Thursday, 26 April 2012

Si j'etais blanche

"I'd like to be white. It would give me such joy if my breasts and thighs changed colour". Listen to the full song HERE. Immediately, Josephine Baker gets to the nub of what white folks thought of blacks.  Read this excellent analysis of the song by Anna Biller here. Even the dolls little girls play with enforce the idea that white is the only way to be. "Et je disais à l’air accablé, me croyant toute seule brune au monde". But as Anna Biller points out, the girl in the song subtly turns things round in her own favour

Josephine Baker confronted assumptions about race, class and orientation. In the photo, she's wearing her famous banana outfit which of course moved tantalizingly as she danced. Note the fingers pointing and the banana imagery! The show was set in a fake jungle, a metaphor for the Dark Continent where forbidden, erotic things happen, and white people don't really rule. What a frisson fancy Paris society would have felt as she gyrated on stage while they sat, "civilized" in starched tight collars.

Josephine Baker was part of the cultural revolution that reached Europe from the mid 19th century. Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, Pierre Loti, the  Impressionists, Debussy, Ravel, Picasso and his friends collecting African art.  (British colonialism was very different). Non-western cultures showed Europeans that other forms of experience were valid. Without non-western cultures, the west might not have become "modern". The whole imperialist world model we're supposed to follow is upside down.

There's perhaps more on this site than most elsewhere on the dialogue between western and non western cultures. Lots on non western culture and on cross-culture issues and stereotypes, particularly as expressed in music and early film). For example, see this, a proper Cantonese opera but a satire on Viennese operetta !

Below is Josephine Baker dancing in 1927. So energetic, so angular, nothing like the way white women danced then. Nor like black American women either, I suspect, who were finding their own way ahead (see my post on Within Our Gates ). But the spirit of the Jazz Age freed up inhibitions and let people express themselves in new ways.  It's no coincidence that the best book about Josephine Baker was written by Patrick O'Connor, the music critic whose speciality was French music and opera. He was too secure to need to sneer at crossover. How the horizons of music writing have narrowed since he's been gone. (read more about him here).


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Doundou Tchil said...

Love those roses !