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Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Double Issue 6.1-6.2: Fall 2007/Spring 2008
Josephine Baker: A Century in the Spotlight

Colonial, Postcolonial, and Diasporic Readings of Josephine Baker as Dancer and Performance Artist
Mae Gwendolyn Henderson

... [P]opular culture, commodified and stereotyped as it often is, is not all, as we sometimes think of it, the arena where we find who we really are, the truth of our experience. It is an experience that is profoundly mythic. It is a theater of popular desires, a theater of popular fantasies. It is where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there who do not get the message, but to ourselves for the first time.

—Stuart Hall

... [I]dentities are about questions of using the resources of history, language, and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not "who we are" or "where we came from," so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves. Identities are therefore constituted within, not outside representation. Above all ... identities are constructed through, not outside, difference.

—Stuart Hall

Culture is an embodied phenomenon. This implies that one's cultural location is not fixed to any one geographical space. Cultures, in other words, are not inherently provincial by nature. They move and evolve with the bodies that create and live them.

—Jennifer Rahim

My earlier work on Josephine Baker positions her performances within the historical and cultural context of early twentieth-century French modernist primitivism. In "Josephine Baker and La Revue Nègre: From Ethnography to Performance," I argue that although Baker's early representation is cast in the dye of ethnographic primitivism, her performances are manifestly modernist in their conceptualization and staging. In the present essay, I seek to "flip the script," as it were, and examine Baker's eroticized and parodized dance performances as a set of mediating, self-constituting, and potentially oppositional practices shaped within the context of black vernacular and diasporic culture.

It is important, however, to recognize at the outset that Baker was not only a product of the French colonial imaginary, but also the producer of an image that contributed toward shaping that imaginary. And although my work has been largely predicated on the assumption that the image of Baker is shaped across the intersecting and sometimes antagonistic discourses of French colonialist and modernist aesthetics, I also establish Baker's agency as a self-authorizing text and self-constituting subject who is herself liable to diverse and sometimes contradictory and paradoxical readings.

Staged as popular entertainment and produced for profit and pleasure, Baker's public dance performances conform to popular culture critic Richard Dyer's definition of entertainment as "a type of performance produced for profit, performed before a generalized audience (the 'public') by a trained, paid [individual] who [does] nothing else, but produce performances which have the sole (conscious) aim of providing pleasure." Arguing that this form of production embodies the "usual struggle between capital (the backers) and labor (the performers)," Dyer insists that it is nevertheless the performers themselves who exercise the "dominant agency" for defining the form because, in entertainment, the workers—or the entertainers themselves—are "in a better position [than many others in the workforce] to determine the form of [their] product [and notably here the product is a "form" and not a "thing"]" (Dyer, 372).

Such a definition underscores how the performer, in this instance Josephine Baker, is able to exercise a degree of agency even when the conditions of performance and production are governed by the dynamics of the entertainment marketplace. The relationship between this mode of cultural production, especially as it marks and markets ethnic and gender difference, and the demands (consumption and regulation) of the dominant and hegemonic order in the 'circuit of culture' [Hall 1997] remains complex and often problematic. Notably, Dyer's larger argument turns on the escapist and wish-fulfilling, or utopic, functions of popular entertainment that "[offer] the image of 'something better' to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don't provide" (Dyer, 373). Baker's early stage performances—epitomized in the iconic danse sauvage, the finale of La Revue Nègre, and in the persona of the native girl Fatou in La Folie du Jour, whose sexualized banana dance represents the fulfillment of the sleeping explorer's dream fantasies—mirror and arguably constitute colonial desire as a longing for otherness imagined in terms of sexual and colonial conquest. It was the manipulation of such "utopian" imagery ("under Western eyes") that allowed Baker to exercise control and agency in the marketing of her image in an entertainment economy and cultural circuit based on the production and consumption of otherness.

As Paul Gilroy and others suggest, the "pleasure and danger" offered by black performers to the white spectator often found fulfillment in what anthropologist James Clifford calls "escapist exoticism." And demonstrably, Baker's artistic and commercial successes were not always "incompatible" with racist, patriarchal, or colonial assumptions. On the contrary, the dominant order would expect of such performances the ritual re-enactment of what Gilroy calls the "grand narrative of racial [and I would add sexual] domination" (Gilroy, 21). In fact, Baker's early performances were deliberately packaged to meet such demands and expectations. Further, important to understanding the impact of Baker's performances is the recognition that like any other signifying system and practice—language or music, for instance—dance plays a special role in the production of social and cultural identity. And arguably, it is the fluidity of dance as movement and modality that serves as a metaphor for articulating the migratory and transformative nature of culture, as well as the instability and contingency of corporate and social identities as they get produced in cultural and artistic performance.

For some critics and theorists, including Jacques Derrida, dance as a cultural and artistic form of expression functions to challenge static notions of identity by disrupting conventional binary constructions of the self. In his interview with Christie McDonald, Derrida speaks theoretically of the liberating and revolutionary potential of dance by invoking Emma Goldman's famous remark, "If I cannot dance, I will not be part of your revolution"—an observation that, as I read it, provides a metaphorical link between political transformation and the circular turns of dance movement. And although in his interview Derrida focuses on the deconstruction of sexual binaries, the function of dance as form and metaphor would seem to apply equally to other binary constructions of identity. Thus, Baker's dance performances—the form for which she was best known—position her as a kind of iconic signifier of identity "in the process of becoming rather than being" (Hall 1996).

In order to situate Baker in the French cultural and racial imaginary at the moment of her legendary emergence in Paris in the year 1925, I begin with two paradigmatic readings of Josephine Baker, one by the noted French dance critic André Levinson, and the other by the renowned American poet e.e. cummings. In his fittingly entitled "The Negro Dance under European Eyes," a review of Baker's performance in La Revue Nègre—which no doubt contributed to making this remarkable and historical event the succès de scandale that it became—André Levinson captures the extraordinarily seductive vitality of Baker's dance aesthetics while at the same time exposing the ethnocentrism of the colonial male gaze. Describing Baker as "an extraordinary creature of simian suppleness—a sinuous idol that enslaves and incites mankind," Levinson writes:

There seems to emanate from her violently shuddering body, her bold dislocations, her springing movement, a gushing stream of rhythm ... In the short pas de deux of the savages, which came as the finale of the Revue Nègre, there was a wild splendor and magnificent animality. Certain of Miss Baker's poses, back arched, haunches protruding, arms entwined and uplifted in a phallic symbol, had the compelling potency of the finest examples of Negro sculpture. The plastic sense of a race of sculptors came to life and the frenzy of African Eros swept over the audience. It was no longer a grotesque dancing girl that stood before them, but the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire. The dancer's personality had transcended the character of her dance. (Acocella and Garafola, 74; originally published in Theatre Arts Monthly, April 1927)

The implicit reference to l'art nègre invoked in Levinson's description of la danse sauvage aligns African ceremonial art with African-American popular and vernacular dance culture, while the atavistic signifiers of animality and wildness locate Baker within a European primitivist frame of reference. Moreover, by positioning himself as observer of an object d'art, Levinson effectively both domesticates the dance and, simultaneously, executes a defensive maneuver designed to shield himself (but apparently only himself and not the rest of "mankind") from the "frenzy of African Eros [that] swept the audience." Clearly, his narrative strains to contain the threat of difference represented by the powerful phallicism and feral animality encoding his reading of Baker's performance.

Further, bearing out Dyer's thesis, Levinson's reading would seem to construct Baker as surrogate for the colonies and their conquest (or seduction through the French mission civilisatrice). Reflecting the historical moment of France's interwar period, the representation of Baker functions here as the utopic object of what critic Elizabeth Ezra designates, in another context, as the "colonial unconscious." Ezra points out that "the apotheosis of la plus grand France was also its swan song"—the beginning of the end of the vast overseas empire comprised by the Third Republic's expansive colonialism, which extended from the colonies and protectorates in Indochina to central and North Africa, and the South Pacific. In Levinson's reading, however, the dangers of Baker's hypersexualization as a surrogate object of colonial desire are offset, as we shall see, by the safety afforded in her imaginary disembodiment, staged proleptically at the moment of France's future loss of empire.

Comparing Baker's seductiveness to that of Jeanne Duval, the mulatto woman with whom the French poet Charles Baudelaire was obsessed, the French critic's appropriative gaze transforms what he construes as "grotesque" [read: strange, bizarre, ludicrous, out of place, fantastic] into a kind of spectral presence ("the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire"). Here, Levinson metaphorically disembodies the performer ("the dancer's personality had transcended the character of the dance") and in doing so separates the "dancer" from the "dance." In his reading, the French critic grounds Baker's performance in the material body, but then proceeds to disembody or dematerialize the subject, and by extension, the performer. Because Levinson is unable to separate representation from embodiment, he cannot know the dancer from the dance.

By thus consigning Baker's performance to the illusory or "unreal" domain of the phantasm or phantasmagoria, Levinson is able to safeguard what he regards as "real" or "authentic" dance, presumably represented by the more traditional European concert or balletic dance, as the standard by which this category of performance must finally be adjudged. Further, Levinson's imperial account encodes Baker as a representation of savagery or exotic-erotic otherness within a dominant discourse representing the black woman as an object to be looked at rather than as a self-constituting subject.

Thus, while Baker's raucous, sensual, polyrhythmic Africanist (to appropriate dance critic Brenda Dixon Gottschild's useful term denoting "African-derived") performances may disrupt and transgress the balletic codes of performance on the one hand, they are also made to serve and reinforce the dominant standards and paradigms that define the signifier Dance in the French colonial imaginary, demonstrating author Toni Morrison's observation that "definitions [belong] to the definers—not the defined" (Beloved, 190). In other words, the ability to produce and exercise control over the dominant codes of signification is precisely what defines power and hegemony. From the perspective of dominance that Stuart Hall calls "compulsory Eurocentrism," Baker's dance performance can only be adjudged as "deviant, bizarre, unreal, or fantastic." Thus, Baker's performance and Levinson's reading together construct a scenario in which an ostensibly transgressive and potentially liberating performance can be re-signified to recuperate the signs and serve the meanings determined by the dominant order.

From a somewhat different perspective, the American poet, e. e. cummings, in his Vanity Fair review ("Vive la Folie!") of Baker's performance in the 1926 production of La Folie du Jour in which she debuted her famous banana girdle, recalls Baker's 1924 performance in Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's New York production of The Chocolate Dandies:

As a member of the Dandies chorus, she [Baker] resembled some tall, vital, incomparably fluid nightmare which crossed its eyes and warped its limbs in a purely unearthly manner—some vision which opened new avenues of fear, which suggested nothing but itself and which, consequently, was strictly aesthetic. (Firmage, 161; originally published in Vanity Fair, 1929)

As many readers will recognize, cummings' description here of Baker resembles nothing so much as Topsy, Harriet Beecher Stowe's "wild child" in Uncle Tom's Cabin—described by the American author (in tones eerily invoking Levinson's French colonialist reading) as "odd," "goblin-like," and "unearthly." Presenting Topsy to his cousin Ophelia as "a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line," her amused master, Augustine St. Clare, instructs the little slave urchin to "give us a song, now, and show us some of your dancing," an invitation to which Topsy responds with a 'performance of blackness' that is unmistakably evoked in cummings' description of Baker's performance in Chocolate Dandies. Stowe describes her character thusly:

The black, glassy eyes glittered with a kind of wicked drollery, and the thing [Topsy] struck up, in a clear shrill voice, an odd negro [sic] melody, to which she kept time with her hands and feet, spinning round, clapping her hands, knocking her knees together, in a wild, fantastic sort of time, and producing in her throat all those odd guttural sounds which distinguish the native music of her race. (Stowe, 271)

In cummings' rendering, Baker's "crossed eyes" and warbling limbs surely re-enact Topsy's "black, glassy eyes glittering with a kind of wicked drollery," while Topsy's "clapping hands" and "knocking knees" give proleptic embodiment to the "incomparably fluid nightmare" of Baker's minstrel-like performance in Dandies. And it is the transformation of this seemingly "terrifying nightmare" into the "most beautiful ... star of the Parisian stage" that brings shock and delight to the American poet, who is captivated by the "perfectly fused [and] entirely beautiful body and a beautiful command of its entirety" (Firmage, 161-162). Describing her performance on the stage of the Folies Bergère, the poet further muses:

[Baker] enters through a dense electric twilight, walking backwards on hands and feet, legs and arms stiff, down a huge jungle tree—as a creature neither infrahuman nor superhuman but somehow both: a mysterious unkillable something, equally non primitive and uncivilized, or beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic.... By the laws of its own structure, which are the irrevocable laws of juxtaposition and contrast, the revue is a use of everything trivial or plural to intensify what is singular and fundamental ... Mlle. Josephine Baker. (Firmage, 162-163)

Like Levinson, cummings' review encodes an atavistic and phallic image of "a creature walking backwards ... legs and arms stiff," ironically descending from the plinth of nature into the white male colonial dream world, an image that conflates the world of nature and that of human desire. Juxtaposing the affects of modern technology with that of the savage jungle staging ("Baker enters through a dense electric twilight"), cummings' description of her arboreal descent metaphorically fragments her body into "hands and feet [and] legs and arms," enacting a linguistic dismemberment that re-inscribes the discourse of American slavery, but framed within the discourse of the European primitivist colonial imaginary. Thus, while cummings' reading of Baker's 1926 performance necessarily reflects a postcolonial, that is to say American, perspective not entirely dissimilar to his reading of Baker's earlier performance, his re-construction of Baker also bears the imprint of the colonial gaze that is exemplified in Levinson's reading.

Again, like Levinson, cummings' reading of Baker registers the affect of her performance more than it does her presence; in fact, her presence in both readings is defined paradoxically by her spectacular absence. Cummings, in fact, locates Baker in a space of radical negation—that is say in terms of what she is not: "as a creature neither infrahuman nor superhuman but somehow both ... equally nonprimitive and uncivilized ..." (italics mine). The multiple negations here, in effect, beg the question of her actual "humanity," culminating in the incantation of "a mysterious unkillable something" [italics mine], an image that not only confounds Baker's location between the civilized and primitive, but significantly betrays the poet's inability to position the subject between the less than human ("infrahuman") and more than human ("superhuman"). Finally, unable to successfully de-colonize the postcolonial gaze, cummings's construction of Baker morphs from the embodied and fragmented representation in the "colonial unconscious" into something transcendent, indestructible, and irreducible, suggesting her release, whether from the captivity of her earlier minstrel masquerade ("the Folies Bergère permits Josephine Baker to appear—for the first time on any stage—as herself") or from her entrapment in the hunter's colonial dreamscape, remains equivocal. Unknowable, indefinable, unnamable, unclassifiable, the performing subject can only be conjured by the poet as "a mysterious unkillable something."

Notably, cummings' readings of Baker's performance in the Folies Bergère fixate on qualities that he describes as "singular and fundamental." And speaking of her earlier performance in Chocolate Dandies, he observes that it "suggests nothing but itself and ... consequently, was strictly aesthetic" (Firmage, 161). Similar to Levinson, then, who compares Baker "to the finest examples of Negro sculpture," cummings aligns her performance with the elitist and modernist notion of "aesthetics" that is defined by its singularity and self-referentiality. Ultimately, whether grotesque or beautiful, immanent or transcendent, nightmarish or sublime, in the poet's imagination Baker is constructed in terms of oxymorons: "uncouth" and "exquisite," "personal" and "racial," "rigid" and "liquid," contradictions specific to the a-cultural and de-historicized modernist notion of aesthetics prevalent during the period. Finally, while revealing himself transformed by the power and force of Baker's performance, as a spectator, cummings actually fails to apprehend, or "see," the subject who represents, for him, an ambiguous and allusive figuration of modernist aesthetics. Words fail the poet: the image before him remains "beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic"—or, as I read this rather extraordinay passage, in the sense that passion exceeds reason, and sensation exceeds the sensible.

To recapitulate, Levinson and cummings' readings are meant not only to expose the workings of the French colonial and the American postcolonial imaginary—along with the workings of the dominant (critical and poetic) codes of aesthetic signification as they construct Baker's performances—but, more importantly for my purposes, to make a case for shifting the frame of reference within which to read Baker's performances. Just as I argue that Baker's dance performances disrupt an ethnocentric colonial discourse of dance on the one hand and a postcolonial, modernist, aestheticized notion of performance on the other, so this project is intended to disrupt the discursive frames of reading and reference represented paradigmatically by Levinson and cummings' reviews of Baker's performances.

The erasure of Baker's embodied subjectivity encoded in the above readings and representations effectively obliterates dance itself as both an identity-constituting performance and as a signifying system capable of a politics of resistance. The counter-reading proposed here is thus based on a twofold assumption: first, that Baker's dancing—which I re-read in the context of diaspora—enacts the potential for resistance (though not in ways that are unproblematic), and second, that her performances are fundamentally personally and culturally identity-constituting. In this way, Baker's dance performances, I argue, manifest the potential to unsettle the (post)colonial gaze, and thereby disrupt the dominant and hegemonic discourse.

Notably, Baker is rarely, if ever, acknowledged as a figure in the history of dance. Although lionized as an entertainer, she has not traditionally been regarded as a serious dancer by scholars in the field—which is to say that she was not, strictly speaking, a concert or ballet dancer, although it is noteworthy that Baker did dance on point in pieces choreographed by George Balanchine in the 1936 Ziegfield Follies.

Moreover, in spite of her likely classification as an ethnic (some would say primitive) dancer, Baker is finally associated neither with the "social-protest" dance tradition of a Pearl Primus nor with the anthropological-folk tradition of a Katherine Dunham, both located within a tradition of modern dance that would not take root in the United States until the 1930s and 1940s. And unlike these signal figures, who are associated with the history of modern black dance, Baker is regarded not as a choreographer, but a performer. Baker is thus not only a marginalized, but often neglected, figure in the history of American dance, modern dance, and even black dance.

My aim here is not only to claim a chapter for Baker in the narrative of African-American dance, but to extend that narrative by positioning Baker as a "cultural mediator" through her contribution to the dispersion of black modern dance. My proposed reading thus situates Baker's dance repertoire at the site of cultural mediation, where her performances negotiate between different cultures, translating and transforming the dance codes and practices of one complexly syncretic culture into those of other worlds and cultures.

As such, Josephine Baker joins a tribe that art critic Wanda Corn identifies as le type transatlantic [the transatlantic type], a cohort defined by its status as "bicontinental." As evident in the lyrics of her signature song, "J'ai Deux Amours," ["I Have Two Loves"], Baker indeed became a "migrant artist," fashioning herself as both an American and a Parisian. But if her lyrics re-inscribe her artistic status as "bicontinental," her performances associate her with the expansive colonialism of France's Third Republic, the modernity of American jazz, and the primitivism of the tribal rhythms of Africa, thus rendering Baker, in some respects, as "tricontinental"—in a kind of triangulated, transatlantic cultural economy.

The history of African-American dance has its roots in an African and African diasporic culture dating back to the arrival of enslaved Africans who brought with them to the shores of North America, South America, and the Caribbean the religious and ceremonial dances that were integral to the indigenous cultures and communities of the African homeland. Plantation dances such as the ring dance and juba migrated from the plantation to the minstrel stage and later to the Broadway musical revue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the introduction of the cakewalk in the 1890s to such popular dances as the Charleston, the black bottom, and the jitterbug in the 1920s and 1930s, black dance in its myriad forms traveled an international circuit from Harlem to Paris and beyond. Black musicals, including the popular Shuffle Along, Runnin' Wild, and Chocolate Dandies, provided showcases for black dance talent during this period.

Dance critic and historian James Haskins notes that during the early twentieth century, there were no recognized black choreographers or dance "stars" in the United States, though he contends that "the best black dancers were well known among blacks and among white dancers, but not to the general public. The dances themselves were the stars" (Haskins, 53). Haskins further notes that many whites were disposed to believe that blacks could not perform classical European dances. Typical of this attitude was the comment made in 1933 by New York Times dance critic, John Martin, who wrote, "Negroes cannot be expected to do dances designed for another race" (Haskins, 81). The conventional (white) wisdom, then, was that blacks were natural-born dancers who required no training and that any attempt to train them would lead to inauthentic dancing—or a loss of originality and spontaneity (Haskins, 82). Arguably, however, it is the politics and practices of exclusion that would seem both to limit and free the creativity of the black dancer. Nevertheless, such racist and essentialist assumptions not only erase the practice and apprenticeship that inevitably underpin the achievement of black dancers (and this notwithstanding Baker's own naturalization of her dance performance), but they also fail to consider the ways in which dance as a form of cultural expression works materially to produce social identity; in other words, such racial logic ignores how dance becomes constitutive rather than merely reflective of identity.

In the common parlance of the 1920s, Baker might also have been described as an eccentric dancer, which is to say that her movements were more improvised than formalized. In other words, her performances were "off-center" (i.e., eccentric") in the sense that they were fundamentally non-reiterative. Today, her performance would most likely be labeled "free style" or "ad-lib." Central to Baker's dance performances are the principles of mimicry, syncretism, and improvisation, all compositional strategies marked by the interpolation of non-scripted improvisation into the pre-scripted vocabulary of black social and vernacular dance. The grammar and syntax of Baker's dance performances are thus governed by her soloist improvisations on black American social and vernacular dance, not infrequently combined with elements of contemporary French music hall performance, in addition to traditional African and African-derived social dance (Baker learned to dance the popular 1930's beguine in the Martiniquan Pavilion at the 1931 Colonial Exposition). It is precisely for this reason that Baker can be understood as a diasporic dancer whose stage performances represent a creolization or hybridization of cultural performance in the context of a triangulated, transatlantic economy of cultural exchange. (And, importantly, I use the term "creolization" advisedly to refer to dance forms external to the West that became naturalized or acculturated through their importation into a new environment.)

In Europe, Baker instituted a form and style of dancing based on the "performance of quotation" (Firth, 17) in which she appropriated and recombined diverse social dance grammars and vocabularies. In this way, aesthetic pleasure as well as cultural and economic capital were generated by juxtaposing and intermingling diverse dance articulations in circumstances that were novel and far removed from their original geographical and cultural locations, thus reinforcing the idea that culture is always migratory and subject to transformation. As a diasporic dancer, Baker's performances combine popular, ritual, and social dance with individual improvisation—in a polyglot and creolized style that I term idiosyncratic, my neologism for designating Baker's idiosyncratic syncretism combining multiple and diverse popular dance forms.

As an idiosyncratic Africanist dancer, Baker created a diasporic and cross-cultural medley of dance performance that was fundamentally constitutive and mediatory. Baker's most identifiable strategy was her polyrhythmic and improvisatory response to diverse forms and traditions—improvisatory in the sense that her moves are often based on freestyle and fundamentally non-reiterative patterns of repetition with a difference. Notably, most of the vernacular routines "quoted" in Baker's performances were choreographed for musical performances, although the dancers were not "trained" in the current sense of the term. After all, black dancers learned their moves not only from the stage, but also in the rural, southern juke joints and their northern, urban counterparts, the local dance halls. Baker added to these venues through her appropriation of Parisian music halls and colonial expositions as sites of training and learning.

However, in contrast to the smoother balletic moves of the French chorines who characteristically performed in French variety shows, Baker's dance performances were based typically on black social and vernacular dances like the acrobatic "flash acts," the shimmy sha wabble, the black bottom, the itch, the heebie jeebies, the eagle rock, the quiver, the bump and grind, the mess around, the funky chicken, and the ever-popular Charleston. Significantly, these dances featured "improvised torso and limb movements" that, according to Gottschild, "rhythmically articulate the breasts, belly, and buttocks" (Gottschild, 158-9).

Like other forms of black expressive culture, social and vernacular dance functions potentially as a marker of collective, or corporate, social identity, a vehicle of social consciousness, and an avenue of transgression and cultural critique (Levine). At the same time, however, Baker's diasporizing and creolizing of black social and vernacular dance notably both confirm and (implicitly) challenge some of Stuart Hall's notions regarding identity and performance—insofar as her performances rework black diasporic dances not necessarily "by imposing an imaginary coherence on the experience of dispersal and fragmentation," nor by "[restoring] an imaginary fullness or plenitude to the collective experience [of diaspora]," but by exporting, disseminating, and creolizing black diasporic dance (Hall 1996).

I would argue, then, that Baker's social and cultural identities—insofar as these get constituted in a black vernacular and African-derived dance—are grounded in a diasporic culture, shaped by migrating and creolized dance forms and conventions that began, in fact, as early as the sixteenth century with the forced transit of the African slaves to the Americas, and that continues in the current migrations of Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino, Afro-Brazilian, and African-American dance culture. It is then arguably in large part due to Josephine Baker's performances in the 1920s and 1930s that black vernacular and social dance has continued the transatlantic migration, this time extending and reversing the journey back across the Atlantic from the Americas to Europe and Africa. As such, it would seem appropriate to fashion black diasporic dance—and its triangulated, transatlantic migrations—as both an embodiment and trope for the global migration of a black cultural identity that continues to impact contemporary world culture.

Emerging from a tradition of minstrelsy and burlesque, Baker brought to her performances a comedic and often carnivalesque turn. And as I argue elsewhere, Baker's signature mugging (her funny faces and crossed-eyes) not only provided comic relief in her provocative performances, but also had the effect of ironizing her highly sexualized and frequently acrobatic antics. It is evident that the diasporic medley, or pastiche, that characterizes Baker's performances was grounded in the American vaudevillian and burlesque traditions that had provided the early training ground for her comedic improvisation. The compositional strategies driving her performances are thus based on the tactics and techniques of exaggeration, caricature, pantomime, mimicry, pastiche, and parody. However, what sometimes renders Baker's performances controversial—subjecting them to recuperative readings that arguably reinforce dominant race and gender stereotypes—is precisely her appropriation of the strategies by which parody does its work.

Parody is constituted by an alternate system of signification by which codes designated as "parodic" enter into, engage, and interrogate the dominant and hegemonic systems of signification. However, it is precisely the dominant discursive order that controls and produces the available primary codes or signs of signification. The parodic performer must therefore appropriate the dominant codes of signification, even when the aim is to re-signify meaning. Thus, when mocking, satirizing, parodying, or otherwise subverting and calling into question the dominant and hegemonic signifying system, the employment (or redeployment) of these available signs and codes unavoidably risks validating, if not indeed valorizing, the original system of signification. Thus, in translating black vernacular and diasporic performance into a rhetoric of parodized pastiche, Baker's performances inevitably risk reproducing gender and race clichés, caricatures, and stereotypes as they are produced by the dominant and hegemonic discourse. In a performance vocabulary based on repetition with a difference—that is, repeating the dominant structures of signification, but with an articulation of transgressive difference—the repetition runs the risk (depending on the reader, the reading position, and the scene of reading) of reinforcing dominant codes, while the difference often gets diminished or overshadowed. It is therefore possible for the reader—Levinson or cummings, for example—to decode/recode the grammar and vocabulary of performance according to the dominant (aesthetic, critical, or political) codes of signification. Consequently, such readings often resist or overlook the intended performative re-signification, resulting in the perpetuation and circulation of signs and codes that essentialize, naturalize, and fix difference (Hall 2003).

In summary, the conflicting and sometimes controversial readings of Josephine Baker's performances—past and present/post(colonial) and diasporic—demonstrate the complex interplay between popular culture, representation, and social identity. Such responses also facilitate an understanding of the politics of reception to the parodic performances of blackness typified in contemporary black popular culture—particularly hip-hop culture—in its risky subversion/recuperation of dominant racial, gender and sexual stereotypes and clichés. In an attempt to subvert popular and demeaning historical stereotypes of black masculinities and femininities, hip-hop performances often risk the (re)production of stereotypes that become susceptible to re-appropriation by the dominant order to serve its own racist, sexist and ethnocentric structure of meaning and signification.

This essay, composed in commemoration of the 100th birthday of Josephine Baker, thus concludes on a celebratory but cautionary note that is meant to call attention to the ways in which performance—the arena in which we are other-identified and self- imagined—contains the power and potential to be simultaneously transgressive and recuperative, repressive and liberating, constraining and enabling—a source of danger and pleasure.

This essay is part of a larger project on Josephine Baker as performing artist and political activist. I would like to express my genuine appreciation to Thomas F. DeFrantz, Peggy Phelan, and David Palumbo-Liu for their generous and thought-provoking responses to this phase of my project. I also wish to thank the staff at Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library for granting me access to the Josephine Baker papers.

Works Cited and Consulted

Acocella, Joan, and Lynn Garafola, eds. André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1991.

Cummings, E.E. "Vive la Folie!" E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised. Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House Inc., 1965. Originally published in Vanity Fair, 1926.

Corn, Wanda. The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935. University of California Press, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques and Christie V. McDonald. "Cherchez la Femme: Feminist Critique/Feminine Text," Diacritics, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer 1982).

Dyer, Richard. "Entertainment and Utopia" in The Cultural Studies Reader, second edition, ed. Simon During. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Firth, Simon. "Music and Identity" in Questions of Cultural Identity. Eds. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay. London: Sage Publications, 1996.

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