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Baker, Josephine (1906-1975)  
 
page: 1  2  

As part of her crusade against racism--and because she was unable to conceive children herself--Baker and Bouillon adopted what she called her "Rainbow Tribe" of twelve children from different parts of the world.

Ever vigilant on behalf of her own self-interest, Baker expected the children to play their part in the evolving image of selfless advocate for international peace and harmony she wanted to project, so she put them on display for the world to see at her and Bouillon's home in southern France, a château named Les Milandes. The children were also the glue that held the marriage contract with Bouillon in place long after all emotional intimacy had departed the relationship.

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Baker's early success owed much to the intense sexuality she projected in her performances--her most famous costume being a belt of bananas and little else. Known as "The Black Venus," she reveled in her seductiveness onstage and off, and her sexual conquests among men were legendary.

What she kept carefully hidden from her adoring public were her many sexual liaisons with women, which continued from adolescence to the end of her life. Among the better known of her lesbian lovers were Clara Smith, a black blues singer who secured Baker her first job as a chorus girl, and in Europe fellow black American expatriate performer Bricktop (Ada Smith), French novelist Colette, and (if Julie Taymor's 2002 movie Frida is to be believed) Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

As she grew older and her sex appeal waned, Baker perfected a campy "drag queen" style of performance, complete with heavy makeup, glitter, extravagant gowns, and a unique way of moving onstage that would later be called "voguing."

She may have kept her lesbian affairs secret from her public, but onstage she radiated such a energy that by the end of her career most of her faithful audience consisted of gay men.

Following her death on April 10, 1975, in Paris from a cerebral hemorrhage, three funerals were held, one in Paris and two in Monaco, attended by much of the French government and entertainment elite. At the behest of long-time benefactor Princess Grace, she was buried in Monaco.

Although Josephine Baker lived well into the post-Stonewall era of gay liberation, she never acknowledged publicly being lesbian or bisexual, nor did she openly support glbtq civil rights. Indeed, according to her biographer Jean-Claude Baker, who knew her well over many years, she could on occasion display a real streak of .

Nevertheless, throughout her career Baker challenged restrictive sexual mores, helping to rewrite the rules of acceptable public sexual behavior. And along with a few other entertainers in the early twentieth century whose behavior onstage and sometimes off many found scandalous--Mae West especially comes to mind--she was a forerunner of the sexual liberation movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century and that led directly to the glbtq movement as we know it today.

Lester Q. Strong

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   Related Entries
  
literature >> Overview:  African-American Literature: Lesbian

Most African-American lesbian literature is as concerned with racism as it is with sexuality, causing many writers to construct Afrocentric sexual identities that affirm the power of black women.

arts >> Overview:  Cabarets and Revues

Historically, cabarets and revues have been much more likely to mention or imply same-sex desire than the "legitimate" theater; and same-sex desire has been less frequently condemned in cabarets and revues than in mainstream plays.

arts >> Overview:  Dance

Artistic dance has proven to be a haven for glbtq people, who have made significant contributions in almost every area, including as choreographers, performers, and teachers.

arts >> Overview:  Film

Since cinema began, Hollywood has been fascinated with finding ways of representing homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Popular

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons have had tremendous influence on popular music, though some musical genres have been more receptive to a homosexual presence than others.

arts >> Overview:  Musical Theater and Film

The musical has been a significant aspect of American gay male culture, manifesting itself both in diva worship and, more recently, in the presentation of openly gay characters and shows written by gay writers primarily for gay audiences.

arts >> Overview:  Variety and Vaudeville

Variety and vaudeville and related theatrical forms featured cross-dressed acts, as well as routines that challenged prevailing gender constructions.

literature >> Colette

One of France's most beloved authors, Colette wrote novels with strong lesbian subtexts.

literature >> Hemingway, Ernest

Ernest Hemingway, himself sexually insecure, included negative, even abusive portrayals of gay men in his fiction.

literature >> Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes, whose literary legacy is enormous and varied, was closeted, but homosexuality was an important influence on his literary imagination, and many of his poems may be read as gay texts.

arts >> Kahlo, Frida

Bisexual Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was a masterful exponent of cross-dressing, deliberately using male drag to project power and independence.


    Bibliography
   

Baker, Jean-Claude, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House, 1993.

Strong, Lester. "Josephine Baker's Hungry Heart." The Gay and Lesbian Review 13.5 (September-October 2006): 16-19.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Strong, Lester Q.  
    Entry Title: Baker, Josephine  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2006  
    Date Last Updated October 29, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/baker_josephine.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2006 glbtq Inc.  
 

 

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