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Josephine Baker in the Transatlantic World

Josephine Baker’s lasting star power can be observed in popular culture and memorialization around the world. Against this backdrop, Katharina Gerund outlines Baker’s public life and career – from modern superstar to heroine and spy to activist and mother. She focuses on the transatlantic dimension of Baker’s art and activism (incl. her role in cultural exchanges and national identity constructions), her military heroism during World War II, and her life-long fight against fascism and racism on both sides of the Atlantic.

By Katharina Gerund

Josephine Baker’s star power and cultural influence still resonate with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and she is rightfully regarded the »first global celebrity« (Henderson and Regester 12). Baker has inspired iconic 21st-century performances and appearances by artists such as Beyoncé or Janelle Monaé, and she appears in literature such as Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry as well as journalistic accounts, children’s books, and graphic novels. Her castle in the Dordogne, Les Milandes, continues to attract tourists, and she is present across the city of Paris in street art, in the places named after her, and in the Panthéon. Baker was finally inducted into the temple of the French nation in 2021 – as only the sixth female person and the first Black woman so honored. In Germany, exhibitions at Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn in 2023 and at Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 2024 or the recent renaming of a school in Frankfurt am Main to »Josephine-Baker-Gesamtschule« publicly acknowledge her cultural achievements alongside her activism, advocacy, and (military) service.

Already during her lifetime, Josephine Baker became an iconic figure in transatlantic popular culture and functioned as a linchpin of affectively charged cultural and political debates on race, gender, family, kinship, and nationality. Over the course of her career, she turned her public persona into a lucrative brand while re-inventing herself in various roles, including revue star and film actress, singer and entertainer, spy, activist, and mother. Her rise to stardom in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s instigated scandals, fascination, and controversy. European dancers, singers, and film stars like Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo appropriated her style, and Baker was a muse and inspiration to modernist artists, filmmakers, and architects including Alexander Calder, Josef Sternberg, and Adolf Loos. From the arguably more implicit politics of her early performances, she took on an explicitly political role as part of the French resistance during World War II and within the civil rights movement before remaking herself as maternal icon and humanitarian-minded head-of-state with her deliberately multicultural family called the Rainbow Tribe. Throughout her career, Baker stood at the center of transatlantic debates concerning modernism, national identity, and the fight against fascism and racism.

Rise to Stardom

Josephine Baker 1928

The iconography of Baker’s early performances, their perceived ›primitivism‹ and ›exotic‹ lavishness as represented by the (in)famous banana skirt, has long dominated her public image. In the 1920s, Paris served as a springboard for Baker’s meteoric rise to global stardom. As an American expat, she soon realized »that she would never be as welcome in her home country as she had been in France« and her US performances in the mid-1930s were unfavorably received by audiences and critics (Wood 201, see Schroeder 51). Americans saw the singer and entertainer as an embodiment of European modernism, while she was viewed as representative of American culture and »of all that was the opposite of European urban modernity« on this side of the Atlantic (Nenno 150). Here, she became a »floating signifier[] for just about any kind of racial, ethnic, or national otherness« (Ngai 166). The reactions to Baker’s performances across Europe illustrate this point: In Stockholm, she was perceived »along a Negroid/primitive-Parisian glamour axis« and »popular response ascribed to Baker the power to infuse the local with an element of the ›continental,‹ perhaps even the global« (Habel 35; 40). In Denmark, critics celebrated her performance as »a means of positioning [themselves] as cosmopolitan and […] Copenhagen as part of a modern European avant-garde« (Spanger 124). The anxiety surrounding Americanization and »the new mass culture« shaped her reception in Vienna, where her revue was seen as revolving around the »international Parisian star« but, nonetheless, specifically Viennese (Horak 519, 525). In Weimar Germany, Baker became a household name, and her presence had a polarizing effect on the public. Initially celebrated in Berlin, she could not match her earlier success in 1928 as the reception of her performances turned increasingly antagonistic under the auspices of a rising fascism. The city of Munich, one year later, even outright banned her performance (see Vollhardt). Across Europe, Baker’s appearances were discursively used to not only affirm a shared whiteness of the respective national body but also to distinguish the metropolitan centers and their intellectual elites by associating them with both American modernity and Parisian flair.

Fighting Racism at Home and Abroad

France, of course, plays an exceptional role for Baker’s life and career. In the interwar years, Paris seemed to offer a safe haven from US racism for many African American artists and intellectuals, and Baker was not alone in highlighting the perceived absence of racism in France’s capital. An American by birth, she became a French citizen by choice and marriage in 1937. Her »dual citizenship, along with her shifting transatlantic geographical and cultural locations, in fact, proleptically symbolize a re-imagined and more expansive notion of Afro-Diasporic identity and identification« (Henderson and Regester 2). In wartime, she served her chosen country and joined the resistance. Baker volunteered for the Red Cross and supported the French troops. Most importantly, she was recruited by the French military intelligence service to become a spy. She used her access to political and diplomatic circles to gather relevant intel, relied on her star status as a cover to deliver information and facilitate the transmission of secret messages to England, and provided clandestine meeting points for the intelligence community in unexpected places (including her home in the Dordogne and a hospital room in Casablanca, see Lewis). Baker was appointed a Second Lieutenant in the Women’s Air Force Corps and returned to a liberated Paris in October 1944 as »a heroine of the resistance« (Baker and Chase 260-61). Through her unconditional support for Free France and Charles de Gaulle, she also became a »mobile demonstration of Free France’s respect for people of color and as such an important part of the campaign to hold on to the African colonies« (ibid. 202). Reinforced by numerous awards and (military) honors, the image of the patriotic heroine has prevailed in France’s collective memory.

Josephine Baker in her French air force uniform in 1948.

Already when performing for US troops during the war, Baker had challenged segregation and insisted that she would only go on stage in front of an integrated audience. After World War II, she joined the American civil rights movement, fostered racial equality and integration, and publicly supported several causes. In the process, she was not only placed under FBI surveillance, but also lost some of her contracts in the US. In 1963, she participated in the March on Washington where she gave a short speech dressed in her French air force uniform. The uniform marked her as a French citizen and a decorated war heroine. Her contribution contrasted racism in the US with the situation in France to offer a critique of systemic racism on one side of the Atlantic at the expense of veiling it behind a narrative of racial progress and opportunity on the other. Benetta Jules-Rosette describes Baker’s speech as paradigmatic for her social activism: It relied on her own biography and its Cinderella motif, cast France as safe haven, and presented the speaker as a vocal protester for justice and equality. The focus on »her own idiosyncratic battle against racism« risked marginalizing the speech within »the discourse of the collective civil rights struggle« (237). Baker consistently perpetuated a French exceptionalism, and her connection to the Black liberation struggle in and beyond the US was contested: On the one hand, as she observed herself, »[s]ome of [her] own people called her an Uncle Tom« and saw her as »more French than the French« (Gates 599). On the other, she became a »role model,« whose »very name[] evoke[d] a feeling of racial pride and ›togetherness‹ on a worldwide scale« (Fabre 122).

Josephine Baker as »Maman du Monde«

Rather than indicating a turn away from activism and public performance, Josephine Baker’s emphasis on family life in the 1950s expanded her star text and political agenda with a role as family matriarch and the vision for a model UN to be created at Les Milandes. She adopted twelve children with different religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds, and she effectively turned her home into a commune, a royal home, a tourist site, and even its own state. Revealing the ambivalent politics of Les Milandes, Matthew Pratt Guterl aptly views it as a »postnational dream, a utopian fairy tale, and a sort of colony« (46). The (self-)fashioning of the Rainbow Tribe and the centrality of its maternal star may make it appear a celebrity eccentricity at first glance. Yet, it was also a social experiment with a missionary agenda and a humanitarian vision. Baker’s »social work« was characterized by a belief in the creation of »a new kind of human being, […] who would not be conscious of racism or skin color« (Ara 8). Conceptually, she merged »French notions of fraternity and republicanism with American ideals of equality and redressive justice that came to fruition in the civil rights movement« (Jules-Rosette 230). The experiment was obviously flawed, considering its underlying colonist logics, its essentialist taxonomy, and the civil religious worship of its matriarch and head-of-state, and it ultimately failed as it turned into a financial disaster culminating in an eviction from the property in 1969. Despite their shortcomings, the Rainbow Tribe and the philosophy of the »VILLAGE DU MONDE, Capitale de la Fraternité« (Baker 5) provide a provocative intervention into hegemonic notions of family and kinship as well as dominant discourses on identity and solidarity. They bespeak Baker’s cosmopolitan and humanitarian agenda steeped in French and (to a lesser extent) American exceptionalisms and signal a commitment to tolerance, solidarity, and human rights.

Baker’s star persona negotiates conflicting cultural affiliations, as expressed in her signature song »J’ai deux amours,« and, in some ways, she »[fashioned] an identity as an extra-national cosmopolitan, as a woman without a country and a woman who has her own country« (Guterl 40). Her life and career, her art and activism, and the multiple facets of her public persona defy easy categorizations. They are, however, firmly embedded in a transatlantic framework, where Josephine Baker figures as projection screen, powerful symbol, and playful cultural reference.

Katharina Gerund is a senior lecturer in American Studies at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg. She is the author of Transatlantic Cultural Exchange: African American Women’s Art and Activism in West Germany (2013) and has published widely on questions of race and gender in the transatlantic world. Her current research interests include critical military studies, affect studies and sentimentality, as well as US popular culture.


Ara, Konomi. »Josephine Baker: A Chanteuse and a Fighter.« The Journal of Transnational American Studies 2.1 (2010): 1-17.

Baker, Jean-Claude, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. Cooper Square, 2001.

Baker, Josephine. »Josephine Baker’s Children’s Village.« 1964. Letter and Exposé. JWJ MSS 89. Box 34. Beinecke Rare Manuscripts and Archives. Yale University.

Fabre, Michel. »International Beacons of African-American Memory: Alexandre Dumas Père, Henry O. Tanner, and Josephine Baker as Examples of Recognition.« History and Memory in African-American Culture, edited by Geneviève Fabre and Robert O’Meally. Oxford UP, 1994. 122-29.

Gates, Henry Louis. »An Interview with Josephine Baker and James Baldwin.« Southern Review 21 (1985): 549-602.

Guterl, Matthew Pratt. »Josephine Baker’s ›Rainbow Tribe:‹ Radical Motherhood in the South of France.« Journal of Women’s History 21.4 (2009): 38-58.

Habel, Ylva. »To Stockholm, with Love: The Critical Reception of Josephine Baker, 1927-1935.« The Josephine Baker Critical Reader: Selected Writings on the Entertainer and Activist, edited by Mae G. Henderson and Charlene B. Regester. McFarland, 2017. 30-47.

Henderson, Mae G., and Charlene B. Regester. »Introduction: ›Josephine, woman of a hundred faces.‹« The Josephine Baker Critical Reader: Selected Writings on the Entertainer and Activist, edited by Mae G. Henderson and Charlene B. Regester. McFarland, 2017. 1-27.

Horak, Roman. »›We Have Become Niggers!‹: Josephine Baker as a Threat to Viennese Culture.« Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research 5 (2013): 515-30.

Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image. U of Illinois P, 2007.

Lewis, Damien. Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy. PublicAffairs, 2022.

Ngai, Sianne. »Black Venus, Blonde Venus.« Bad Modernisms, edited by Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. Duke UP, 2006. 145-78.

Nenno, Nancy. »Femininity, the Primitive, and Modern Urban Space: Josephine Baker in Berlin.« Women in the Metropolis: Gender and Modernity in Weimar Culture, edited by Katharina von Ankum. U of California P, 1997. 145-61.

Schroeder, Alan. Josephine Baker: Entertainer. Chelsea House, 2006.

Spanger, Marlene. »Disturbance and Celebration of Josephine Baker in Copenhagen 1928: Emotional Constructions of Whiteness.« Affectivity and Race: Studies from Nordic Contexts,edited by Rikke Andreassen and Kathrine Vitus. Ashgate, 2015. 111-29.

Vollhardt, Uta-Britta. »Der ›Deutsche Notbund gegen die Schwarze Schmach‹ und das Auftrittsverbot für Josephine Baker.« Xenopolis: Von der Faszination und Ausgrenzung des Fremden in München, edited by Angela Koch. Metropol, 2005. 229-39.

Wood, Ean. The Josephine Baker Story. Sanctuary, 2000.


Ill. 1: Josephine Baker 1928, via wikimedia. CC0

Ill. 2: Josephine Baker in her French air force uniform in 1948, via wikimedia. Public Domain

Recommended Citation

Katharina Gerund: “Josephine Baker in the Transatlantic World.” Transatlanticism. Mar. XX, 2024. URL: DOI:

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Lizenziert unter der Creative Commons Namensnennung 4.0 International Lizenz.




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