Josephine Baker: Entertainer and Mixed Race Children as “Rainbow Tribe”

Josephine Baker Tribe

Josephine Baker, in the post-World War II atmosphere in the United States, was one of the many African-American entertainers that was part of the exodus to France.  France was sought to be kinder and filled with more opportunities for Black people, and entertainers in particular, than the 1920s were in the US.

The world over, knows of her entertaining days and thinks of her as trailblazer and entertainer extraordinaire. However, how she entertained, was becoming out-of-favor, and a beginning to wane as something she could rely on.  At the same time, she became more focused on her mixed-race heritage and world political racial culture, and began adopting mixed-race children from around the world, in her quest for the ‘Rainbow tribe.’

She was quite close with Miki Sawada 澤田 美喜, who opened and became famous for her work in the Elizabeth Saunders Home for Mixed-Race Children in postwar Japan.  Josephine Baker adopted from Sawada, and others from around the world. 

Nowadays, especially in France, when her name is mentioned, some people chuckle, or look embarrassed, or frown. The reason for this is that she and her husband opened a chateau in France, to raise her “rainbow tribe.”  She had definite ideas on what her dream of the multicultural world would be, and that she could be that example–of bringing a ‘world’ of children together and raising them with love and strictness that would be emblematic of a global village. What made this disturbing, is that she charged admission for tourists and others, to come and see the villa, to see how she raised the children, and to watch them sing and dance for them as entertainment.

In retrospect, because of her waning career and retiring into the village with her children, she viewed this as both a teaching opportunity and a way to fulfill some sort of dream that she had, some sort of thinking process in relation to mixed-ness and the global village.  As those “rainbow” children grew older, this became impossible, untenable. It almost became a “joke” for the French public, and many others.

What sort of thoughts, or fantasies, really, did she have of mixed-race children? She did feel entitled to represent her fantasies through these children and the chateau and the money she made from their presence and her own work.

Nevertheless, this did present some interesting questions on power, the global village, resistance and assimilation, in a world that continues to make bodies and races and ethnicities, representations of something, always linked to larger socio-political cultural concerns and tactics  of positionality and difference, healing and empowerment, adjustment and ideas of love and society.

Here is a trailer and a short critical interview/review:

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