travel privileges to smuggle messages for the French Resistance disguised in invisible ink on her music sheets.

Josephine’s performance career scaled dizzying heights and depressing lows as did her personal life. She was highly regarded, idolised and pampered in Paris, yet poorly received, negatively reviewed and ill-treated when she returned to the stage briefly in America in the mid 1930’s. She had passionate love affairs, yet married and divorced four times in her life. She experienced the extravagances untold wealth can bring, but she also suffered financial ruin. She retired from the stage several times, but made her final spectacular stage comeback several days before her death at the age 68 from a stroke.

Said to have suffered several miscarriages during her life, Josephine declared on many occasions her adoration for children. Her ideals of brotherhood and racial harmony were demonstrated throughout her life and career (she defiantly refused to perform before segregated audiences and The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People named May 20 Josephine Baker Day for her civil rights efforts), but no more so than in 1953 at the age of forty-seven, when she began adopting infants from different ethnic and religious backgrounds with the view to raise them together as a demonstration to the world of racial harmony. Over the next ten years, she was to adopt twelve children in total.

Akio and Janot were adopted in 1953 during a trip to Japan. Juri, (of Finnish descent), Luis (from Bogotá), Jeane Claude and Moise (of French and French-Hebrew origin respectively), were adopted in 1954-5 during Josephine’s farewell tour of Europe. In 1956 came Brahim and Marianne, who were found huddled together in the chaotic aftermath of an air-raid during the Algerian war. Koffi, Josephine’s ninth child, was adopted from the Ivory Coast in 1957, and was followed two years later by Mara (from South America). Around Christmas in 1959, Josephine read a story in a Parisian newspaper about an infant found in a dust-bin by a local tramp. She contacted the hospital and arranged to adopt the infant, naming him Noel. The last child of Josephine Baker, Stellina, was adopted in the mid-1960’s.

Josephine’s intention was to retire from show-business in order to focus on her children. Married to Jo Boullion during her adoption of the first six children in her Rainbow Tribe, as she referred to it, the family resided in France at the Château of Les Milandes, her grand country estate. These early years at home with her children are often described by those who knew Josephine as the happiest and most peaceful of her tumultuous life.

Having the legendary Josephine Baker as a mother had it’s pitfalls and it’s advantages. Though they were spared lives of extreme poverty and introduced to a new world of opportunity and abundance, the children of the Rainbow Tribe were on permanent public display. Although dedicated to her children, Josephine was driven by her desire to demonstrate the viability of racial harmony, and she viewed her family as a social experiment in brotherhood. Openly encouraging visitors to the home, she advertised the château and her children in glossy brochures as a tourist attraction.

Josephine’s property was luxuriously renovated in order to attract a constant stream of visitors. The former charter-house of the estate was converted into a hotel which she named the Chartreuse des Milandes. The hotel boasted bedrooms decoratively dedicated to famous historical and literary Frenchwomen, and the other rooms were designed in the styles of different countries to further emphasise the idea of brotherhood and racial harmony. The main house included a night-club, where Josephine sometimes performed, and a wax-work museum depicting scenes from her life. In the 1950’s, over 300 000 people a year visited the Château, and visitors were encouraged to pay an entrance fee to enter the gardens and see the children at play.

Josephine’s adult children continue to maintain that, despite their unconventional upbringing and relatively sheltered daily lives, growing up as a member of Baker’s Rainbow Tribe was essentially a happy and positive experience full of mystery and wonder. Josephine’s children travelled the world: calling Fidel Castro uncle, when they were introduced to him in Cuba, and attending the funeral of Robert Kennedy, who was a close friend of Josephine’s.

In the mid to late 1950’s, then a mother of six, the financial strain of divorce was the catalyst for Baker’s return to the stage. Though she continued to adopt children, doting on them when she was at home and often taking one or more of them along to her international engagements, the primary care of the Rainbow Tribe was delegated to a team of nurses, governesses and tutors.

Though the actual day to day routine of the children more resembled that of a boarding school, at the height of the public fascination with her Rainbow Tribe, Les Milandes was portrayed as an idyllic paradise by the French press. Josephine was often invited to lecture on her ideas of universal brotherhood and named Ambassadress for Unicef. Retrospectively however, the risk of the psychological strain her brotherhood experiment had on the young members of her family has been widely criticised and her detachment from daily life at the château in favour of her return to the stage has been condemned as escapism rather than financial necessity.

Josephine struggled through the 1950’s and 60’s as the single mother of twelve children, and in 1968, financial trouble forced her to sell the château and its contents. The majority of her children were then boarding during term time at various Parisian schools, but the estate had continued to be the centre of their family life. Four years prior to the sale of the property, having received a significant sum of money after Brigitte Bardot’s television appeal for donations to save the Josephine from financial ruin, Josephine had made the decision to set up a fund to protect her children financially, rather than save their home. In the statement Baker released to the press in conjunction with the sale of her home, she declared, ‘My children have proved that our ideal of brotherhood has succeeded. I have found peace in mind and in spirit and I am even more convinced that I am on the right road toward human dignity and unity and the symbol that my children represent is not only right, but a necessity for the future and for those who believe that it is possible. So, I have no more money, but what has that got to do with our ideals? When I die, I cannot take it with me in any case.

Josephine Baker was black and white, French and American, performer and politician. Her performance career ended as spectacularly as it begun: strutting the stage to sold-out audiences in Europe at the age of 68, in costumes which included an outfit designed with turquoise ostrich feathers accompanied by four-inch heels, a Brazilian carnival dress, a motorcycle outfit and a sequinned body-stocking, with a repertoire which included numbers by Sissle and Blake, Kern and Porter, and Gershwin. Josephine was the only woman of American birth ever given a state funeral in France, and thousands lined the streets en route to the Madeleine to celebrate her life.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

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