The article on Josephine Baker (1906-1975) for Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance was written by Sandra L. West (1947-2019). Until working on the book project with her, my perception of the great diva had been shaped primarily by quick glimpses of classic black and white images of her dancing either nude or semi-nude.
She was to me a pretty, comical, innately sensuous, island girl with some vague connection to the United States and France. Research revealed and corrected the many layers of a misunderstood truth.
I began this post to draw attention to the above Josephine Baker tribute art series. Just as I was completing it, disturbing news arrived: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state’s Department of Education had rejected an Advanced Placement course addressing different aspects of African-American Studies. The rationale for doing so was that it paved the way for ideological indoctrination into the “Woke movement” as fueled by Critical Race Theory. That is something DeSantis has strongly opposed and stated the proposed AP African-American Studies course lacks educational value.
Dr. Lisa Hill, one of the authors of the program, said at its launch in September last year: “The course encourages students to examine each theme from a variety of perspectives, without ideology, in line with the field’s tradition of debates.” In short, the objective is to expand access to the kind of knowledge which impacts our understanding, or misunderstanding, of the demographically evolving world in which we live. It was the same goal that I and different contributors to Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance had when completing it.
Perceptions and Realities
The intensity of DeSantis’ objection to progressive initiatives when it comes to racial factors have long puzzled many People of Color. Perception of the governor’s political strategy is not very different from how Justice Clarence Thomas’s unyielding conservatism is viewed among many Blacks. While it appears to make no sense within the context of their daily social reality, it stands up well enough as abstract legal conception.
A frequent assumption regarding DeSantis is that he is Latino and his interests should, therefore, automatically align with those he decries as woke ideologists. However, despite the smiling photograph of him on Hispanic culture pages, the governor’s publicized heritage is Italian––not Latinx––going back several generations. He clearly has found it more politically advantageous to let Americans assume whatever pleases them while presenting himself, more than anything else, simply as a committed conservative republican.
It would be fair enough at this point to ask what any of this has to do with my current celebration of Josephine Baker. The answer is pretty much: everything. Were it not for the social, political, and financial inequities and omissions which daily impair the lives of people belonging to different demographic groups in America, there would be no need for certain types of corrective considerations. As it is, levels of awareness concerning different cultural experiences directly influences the quality of all Americans’ lives.
What I knew and did not know about Josephine Baker’s story prior to studying it in depth for Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance had caused me to consider her in much less regard than I should have. But it wasn’t the victorious Baker and other Harlem Renaissance greats who had lost out to all those years of unknowing. It was me and other misinformed individuals like me.
From New Art Series Product Page:
"Cheers went up around the world in 2021 when French officials announced American-born actress, singer, and World War II spy Josephine Baker would become the first Black woman to be inducted into the Parisian Panthéon. The announcement made me smile because Josephine Baker is one the historic figures celebrated in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (this year 2023 is the 20th anniversary of the encyclopedia’s publication).
"The new 2023 edition prints of Baker featured in this series are mixed media and digitally textured interpretations of classic historical photographs and posters categorized as public domain. Some of the new prints are abstract expressionism, or surrealistic impressionism, and others enhanced antique sepia. Baker is widely celebrated during Women’s History Month, Black History Month, and in general as an iconic international entertainer. I sometimes think of her as America’s loss (due to the extreme Jim Crow racism practiced in the United States during her lifetime) and France’s gain."
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.