The Afterlife of Josephine


I took this picture in 2007.

At the time, this grand mosaic of gilded faces was attached to the side of an old chapel, at the main entrance of Les Milandes – the extraordinary social experiment envisioned and enacted by the superstar performer, Josephine Baker.  A half century before my visit, Baker had raised her twelve adopted children in the restored castle that lay just beyond the chapel.  The sign invited visitors to watch a mixed-race and mixed-nation family at play, a public spectatorship of private life orchestrated by a celebrity mother.

I was attracted to the still bright background (gold-colored, of course), to the prominence of Josephine’s visage, and to the surrounding ring of much smaller tiles, the ensemble of children who embodied the experiment of the “Village du Monde.”  But I was moved – emotionally – by the decay of the tiles, and the sense of loss that accompanied the failure of the great experiment.  The chipping paint and the missing tiles captured, in miniature, the pockmarked chapel, the faded glory of the chateau, the layered ending of so many dreams.

Returning two years later, I found that tiles were gone.  Put into deep storage. Their absence brought me back, once more, to a melancholic state, because it seemed as if yet another indication of Baker’s vision had been peeled away.

The coming and going of these tiles – installed in the heyday of Les Milandes, removed long after Josephine’s death, peeling and deteriorating in the interim, and remounted here on this site – has made me think about the way that work and text and image move and circulate.  The way that long lost things find a way to come back.  Here we are, with Josephine’s tile mosaic at the top of the screen, long after it was taken down, and doing a very different kind of work than that for which it was originally intended.  This is her afterlife, in a way.

I’ve been thinking about the afterlives of our work – the books and essays and short pieces we draft and redraft and write and sometimes publish.  They, too, circulate.  And circulation isn’t static – it adds and subtracts all sorts of things along its tortured route.  Everything is transformed by the act of movement.  In its endless departures and arrivals, circulation scatters the stuff of life.  New things take shape from it.  And when it doesn’t work properly, we note it, and seek to restore the flow.

Last spring, I published a book a “life” of Baker.  And it – circulating well beyond my control – has started to return. An email here. And letter there. A comment made in conversation elsewhere. This entirely unsurprising return has reminded me, though, that writers and readers share a responsibility to curate objects publicly and collaboratively, and to encourage conversation across communities, long after the book is published or the exhibit is closed down. Attending to the life of Josephine requires that one also attend to the post-life of Josephine.

Baker, I’d known, went to South Africa in October of 1974. It was a brief visit, probably meant to make money, but it was also certainly meant to give her a view of the racial politics of the place. Sandwiched between a successful run in London and her final show in Paris, the brief sojourn to the republic seems, in hindsight, like a bad idea gone horribly wrong. Tensions along the color line there were escalating dramatically, and Baker’s legendary candor in front of the microphone surely wasn’t helpful.  Surveying the wreckage, Variety described the trip as a “flop,” with high-end venues only a “quarter filled,” even in those rare settings where “nonwhites” were the majority.  The trade magazine blamed Baker’s inopportune “delving into politics,” which may have turned audiences off.  Gene Robertson of the Sun Reporter suggested that Baker was turned off by the willingness to integrate performers on stage while strictly segregating the audience.

The trip wasn’t terribly important – given the exact story on which I was focused – because it came well after her Rainbow Tribe’s dissolution, and it repeated themes that had been covered earlier (namely, her attempted integration of high-end venues and her flamboyant use of the media).  From her own correspondence, I knew that she’d been there very briefly, had been dismissive of the black South Africans she encountered, had found the country’s culture to be worrisomely flat, and had written off the increasingly militarized apartheid-era nation-state as nothing more than a “money factory.”  The trip revealed that Baker’s idiosyncratic sentiments about race and reform were long-lived, and it reminded me that her political mind was still probingly engaged. Here she was, after all, a famously black celebrity, sojourning in a white supremacist node, playing to white audiences, and expressing shock at the discovery of segregation. Speaking to reporters, Baker enthused that she would be “proud to be thrown out of South Africa,” and concluded that the apartheid state “must be sick to allow what is happening.”  And so this, in the end, is how I wrote about it – as a brief, modestly revealing trip, a sidebar to her lifetime’s ending.  It occupies nine lines of text.

Then the book was “released,” set adrift into the flows of culture and commerce.  And this summer, southern Africa, in a way, returned it to me.

One reader – who’d stumbled across a New Yorker review of the book, and subsequently ordered it for his Kindle – wrote to share his memories of Baker’s stay in Cape Town.

Writing home to his American parents in October of 1974, he called attention to Baker’s proposed stop – during her tour of the country – at a Tembaletu for African orphans.  There would be tea, “with reporters and photographers,” so that there might be more money for the day care.  “For us,” he wondered, “not for her?” A good plan, it seemed. Then it all fell apart.  In a November postmortem, he revealed that Baker, while in Durban, had “invited some black friends to attend one of her performances and they were turned away at the door.”  Nothing unusual for a racially tense South Africa, but it was more than Baker could stomach.

By the time Baker got to Cape Town, she was “in a very wrought up state.”  And, then, she backed out of her planned visit to the Tembaletu Day Centre for handicapped African children.  “Why African and not just handicapped children?,” she asked.  The chanteuse, a civil rights heroine and champion of the most intimate sorts of integration, certainly wasn’t going to “look at little African children like animals in a cage.”  The small committee charged with welcoming her to the Tembaletu watched their carefully planned tea (with photographers) fall apart, a victim of the ubiquity of segregation and a diva’s principled grandstanding.  Once she was back in France, my correspondent remembered, Baker’s agents complained that the tour was a washout, a consequence of her faded celebrity.

Knowing the history of her adoptive family, and their display as brightly-colored objects for public viewing, there is a terrible irony in her withdrawal from the public relations side-trip to the Tembaletu, in her critique of “little African children like animals in a cage,” and in the lost cash that might have made a few children’s lives just a little better.

Still another reader from South Africa got a copy of the book from her daughter in New York.  She remembers the same tour, if somewhat differently.  “It was at a very low point in her life,” she writes, noting that Baker’s health had declined quite rapidly in the 1970s.  Her husband, a local physician, had served, in this moment of need, as a sort of medical attendant, worrying over “her carrying on with her performances,” and attending the performances, “in case she needed urgent medical attention.”

During the day, when Baker wasn’t touring or meeting people, she’d spend time in the doctor’s garden. “We became close to her,” his wife remembers, “and I would fetch her every morning, and she would spend the day with us, in the garden, speaking to my late Mother.”  Ever concerned about finances, Baker would have her younger attendant secret her to the Banque D’Indosuez, so that she could deposit her paychecks without having them nicked by debt collectors.

This seems like classic Josephine Baker, extending great kindness to people she’d only just met, but also worriedly hiding her payments from distant threats.

I’m grateful for these new details – and committed to sharing them here, of course. Not surprisingly, though, there are still many things we simply don’t know.  Did she meet any writers from DRUM?  Did she perform with any local musicians?  What did she see?  And with whom?  Who, on the ground, arranged the details?  Baker says that she was brought there by an “advanced liberal,” but her personal correspondence is mute on the details.

Perhaps this – this post, and these questions, and the post-life of Josephine – is a particularly fitting continuation of the book, given its roots in African history and women’s history, two fields where the traditional archive is so troublesome and so incomplete, two fields where evidence can often be found in the margins of what is official. And so I will keep scratching at those margins while the book circulates, and continue the collaborative curation of her life.

The larger takeaway is clear: no book is ever finished, really, because is a book is a part of a conversation, not a declaration of permanent authority. A conversation, I might add, that includes a wider range of people – readers as well as writers and reviewers.  This set of enduring afterlives – our obligations and responsibilities to the subject, to the public, to one’s self, long after the book appears as if by magic at a store – is, I think, why we imagine writing as a professional commitment, and not merely as a pleasurable hobby.  It doesn’t stop with publication.

I’m hopeful, then, that someone will write – after seeing the image above – to say, “I saw those tiles when the gold paint was so fresh that the image of Josephine was literally blinding those who were waiting on line to get in.”

Or, even better, after reading this, “I was there, in Durban, in October of 1974…”