Discover the fascinating and singular life story of Josephine Baker—actress, singer, dancer, Civil Rights activist, member of the French Resistance during WWII, and a woman dedicated to erasing prejudice and creating a more equitable world—in Josephine Baker’s Last Dance.
In this illuminating biographical novel, Sherry Jones brings to life Josephine's early years in servitude and poverty in America, her rise to fame as a showgirl in her famous banana skirt, her activism against discrimination, and her many loves and losses. From 1920s Paris to 1960s Washington, to her final, triumphant performance, one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century comes to stunning life on the page.
With intimate prose and comprehensive research, Sherry Jones brings this remarkable and compelling public figure into focus for the first time in a joyous celebration of a life lived in technicolor, a powerful woman who continues to inspire today.
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Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Josephine Baker’s Last Dance includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Famous for her sexually charged performances as a scantily clad Paris revue showgirl, Josephine Baker also had a secret career as a pilot and intelligence spy for the French Resistance during World War II, and as a Civil Rights activist who was the only woman invited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.
In this revealing biographical novel, Sherry Jones revisits Josephine Baker’s difficult childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, and examines some of her many troubling experiences with discrimination that would propel her lifelong fight for racial justice.
As Josephine’s star rises in Europe, she finds herself mingling with some of the greatest artists of the Jazz age, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Colette, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin. Following her extraordinary transformation from “Tumpy” McDonald to Joséphine, “Queen of Paris,” and her momentous decision to become a citizen of France, Baker experiences personal and professional triumphs and disappointments that reveal her fascinating character in all of its complexity.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Josephine Baker’s home life in St. Louis, Missouri. How is Josephine’s determination to succeed as a performer related to her desire to escape her family and its problems?
2. “I’ll turn you in to that truant officer. He’ll send your ass to reform school so fast it will make your head spin” (pg. 62). Describe Carrie McDonald’s behavior toward her daughter, Josephine. Why does McDonald refuse to reveal Josephine’s father’s identity? How do Carrie’s maternal negligence and the family’s economic hardship contribute to Josephine’s victimization?
3. While convalescing from an injury caused by an abusive employer, Josephine experiences a vision of God crowning her in glory. How does this ecstatic vision sustain her throughout her life, and what does it suggest about her sense of purpose?
4. “Too young, too dark, too ugly. She would show him; she would show them all” (pg. 101). How does the racism that Josephine encounters as an entertainer in America compare to her treatment in France?
5. Why does Josephine’s performance in the finale of La Revue Nègre in Paris alter the course of her career? To what extent does Josephine’s participation in a performance that plays to stereotypes of black people as savages suggest she is intent on reclaiming her image? How much of the public scandal surrounding the Savage Dance seems grounded in nudity and how much in racial fetishism?
6. How does Josephine’s relationship with “Count” Pepito Abatino impact her personal and her professional life, both positively and negatively? In your discussion, you may want to consider how Abatino’s cultivation of Baker’s celebrity and her eponymous brands (a line of dolls, hair straightener line, her Chez Joséphine boîte) in Paris in the late 1920s helps to establish her as the city’s “It Girl.”
7. “‘We will transform you,’ Pepito had said in proposing the world tour . . . No more naked nichons; no more banana skirts; no more jungle acts. ‘You will depart from Paris a primitive caterpillar and return a sophisticated butterfly’” (pg. 219). In what ways does her world tour recalibrate Josephine’s focus as a performer and her consciousness as a citizen of the world?
8. Discuss Josephine’s experience with the rise of Nazism in Europe during the years leading up to World War II? What connections does she make between the rise of Hitler and racial and religious hatred with the racial violence she witnessed as young girl in Missouri?
9. Why does the powerful New York City theater owner Lee Shubert refuse to give Josephine star billing in Ziegfield Follies? To what extent does his decision seem justified? What might explain the discrepancy in Josephine Baker’s critical reception in France and in the United States?
10. “‘She is more French than the French,’ Danny said” (pg. 264). What does Baker’s renunciation of her American citizenship in favor of becoming a French citizen suggest about her loyalty? Discuss Josephine’s willingness to help members of the French Resistance defeat the Nazis. How does Josephine’s celebrity serve as a useful cover for her intelligence reconnaissance on behalf of the Deuxième Bureau?
11. “If I can’t have babies, I don’t want to live” (pg. 312). What does Josephine Baker’s unrequited longing to bear a child of her own reveal? How do her losses of a series of unborn babies through abortion, miscarriages, and an emergency hysterectomy affect her? How does her Rainbow Tribe of twelve adopted children fulfill her dream of motherhood?
12. Discuss the arc of Josephine Baker’s sexuality over the course of the novel. In what ways is Baker a sexual victim, and how does she use her sexuality as a means to achieve an end? How does Josephine’s attraction to women and men contribute to the chameleonic quality of her sexual aura?
13. “She had two loves but only one had loved her back” (pg. 323). How does Josephine Baker’s signature song, “J’ai Deux Amours,” in which she acknowledges her dual loves for “my country and Paris,” reveal the tensions she experienced as an American citizen who felt most at home in her adopted country of France?
14. Discuss the significance of Josephine Baker’s 1951 show at the Copa City club in Miami, the first mixed-race nightclub performance in the American South. How does Baker’s insistence on an integrated audience serve as a catalyst for a wider inclusion of black Americans in other cultural events?
15. “She beat relentlessly against prejudice like waves breaking against a stone wall . . . and now she stands before her people to bear witness” (pg. 362). How does Josephine Baker’s speech at the March on Washington represent the culmination of her life’s work? How might her circuitous path as an entertainer be more completely appreciated in light of her lifetime commitment to racial justice?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Josephine Baker’s emergence as a black ingénue in Paris came about at the height of the flapper movement, a time in history when young women were repudiating conservative Victorian culture by listening to jazz, smoking, and embracing their newfound liberation through short skirts, cropped hair, and cosmetics. For your book group’s next gathering, ask members to consider wearing jewelry, clothes, or other accessories inspired by the Roaring Twenties of Josephine Baker. How does the style of the Jazz Age differ from contemporary fashion? How important is the fashion of a milieu to its social history?
2. Josephine Baker’s comedic gifts were a key element of her appeal to audiences. Her goofiness and joie de vivre is especially evident in period footage of her revues and performances. During your next gathering as a group, view some of the many contemporaneous clips of Baker on www.youtube.com. If your group is interested in viewing a feature-length film starring Baker, you may want to consult https://www.cmgww.com/stars/baker/, the official website of Josephine Baker, which not only includes a comprehensive list of her work but also includes a list of appealing quotes by Baker.
3. Josephine Baker is a remarkable study in contrasts—an American-born woman of color who finds herself especially beloved by white audiences in Europe; an illegitimate child of poverty who achieves international fame and personal wealth; an entertainer equally at home in a racy banana skirt and the uniform of the French Air Force; a woman unable to bear children of her own who eventually becomes a mother to twelve adopted children. With your group, examine some of the extraordinary qualities that define Josephine Baker and make her a compelling historical figure.