The Harlem Renaissance, which flourished during the 1920s, was a cultural, artistic, and political movement—many of whose participants were brilliant queer people of color. Everyday this week we’re honoring their contributions in honor of this vital movement’s centennial anniversary.
It’s easy to be enamored by gorgeous black women in elegant gowns and shimmering headdresses. But honey, if there are drag queens recreating your iconic looks from back when bread cost a penny, you are a queer icon. I don’t make the rules.
Josephine Baker’s legacy is shrouded in mystery. Historians have told her story in many different ways. But let’s look at the things that we do know about Baker: Born in 1906, she left her native St. Louis, Missouri for New York during the Harlem Renaissance when she was 15. She went on to become the highest-paid black woman in the entertainment industry, a civil rights activist, a spy for the French government, and she helped bring forth the concept of a chosen family with her “Rainbow Tribe.”
Her sexy, queer-coded aesthetics and carefree blackness fortified the creative themes she absorbed from and popularized in the Harlem Renaissance. Today, drag queens of color are often seen channeling one of Baker’s vintage looks. In fact, according to Meredith Heller’s Queering Drag, she loved drag queens. I often imagine how excited she would be if she saw fabulous RuPaul’s Drag Race stars like Bebe Zahara Benet and Raja Gemini paying tribute to her.
Before her son Jean-Claude Baker’s biography, Josephine Baker: A Hungry Heart, originally published in 1976, there were many debates about Baker’s sexuality. All of her public relationships were with men, but many of them ended quickly. In the biography, Jean-Claude describes his mother’s relationship with men: “She used men to achieve what she wanted—in a way, she castrated men—but she was only comfortable with women,” he wrote.
Jean-Claude was one of her adopted Rainbow Tribe children. The Rainbow Tribe, consisting of 12 adopted children from different ethnic backgrounds and races, introduced the very queer concept of a chosen family. This concept is queer by nature because it is how many queer people, particularly queer people of color who were abandoned by their families, survived. The television show Pose and the documentary Paris Is Burning perfectly exemplify what a chosen family looks like: a group of marginalized people coming together to uplift one another.
In The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy, Billy J. Harbin writes, “Jean-Claude states that Josephine believed men were of greater importance than women because men had economic power; however, her passions were not confined to men. Once in a while—starting with Clara Smith—there would be a lady lover in Josephine’s life.”
History recorded Clara Smith as a mentor and “lady lover” to Baker, and, apparently it was Smith who introduced the performer to the queer world in Paris. Smith reportedly motivated Baker to cross conventional sexual boundaries during her performances, which is likely why Baker appealed to queerer audiences.
Josephine Baker: A Hungry Heart details how she kept her fans in the dark about her sexuality. Some of the other rumored lesbian relationships included the famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and the openly queer black American performer Ada “Bricktop” Smith.
Kahlo and Baker reportedly met in 1939. At the time, the famed artist was unhappily married to Diego Rivera. Similar to Baker’s rise to fame, Kahlo’s artwork wasn’t recognized until her move to France. At the time, Baker worked for the French Military Intelligence agency and was at the apex of her career as a performer. When she met Kahlo, Baker’s adoptive son explains that their connection was instant; they had a profound admiration for one another, especially in the boudoir.
Bricktop made no attempts to hide her admiration for Baker. In fact, she described her body as “the most beautiful bronze body in the world.” While the secretive Baker would not allow the truth of their affair to leak into the public, Bricktop admitted to Jean-Claude, after Baker’s death, that they were in a romantic relationship.
Moreover, Jean-Claude says that Baker’s lesbian affairs began around 1919, when she started touring the United States with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers. She reportedly had sexual relations with at least six female vaudeville performers.
Many of the discussions around Baker’s sexuality involves the fact that she was publicly anti-queer. Her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, from 1947 until their divorce in 1961, was bisexual, too. According to Jean-Claude, the couple would fight in the streets of Castlenaud and call one another homophobic slurs. She would call Bouillon a “faggot” on several occasions, and he would call her a “dyke.” Nevertheless, they did not hide their queerness from one another. It wasn’t uncommon for him to bring a man to her house, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to have a woman over.
Also, in the biography, her stepson recounts a time that Baker kicked out one of the Rainbow Tribe sons after catching him having sex with a man. According to the book, her reason for this was because she did not want him “contaminating” his other brothers.
The early 1900s was not particularly LGBTQ-friendly; even now, people use anti-queer language to conceal their own queerness. While this is disappointing behavior for a civil rights activist and freedom fighter like Baker, it is most certainly not surprising that she would resort to homophobia to shield her own bisexuality. Still, Josephine Baker died with many secrets and scandals, but the truth of her queerness shines even from her grave.