Josephine Baker’s postwar/Cold War “rainbow tribe”

The book that kept Matthew Pratt Guterl indoors all last summer was published last month by Harvard University’s Belknap Press.  Rebecca Onion gives it a nice rundown here at Slate:

Baker was born in St. Louis but moved to France in 1925. Her danse sauvage, famously performed in a banana skirt, brought her international fame. During World War II, she worked for the Red Cross and gathered intelligence for the French Resistance. After the war, married to her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, she struggled to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her career waned. Guterl’s book is about this period of Baker’s life, as she built her large adopted family, became ever more active on behalf of the nascent civil rights movement in the United States, and re-emerged into fame.

Baker purchased her estate, known as Les Milandes, after marrying Bouillon in 1947. In addition to the chateau, the property boasted a motel, a bakery, cafés, a jazz club, a miniature golf course, and a wax museum telling the story of Baker’s life. As Guterl makes clear, the place was over-the-top, but its ostentation was a political statement. Les Milandes, with its fairy-tale setting, announced to the world that African-American girls born poor could transcend nation and race and find wealth and happiness.

Guterl makes it sound like Baker’s family was kind of a multicultural Trapp Family Singers or a Partridge Family, crossed with the Dionne Quintuplets(What’s with all of this family-life-as-spectacle in the twentieth century?  One of you youngsters who cares about the twentieth century really should figure it all out & report back to us pronto.)

At the center of the attractions were Baker’s adopted children, from Finland, Japan, France, Belgium, Venezuela. During their school-age years, the 10 boys and two girls grew up in public. Just by existing as a multiracial, multinational family, they demonstrated Baker’s belief in the possibility of equality. They sang songs for paying visitors, appeared in print advertisements, gave interviews to curious press, and played in a courtyard in full view of what Guterl describes as “a wall of faces, watching and taking pictures.”

Guterl wrote the book because “I would begin to tell the story of Josephine Baker [and her multiracial, multicultural family], and people would start to laugh.”  Onion asks, “What would the Rainbow Tribe look like if we took it seriously?”

Guterl steps back, seeing the Tribe from Baker’s point of view. Baker was always an activist, wielding her international fame in the service of the civil rights movement in the United States. When she visited the States in the 1950s, she demanded that she be allowed to stay at the best hotels and play to integrated audiences.

Another bit of context: The Rainbow Tribe wasn’t the first, or the only, project of its kind. As Guterl notes, large, public, transracial families were a Cold War phenomenon in the United States. At a time when Americans worried about spreading communist influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, these “U.N. families,” featuring members from all continents, showed that “everyone, really, could be brought into the Western system.”

Guterl points to 1951 Life magazine coverage of the family of Helen and Carl Doss, a religious couple who adopted nine children, many of whom were from Asian countries; the story of the novelist Pearl S. Buck, who adopted seven children of different races and became a public advocate for interracial adoption; even the early history of the infamous Rev. Jim Jones, who adopted an interracial group that he nicknamed the Rainbow Family and that formed the core of his utopian cult.

This story about Guterl’s book makes me think about my 1970s U.S. Cold War suburban childhood and the multiracial families on our block.  My white family wasn’t a product of transnational adoption, but our white next-door-neighbors and another white family down the street for whom I babysat both had adopted Vietnamese children.  And the Quiros family across the street were from Argentina–I don’t remember anyone discussing the circumstances of their arrival in the U.S., but I’m pretty sure now that they were refugees from the Dirty War in that country.  The Cold War was right outside my front door, and I had no clue.

History is all around us in family history, all of the time.  Buy the book, and/or order it for your university’s library.

2 thoughts on “Josephine Baker’s postwar/Cold War “rainbow tribe”

  1. I hate to see a good post go uncommented on. I was thinking about this one, and I remembered that a couple of years ago I taught an urban-based graduate course (ironically on baseball, of all things), and–wanting to get the students’ consciousness well beyond the playing field and even outside the venue–(no small challenge), I put something in each week that was as deeply-contextual and non-specifically related to the main course subject area as possible. When we visited St. Louis in the first half of the 20th Century, I found Joseph Heathcott, “Black Archipelago: Politics and Civic Life in the Jim Crow City,” _J. Social History_ 28 (2005), 705-736, a close-up look at the Great Migration in that oddly southern and northern and western city. Not a ball or a strike or a long fly ball in the whole piece, but I thought it added to the depth and complexity of the subject. Some of the students, not so much…


  2. It is interesting how Baker used her strategy of performance in art (performing race, gender) to the everyday notion of performing family etc – in an attempt to disrupt the cultural hegemonic understanding of justice and fairness.
    I enjoyed this video and article.


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