- Wini Ashooh
Josephine Baker was an African-American singer, dancer, actor, and political activist who rose to prominence in the 1920s. In the book Josephine, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson, her astonishing life is recounted with powerful text as well as enthralling images. Her story is one of struggle, perseverance, and resilience. Her strength of character and fortitude helped her navigate the precarious pathways of life more than once.
Josephine's story began in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906. She was born to a single mother who was living in a raucous town. Her mother loved to dance but scrubbed floors instead to pay the bills. Josephine shared her mother's love of dance, but she was not going to spend the rest of her life scrubbing floors. So, at the age of 13 she ran away with a vaudeville troupe called the Dixie Steppers. That was the beginning of her showbiz career. Josephine loved the applause. She was hooked. She begged the director Mr. Bob Russell to let her dance on stage. But he said that her skin was too light "to fit in with the other girls." Josephine was stuck in an unusual place. She was too light to fit in with the other African-American dancers, but she was black in a segregated America.
"Wasn't there a place in the world where color didn't matter?" After performing at the Plantation Club, her charming expressions and comic movements delighting the crowd, she was offered an opportunity to perform in La Revue Negre in Paris. It was in Paris that she would find the acceptance for which she yearned. It was in Paris that her name would become world-renowned. Josephine was famous for her avant-garde performances and daring costumes. Her stage presence was energizing.
This book takes the story of Josephine Baker beyond her well-known performances and continues with her return to the United States. I learned that she adopted 12 children of different races and from different countries. She called them her Rainbow Tribe.
Her life took a sad turn in her later years, but again that resilience and fortitude paid off. She got herself back on her feet and returned to the stage.
Though Josephine is cataloged as a children's book, with its lively illustrations and captivating text it will appeal to teenagers and adults as well. It is a great American story about one incomparable performer.