Before Madonna and Mia Farrow...
The prologue to Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe includes a grand promise that would’ve made Baker herself grin with anticipation: “Set aside everything you think you know about Josephine Baker. Put the banana skirt out of your mind, at least for a little while. Don’t think of her as an apolitical stage performer sitting in a cage dressed as a peacock or walking her cheetah on a leash. And put down what you remember about the civil rights movement. Imagine that Josephine Baker, nestled in the French countryside, is every once in a while at the very center of that movement. Prepare as well to be reintroduced to one of the most universally inventive, if strangely iconoclastic, theorists of antiracism, a woman who in private was mercurial and impulsive, demanding obedience from the small boys and girls she fashioned.”
With such an introduction, it’s almost impossible not to root for the story that will then be told by Matthew Pratt Guterl in his look at one of the most enigmatic icons of the 20th century.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, Baker dropped out of school at age 13 when she decided to become a performer and pursue the kind of glamorous career that back then was only imagined by white girls. After performing in New York vaudeville she migrated to Paris where she would finally find a place to call home. A place where she was welcomed despite the color of her skin, a place where she was allowed to be a star and regarded for her talents.
With her exaggerated sensuality and exuberant features, Baker became an icon of post-racial idealism in a world in which the concepts were still largely foreign and seemingly unachievable. She was a prophet away from her home country and the usual narrative would make us believe that she strived during her whole life to make it back to the land that once denied her all her basic rights.
Guterl however, suggests that the narrative we know about Baker serves only a fairy tale version of a life that was highly politicized and minutiously strategized. Baker wasn’t simply a celebrity, she was a self anointed Queen, who figured out how to give the public exactly what it wanted long before it heard about the Madonnas, Lady Gagas and Beyoncés that would come later.
Going back to her exotic performances—the banana skirt is the first thing that comes to mind—Guterl explains that “each performance required a lengthy summary, a forensic tabulation of the languages and cultures and peoples represented. Only when this melange was held together, seen all together, was there a hint of a subversive point of view.” With her groundbreaking use of multiculturalism and multiple languages Baker teased the world with sexuality, when she was really commenting on colonialism and criticizing it, while those she criticized praised her and lavished her with jewels and flowers.
If the first part of the book points out the frivolous and calculating in her personality, the second part concentrates on what would become her most important project, the title “Rainbow Tribe”, a group of multiracial children Baker and her husband adopted from all over the world, with the intention of creating the first truly global community in their French chateau. Often compared to the “It’s a Small World” ride in Disneyland, Guterl points out how Baker attempted something that would later become normal amongst the likes of celebrities like Mia Farrow and Angelina Jolie, but while modern celebrities seem to concentrate on the traits of motherhood, Baker saw everything with the eye of a businesswoman; she would give these children the love she wasn’t able to give to the biological children she could never bear, but she also wanted to teach the world a lesson.
Guterl smartly paints for us the historical context under which Baker attempted to nurture her Rainbow Tribe, and the book is informative without being trashy or gossipy. In fact, he allows himself to be highly critical of Baker’s methods, without ever really being accusatory. Instead what we perceive is that he is as fascinated by his subject as she was with the issues she became obsessed with.
More than being a historical book or a biography, Guterl attempts to solve the puzzle of this woman who wore “white furs and Dior” while trying to remove racism from a country where she wasn’t loved, how she tried to fight Jim Crow from atop her luxurious penthouses and how even after death, she was surrounded by an aura of contradiction. (She died in practical poverty, yet her body spent considerable months in Princess Grace’s palace in Monaco.)
Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe is a great read that transports us to a time and place that seem so distant, but whose repercussions are present more now than ever before. Baker’s “interracial experiment” set a precedent that history has curiously neglected, leading us to see her for the true visionary she was. It’s impossible to read this book and not imagine Baker smiling approvingly, getting ready to surprise us with her latest idea.