In this multi-layered portrait of one of the most famous African-American performers of the 20th century for Chicago Review Press’s Women of Action series, Peggy Caravantes presents us with Josephine Baker: a flamboyant, difficult woman whose dream of integration and peaceful co-existence of people of different races was admirable but led her to make choices that were personally problematic, impractical, and wildly expensive.
Caravantes leads us carefully through Baker’s life–from her 1906 birth in a poverty-stricken African-American family, her rise to stardom and enormous wealth by the time she was only 20 years old, her many marriages, her attempts to end segregation by insisting on integrated audiences at her shows, her work as a spy for France during World War II, her political faux pas, and her decision to adopt 12 children of different ethnic and religious backgrounds and raise this “rainbow tribe” as an example of what is possible in a multi-cultural family.
Caravantes does not try to scrub Baker’s life clean of its many contradictions. Baker was generous but she was also a spendthrift and went through her riches so fast that she was broke by the end of her life and had to beg for help from people like Fidel Castro and Princess Grace of Monaco for help in supporting her children. Baker was charismatic but unstable; while she could be lavishly kind (even when she couldn’t afford it), she could also fail to pay the people who worked for her–and she might fire them at a whim. Many men and women loved her, but she was unable to stay in a relationship because of her volatile temper. If she got mad, she’d permanently remove people from her life–directors who had hired her, husbands and lovers, even one of her children. Though Baker wanted to see justice and civil rights prevail, her own lack of education made her vulnerable to charges of Communism, among other things, because of her public judgments of error, such as when she praised and supported Argentinian president Juan Perón because she didn’t understand how the U.S. government viewed him.
What I love about this biography is that it doesn’t try to present Baker as an unadulterated heroine. Rather, it presents her to the world, faults and all. She was a strong voice and champion for civil rights, but she had personal problems that negated some of the good she did. Teens need nuanced biographies like this in order to understand their own place in the world and to understand that “good deeds” and “good ideas” can be unconsciously undermined. It’s easy to want to have perfect heroes and heroines–we all desire saviors–but biographies like this help ground us in the real world.