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‘An impossible human being’: St. Louis native Josephine Baker and her quest for a racial utopia

Josephine Baker, who grew up in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood and lived much of her adult life in France, is the focus of an episode of “The Nod.”
Jac. de Nijs | Dutch National Archives
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Josephine Baker, who grew up in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood and lived much of her adult life in France, is the focus of an episode of “The Nod.”";s:

Josephine Baker is remembered for being many different things over the course of her remarkable life – a burlesque performer, a film actress, an activist, even a war hero. Less well known is the St. Louis-born celebrity’s role as a mother to 12 ethnically diverse children she began adopting in the 1950s as her “rainbow tribe.”

Now based in New York City with Gimlet Media, producer Emanuele Berry was a co-founder of St. Louis Public Radio’s “We Live Here” podcast.
Credit Photo courtesy of Emanuele Berry
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Now based in New York City with Gimlet Media, producer Emanuele Berry was a co-founder of St. Louis Public Radio’s “We Live Here” podcast.

That personal quest to build a racial utopia is at the center of a recently released podcast episode from Gimlet Media and was also in focus during Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. Producer Alex Heuer spoke with Emanuele Berry, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio and now a producer for Gimlet’s “The Nod,” about her interest in Baker’s life and legacy.

Berry described Baker, who was born in 1906, as “an impossible human being” who somehow managed to take part in a wide variety of activities “at a time when for a black woman it shouldn’t have been possible.” After growing up in a poor household in St. Louis, she moved to New York City at age 15, and then on to France, soon finding success as an entertainer despite experiencing blatant segregation and racism.

Baker’s unusual journey – and particularly the unique family she cobbled together in an attempt to fix the deep-seated problems she observed in her mid-20th-century world – resonated with Berry.

“This idea of a utopia, or this idea of escaping racial prejudice or finding a space where it’s OK to be a black person,” she said, “is something that I have thought about a lot and that I’m really, really interested in.”

 

Listen to the full episode from “The Nod” here.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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