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Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe?
by matthew pratt guterl
?harvard, 288 pages, $28.95

It is easy to see why Josephine Baker beckons to the postmodern mind. The famous entertainer of the Jazz Age seems tailor-made for theorists of racial and sexual identity. She was a known historical type—modernist ex-pat, an American in Paris—but add her black skin and naked body, dancing and singing before adoring Europeans, and you have a phenomenon well suited to themes of transgression and performativity, the male gaze and the allure of the Other. When she turned in later years to racial protest and fantasies of a nonnuclear postcolonial family, Baker donned an intrepid and progressive political identity. And also, it so happened, a tragic and misguided one. Matthew Pratt Guterl expounds this aspect of Baker in his new study, leading him to conclusions that run squarely against the progressivist wishes of race-class-gender critics in academia today.

Baker was born in St. Louis in 1906, the child of vaudeville performers, and spent her childhood hungry and poor, collecting money by laboring in white homes and dancing on the streets. Talented enough to win a chorus-line position, she moved to New York, where her comic skills and stage presence took her to Broadway and led her to Paris. There, her semi-nude displays and exotic persona caused an ­international sensation. ­Hollywood films followed, along with well-known lovers, global tours, monkey and peacock and cheetah pets, work with the Resistance during the war, charges of anti-Americanism and fellow-traveling, stays in Cuba as the personal guest of Castro, opposition to segregation in the United States, and a turn at the microphone at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.

Guterl smoothly translates the facts into academic language. Baker is a “symbol” and a “representation,” “a totem of primeval sex.” The meanings she bears reflect “multihued, polyphonic complexity” and “multiracial cosmopolitanism, a partial transgression of the nation-state.” Her ability to sing in several languages becomes “her embodiment of an increasingly­ ­postcolonialist world.” A Spanish setting in one of her films reminds us that “Spanish colonies were—and are—signifiers of historical mixture and hybridity.” Her notorious banana skirt, a string of fake bananas strung across her hips (she wears ­nothing else), is “a bold clutch of phalli strung like hunter’s trophies around her slim, conquering ­waistline.”

Guterl describes a 1927 French film starring Baker as Papitou, a sprightly tropical sex object whose “breasts are on routine display.” But after a long paragraph recounting the action, Guterl doesn’t place the episode in terms of her biography. He doesn’t state how the role came about, how much money she made, or what successes followed. Instead, he theorizes: “The performance of Papitou’s nudity is a part of what Malek Alloula names as the colonial ‘anthology of breasts,’ a tradition in Orientalist visual culture in which the bust of the ‘colonial harem’ is displayed in one of three forms.” The symbolic Baker matters more than the real Baker.

It’s a common approach in the humanities, and one might complain that it leads to circular theorizing on an object that doesn’t warrant it (or that warrants more and better). But in this case, the approach fits the subject, as Baker possessed a fierce impulse to self-fashioning. All entertainers “brand” themselves, of course, managing their images before a fickle public. But Baker went further than that. She required her private life and loved ones, her family and household, to carry a symbolic value, too, one so great, in fact, that they were crushed by it.

She wanted to have children, desperately so, but overwork and illness prevented it. At the same time, she embraced the anti­colonial sensibility of the postwar era, when European nations were letting go of their colonies. Adoption was the answer in both cases. With her compliant husband, a French bandleader, she purchased a chateau in the ­Dordogne region and started to build a home and family. A letter to a Japanese friend, written just before Baker started a tour of the far East, reveals the plan in all its categorical intent: “I want you to find me a little baby, a purebred Japanese, a little boy of two years I can adopt.” He was to join others found on her travels, Baker continued, including a “dark-skinned black” and “an Indian from Peru, a Nordic, and an Israelite.”

The result was the “Rainbow Tribe.” Baker gathered infants from orphanages and churches, twelve children in all, and brought in her mother and sister along with a domestic staff to manage the estate, which she called Les Milandes. They came from Korea, Finland, Venezuela, Algeria, the Middle East, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, and Colombia. She wanted religious diversity, too, and so when she found two six-month-olds from Algeria, she decreed that one would be raised Muslim, one Catholic. The gathering served a simple representational purpose: to exemplify the new global family, a family bound not by blood but by integrationist ideology. In the Tribe, a new world order of harmonic diversity would be prefigured, a white father and black mother raising a dozen children who would retain their respective ethnic and racial identities and realize a ­multicultural utopia.

A photograph captures the happy family a few years into the experiment. It comes three decades after the fanciful lithograph of Baker in the 1927 portfolio Le Tumulte Noir showing her in the banana skirt, gleefully gyrating, facing away but with one nipple visible (Guterl terms it “the most famous nude of the modern age”). Here we have a polar opposite. Baker, her husband, and nine children pose on the grass in front of a medieval castle, everyone smiling in the sunshine. Baker is a prim matron “wearing a conservative blouse with a Peter Pan collar, a light pink jacket, and a white headband.” The children are dressed alike in corduroy pants, plaid shirts, and gray sweaters. They hold glasses of juice and playground balls, as if on a quick break from recess.

Baker mounted the picture on a postcard and sold it to visitors and tourists. To draw them to Les Milandes and publicize this forward experiment in racial concord, Baker turned the property into a theme park. Set on top of a hill, it had French gardens stocked with magnolia trees, a music hall and outdoor theater, a restaurant, a day-care center, a pool in the shape of the letter J, a miniature golf course, and children’s play areas with water slides, games, and rides. Down the hill was a hotel, a bakery and cafe, a chapel, and a wax ­museum devoted to Baker’s career (one scene shows her meeting with Pope Pius XII). Signs identify it as “capital of brotherhood” and “village of the world.”

The children were the main attraction. Each one dressed in his native clothing when tourists poured in—300,000 in 1953—displaying for onlookers a multicultural, multi­racial glee. Baker had them greet people at the entrance, play and sing as journalists snapped pictures. Everything was staged; all the natural occasions of childhood had to signify. Success in this scheme was measured by social impact. Baker built a family not to raise children but to make a point, to prove that racial integration and cultural diversity could be accomplished. The project would conclude not when the children grew up but when Rainbow Tribes sprang up around the globe.

It was a remarkable enterprise while it lasted. Have we ever seen progressivist social engineering enacted before so personally? The children all slept in one large room until they grew older, and they ate together at a long table in the kitchen, none of them allowed an existence detached from the others. The whole endeavor “depended on the near elimination of the private sphere.” Baker imported the politics of the 1950s right into her home and laid on six-year-olds the burden of overcoming them. One son recalls a family meeting at which Baker explained to each the reason for his adoption, insisting that “we had to be brothers to show that the union of races, religions, whatever, was ­possible.” The aspiration may have been noble, but it made them feel like “pet monkeys.”

Needless to say, the project failed. Husband Jo Bouillon left Baker in 1957 and migrated to Argentina. Tourism was insufficient to pay the bills at Les Milandes, and creditors forcibly removed Baker and the kids, all of them landing in Monaco with assistance from Princess Grace. As the children grew up, they stooped to stealing, drugs, promiscuity, and selling Baker paraphernalia.

When people count most as representations, human relations suffer, no matter how benevolent the goals. Guterl identifies the unavoidable problem: “The utopian abstraction of the racially mixed, public family was, for Baker and for many others, the benchmark against which the material reality was measured.” But we, too, are realities, and we don’t want to be gauged by political abstractions, a truth Baker refused to acknowledge. When the ­ten-year-olds fell short, as was inevitable, the utopian guardian didn’t adjust the benchmark. She tried to alter the children. Baker wanted the Rainbow Tribe to serve as a lesson in global diversity, but another conclusion can be drawn from the experiment: The family will not submit to ideological handling.

During my thirty years of academic labor in the humanities, I have observed my colleagues across the country promote racial and sexual criteria in admissions and hiring, review curricula, textbooks, and tests for proper representation of groups, and elevate race and sexuality to essential research fields. But the improvements that their social engineering and identity-based teaching and research aimed to produce haven’t materialized. They insist that suffering is still rampant, and they blame white privilege, neoliberal economics, micro-aggressions, and other historical ­circumstances. Baker’s story points to another cause. Managing persons by group identity may work in theory, but in practice with real human beings, human relations, both familial and social, ­disintegrate and sour.  

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.