This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 15, 2008 - On July 2 1917, 11-year-old Freda Josephine McDonald witnessed the horrors of the East St. Louis race riots.
As reported in Harper Barnes' book, "Never Been a Time," her brother Richard asked, "Is there a storm coming, Mama?"
"No, not a storm, child, it's the whites."
Several years later, the same girl bore a different name, and called a different country her home. Instead of discrimination, Josephine Baker (1906-1975) received acclaim and thousands of love letters from French admirers of her musical act, which was lauded for traversing delicate sexual and racial boundaries.
On Wednesday, the United States Postal Service will release a commemorative stamp featuring the poster of Baker's film, "Princess Tam Tam." The stamp is one of five in the Vintage Black Cinema Stamps series, and its issuing touches on a debate surrounding the significance of the international star in American culture.
Baker became known for her dancing, humor, artistic racial commentary, expertise in jazz, and near-nudity on stage. To celebrate the commemoration of a hometown hero who has a star emblazoned on the Walk of Fame, the Sheldon Art Gallery will host a free first-day-of-sales event at 2 p.m. July 15.
When she was alive, Baker's reception in the United States was often less than welcoming. For example, a quarrel with columnist Walter Winchell in 1951 that involved his calling her un-American and communist, led to Baker being under government surveillance for 17 years.
"The stamp is an attempt to reclaim her for America," said Anne Cheng, a Princeton University professor who is writing a book about Baker's influence on high-modernist art. "In the beginning she was considered shameful. ... Finally, America is ready to welcome her. Well, in her clothed version."
The stamp could be seen as posthumous reconciliation. Though America hardly treated Baker well, her years in St. Louis shaped her amorphous career. "She witnessed the riots, and they affected her whole life," said Harper Barnes, cultural critic and author of the recent book about the race riots, "Never Been a Time."
According to Barnes' book, during a 1952 performance Baker discussed the impact of the flames' on her artistic consciousness: "That glow in the sky of the burning houses, the screams, the terror, the tears of the unfortunate children that had lost their parents -- this kept coming before me on the stage," Baker said. "I finally understood that I was marked by God to try to fight for the freedom of those that were being tortured."
Like her stage acts, Baker's fight assumed many forms. Baker dropped out of Lincoln Elementary School to seek a life on stage. She worked her way up to a solo part in the Dixie Steppers vaudeville show and honed her skills on the road. She shuffled between different acts, eventually landing in Paris in 1925, performing in La Revue Negre.
In Paris, Baker's stardom exploded. Her pelvic gyrations and personas became legendary. Her pet cheetah, Chiquita, lunged at the orchestra. Her banana skirt made an indelible mark on culture. Singer Beyonce Knowles appeared in the 2006 Fashion Rocks event wearing her own version of the skirt.
Columbia University Professor of Jazz Bob O'Meally said that, despite her rocky relationship with the United States, Baker is an American icon. "As somebody who really took vernacular expression from the streets of St. Louis, and from vaudeville circuits of the south, to Europe, she's very important. ... She was an African-American woman from the bottom of social hierarchy pronouncing American values at their best."
Baker's legacy also lies in her civil rights activism. In 1951, she toured the United States and insisted that all audiences be integrated by threatening lawsuits against theaters. Baker adopted 12 children from different ethnic backgrounds, forming the "rainbow tribe." As the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington rally, she stood next to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but declined Coretta Scott King's request to lead the movement following her husband's assassination.
Thirty-three years after Baker's death, the Postal Service's stamp cements Baker's heroism -- and maybe helps cool tensions about the entertainer's misgivings about her native country. "I think this is a time of racial reconciliation," Barnes said.
Cheng said she feels ambivalent about the stamp and its significance. "My cynicism is that the American audience was not interested in her for many years. This posthumous reclamation of her for America is a little bit hypocritical," Cheng said.
According to Cheng, Baker's 2006 centennial revived American interest and fostered a renewed understanding of Baker's civil rights contributions. "For awhile she was just seen as this stripper. I am a little bit cynical about the ways in which America now tries to idealize her." Still, Cheng said, "I'm incredibly pleased that she is recognized."
O'Meally praised the aptness of specifically issuing a stamp in Baker's memory. "It's interesting that she was such a traveler," O'Meally said. "It's so appropriate that she will represent communication and travel across the cities, states, and world as a face on a stamp."
Joy Resmovits, a junior at Barnard College in New York, is an intern at the Beacon.