Creating a sensation with her risqué nightclub act and strolls down the Champs Elysées, pet cheetah in tow, Josephine Baker lives on in popular memory as the banana-skirted siren of Jazz Age Paris. In Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe, Matthew Pratt Guterl brings out a little known side of the celebrated personality, showing how her ambitions of later years were even more daring and subversive than the youthful exploits that made her the first African American superstar.
Her performing days numbered, Baker settled down in a sixteenth-century chateau she named Les Milandes, in the south of France. Then, in 1953, she did something completely unexpected and, in the context of racially sensitive times, outrageous. Adopting twelve children from around the globe, she transformed her estate into a theme park, complete with rides, hotels, a collective farm, and singing and dancing. The main attraction was her Rainbow Tribe, the family of the future, which showcased children of all skin colors, nations, and religions living together in harmony. Les Milandes attracted an adoring public eager to spend money on a utopian vision, and to worship at the feet of Josephine, mother of the world.
Alerting readers to some of the contradictions at the heart of the Rainbow Tribe project—its undertow of child exploitation and megalomania in particular—Guterl concludes that Baker was a serious and determined activist who believed she could make a positive difference by creating a family out of the troublesome material of race.
This book shimmers. The prose is spun gold, the ideas sparkle with intelligence, and the fun’s as high as Josephine Baker—topless in a banana skirt, her caramel skin gleaming —can take it. But in the end, it’s a tragedy… Baker bought a French castle, adopted a dozen children, and made them stand for every race and nation in the world. It went about as well as any other supersized celebrity adoption with a political agenda. But instead of reducing it to farce, Guterl shows us what it all meant… He weaves in new ways to think about identity, success, family, race, celebrity, and Baker herself.
Guterl is astute about the contradictions in Baker’s experiment and her celebrity, both of which rested on her capacity for reinvention.
Astute and readable… In many ways, this is cultural studies at its best.
A few pages into the finely worded, deeply evocative prologue, Guterl asks readers to set aside everything they know about Josephine Baker—but it’s too late, for Guterl has already begun what almost seems a fabulous fairy tale, one commandingly, colorfully told by a masterful contemporary storyteller. Rarely does an author’s voice come across as audibly as Guterl’s, in cadence and sometimes in directives to the reader, and the effect is enchanting—Baker’s story, even more so. Years after chanteuse-dancer Baker’s soaring star fell, she rose once more, this time as a relentless civil rights advocate and the adoptive mother of 12 multiracial children, the ‘Rainbow Tribe,’ whom she then raised and paraded in a theme-park-type castle, Les Milandes, in the French countryside. Here, Guterl winnows out a truth from the many fragments (in biographies, in the press, from the children themselves), positing that ‘it was an inspirational, exaggerated symbol of what was possible at the extreme end of wealth and fame, globally speaking, for anyone and everyone, no matter their skin tone or racial classification.’ A fascinating book about a magnificent woman.
The persona with which Baker (1906–75) captivated the world had already been retooled once by her manager Giuseppe Pepito Abatino. Following World War II, Baker transformed herself again, this time into a universal mother presiding over a dozen children of every race on permanent display at her castle in France’s Dordogne… This work will be enjoyed by all readers.
Matthew Guterl’s astonishing Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe tells the wholly unsuspected life-story of one of the twentieth-century’s most amazing visionaries. It is an engrossing biography of an extraordinary woman.
- 288 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
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