Josephine Baker: I knew so little

Genius in France

Josephine BakerI knew that Josephine Baker was a famous black entertainer starting in the 1920s. Yes, I was aware that she left the United States because of its open segregation laws. She was a big star in France. That’s about it.

That is until I was watching CBS Sunday Morning while waiting for my train to arrive. This segment is rightly titled The legacy of Josephine Baker.

First a bit of biography. “She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906, to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie married a kind but a perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin.” After a brief and difficult career in the US, her career thrived in Paris.

I’m fascinated by how France has been perceived as this sanctuary, at least for a little while. Some of the notable transplants, at least for a time, included James Baldwin and Lenny Kravitz. My noted activist cousin  Frances Beal lived there for a few years. And American soldier Henry Johnson, for years, got a lot more recognition for his World War I exploits by the French than by his home country, the US.

A star over there, but…

For Josephine Baker, a “1936 return to the United States to star in the Ziegfeld Follies proved disastrous, despite the fact that she was a major celebrity in Europe. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power, newspaper reviews were equally cruel (The New York Times called her a ‘Negro wench’), and Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.”

She was active in the French resistance during World War II. “She performed for the troops” and… smuggled “secret messages written on her music sheets.” The French government later awarded her medals for her valor.

In the 1950s, “she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as ‘The Rainbow Tribe.’ aided by her third husband, composer Joe Bouillon. Josephine wanted her to prove that ‘children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.’ She often took the children with her cross-country.” She raised two daughters, from France and Morocco, and 10 sons, from Korea, Japan, Colombia, Finland, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and three from France.

Civil rights advocate

But she did make it back to the United States again. I was struck by this dialogue in the CBS piece.
Reporter: “How long are you going to stay?”
Baker: “You want me to stay, don’t you?”
Reporter: “I’d like you to stay. I think you could help the Negro movement in the United States.”
Baker: “Oh, don’t say that.”
Reporter: “Why not?”
Baker: “Because it’s not a Negro movement. It’s an American movement.”
True enough.

She spoke at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. “You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents, and much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

Triumphant return

Josephine Baker “agreed to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall” in 1973. “Due to previous experience, she was nervous about how the audience and critics would receive her. This time, however, cultural and racial growth was evident. Josephine received a standing ovation before the concert even began. The enthusiastic welcome was so touching that she wept onstage.

“On April 8, 1975, Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50-year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 5 a.m. on April 12.”

And in 2021, she has been inducted into France’s Pantheon, the first black woman, the first performing artist, and the first American so honored. She joins Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie among the 80 so honored.

La fete Nationale, Quartonze Juillet

Declaration of the Rights of Man

Bastille DayIt’s the 230th anniversary of La Fête Nationale, Le Quatorze Juillet, or, as I learned it growing up, Bastille Day in France. It “commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789. The French Revolution transformed France into a land of equality and democracy with the Declaration of the Rights of Man in August 1789, which I assume also now apply to women.

I don’t really know much about that document. What did it say, anyway?

DECLARATION

“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.” I’m reminded, via the musical Hamilton – which we’ll finally see in August 2019 – that while the French aided the colonists in the American Revolution, the news nation remained neutral in the French conflict with the same George III of England.

“Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.” This appears to be an intractable fight in the United States, from abortion rights to gun control.

“The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.” May we apply this to our use of social media?

“The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.” The lessons of Eisenhower seem forgotten as certain Americans are wowed by the “military parade that is a high point of the national holiday celebrations,” and wish to emulate in the US.

Of course, democracy is never a straight line. While the French Senate was founded in 1799, by 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself the first Emperor of France. Americans should be aware that we’re not immune to such demagoguery.

March rambling #2: We are never Ivory Coast

Rob Ford died of a more respectable disease.

Stolen: We are all France. We are all Belgium. We are never Ivory Coast or Burkina Faso or Tunisia or Mali.

10 Safest Countries If WW3 Breaks Out
make America grate
There was no wave of compassion when addicts were hooked on crack.

From Scapegoating to Solidarity: 2016 Is the Year to Turn the Immigration Debate Around.

Weekly Sift: My racial blind spots.

An Open Letter to Drumpf Voters from His Top Strategist-Turned-Defector.

What It Means to Be Right-Footed.

I told the truth in my sister’s obituary so that others might choose to live and Amy Biancolli’s The long arms of a story.

The man who turns news into art.

Game Theory for Parents. “Mathematically tested measures to make your kids cooperate—all on their own.”

Something just slammed into Jupiter.

American Bystander is a printed humor magazine that’s about to release its second issue, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.

I generally have good success, but Chuck Miller reports on the UPS epic fail.

Feck ‘n’ Gruntle.

What does superfetation mean?

Evanier – how things are made: Snickers bars and frozen french fries and
Newman-O’s (an Oreo competitor) and balloons and an automated teller machine, plus a nifty magic trick.

Now I Know: The Secret Life of Honey Buns

Pie-lexa as a treatment for RBF

Cookie Monster bakes — with some help from Siri.

superman.races

RIP

Patty Duke, 69: Oscar winner was the youngest at the time to receive the award. She went through so much before becoming a mental health advocate. And yes, I watched The Patty Duke Show – she was the youngest actor to have a TV show named for her in the day, and I even remember the theme.

She even had a hit single. Here’s an anecdote from Ken Levine; I’d forgotten she’d been the Screen Actors Guild president. She was the Mystery Guest on What’s My Line (1972).

Ken Howard, 71: he of The White Shadow, 30 Rock, Crossing Jordan, Adam’s Rib and a bunch of other stuff I’ve watched. He was also SAG/AFTRA union president.

Garry Shandling, 66: comedian’s influential career spanned decades. I watched his eponymously-named show regularly. He also gave us the greatest TV show about television; I didn’t see it often, it being on HBO, but I DID see the finale while I was in Boston taping JEOPARDY! Mark Evanier rewrote for Garry.

Larry Drake, 67: from L.A. Law.

Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, 46: died of a more respectable disease and The Honest Liar.

Music

My Window Faces The South – George Morgan with a young Glen Campbell.

I Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – Rick Moranis.

Son of a Preacher Man – Tom Goss.

Not Given Lightly – Chris Knox, a New Zealand artist (1989).

Fragile – Sting and Stevie Wonder, from the former’s 60th birthday concert.

Green Onions and Sophia Loren. Loren was in Schenectady giving a talk recently; I didn’t see her, alas.

Google searches (me)

Drawing lots of lines.

Jewish View.

 

Blogging is not dead, cousin Lisa

THE MOST EGREGIOUS ERROR I believe I have EVER made in this blog is in a post three months ago.

blogging.moreMy cousin Lisa was one of the grandkids of my late great-aunt Charlotte and great-uncle Ernie Yates. Since I had no aunts, uncles, or first cousins, my closest relatives were the children of my mother’s first cousins, the eldest of whom are Anne and Lisa, Frances’s kids.

(BTW, Fran recently had her 75th birthday; belated happy birthday to her!) Anne and Lisa are about a decade younger than my sister Leslie and I.

Lisa had been living and working in the Washington, DC area for a number of years. She came to my mother’s funeral in February 2011. When Anne had Thanksgiving dinner at her house just north of New York City in 2013, which my family attended, Lisa was there as well.

At the end of 2014, Lisa quit her long-term job in the DC area and bought a one-way ticket to Paris. She is blogging about her experiences. Anne’s job has taken her to France as well, so they get to see each other more often than they did in the US. Incidentally, they were both born in France.

But recently, Lisa wrote: “One of my closest and oldest friends, someone I love very much, suffered a massive stroke that has left her hospitalized and her survival, according to the Dr’s, unlikely. I’m devastated and frantic because I can’t get information as it develops. If I was home, I’d be at her side, but I’m not, because I’m here and I can’t leave.”

Wondering what I could do for Lisa an ocean away, I asked Arthur the AmeriNZ from Chicago, who has lived in New Zealand for a couple of decades, to write to her, and he did, which she found helpful. And I would not have been able to suggest that had I not been reading his blog regularly for the last seven or eight years, learning his journey, knowing that he’s thought about those issues of being far away from America, even though he’s quite content with his life in Kiwiland.

Dustbury quoted James Lileks, who noted: “Andrew Sullivan announced he was retiring from blogging today, and given his longevity, this was seen by some as one of the great tent poles of the Golden Age of Blogging toppling over.”

But Lileks continues: “The notion of individual sites with individual voices has been replaced by aggregators and listicles and Gawker subsites with their stables of edgy youth things… But there will always be a place on the internet for individual sites like this one because there is nothing from stopping all the rampant egotists from braying bytes over this matter or that. I’ve always been a diarist, and this iteration happens to be public.”

Dustbury has been blogging for about 18 years, Jacquandor started in 2002, SamuraiFrog’s hit his tenth anniversary of blogging. None of them seem to be ready to retire.

And neither am I, even when I make mistakes. And THE MOST EGREGIOUS ERROR I believe I have EVER made in this blog is in a post three months ago, when I celebrated 8.5 years of blogging; it SHOULD have been NINE AND A HALF. This means it’s now about nine and three-quarters years.

France, Sorry About That

In the runup to the Iraq war, lots of people, including many in the United States, were opposed to it. While they may have understood the battle in Afghanistan, at least at that time, fighting a war in Iraq seemed off track with our stated mission to respond to 9/11. The governments of France and Germany, suppportive of the Afghan war, opposed the incursion into Iraq. As a result, France singularly caught a lot of backlash, not just from the punditry, but even from the US Congress, which renamed French fries “freedom fries”, and other such silliness.

I’ve come to believe that those folks had confused American patriotism with a blind and scary form of nationalism.

So I apologize for the irrationality of my fellow countryfolk. Know that this was not a universally held antipathy. In fact, when I was at a massive antiwar rally in New York City on February 15, 2003, about a month before the war began, there were folks from France who were cheered by the crowd.

I can’t begin to further explain the antipathy, so I won’t even try.

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