Dancing in a Banana Skirt in the City of Music: Josephine Baker in 1920s Vienna

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM
Room 201 (Hilton Atlanta)
Kira Thurman, University of Akron
It didn’t help that Josephine Baker had decided to ride an ostrich down the Ringstrasse of Vienna after her arrival. And as rumor spread that that some of her dancing numbers were so outrageous and indecent they might require censure, the city of Vienna began to protest. Josephine Baker’s struggles to find an audience in Vienna, Austria tells a different story of her travels around Europe than we usually hear. Unlike in Paris or Berlin, Josephine Baker’s debut was not a financial success. Her poorly launched and ill-supported run in the “city of music” was, according to numerous African American newspapers, a “flop.”

This paper argues for an examination of Viennese reception of “die Baker,” especially since it betrays the usual narrative of Baker’s conquering of Europe. Baker’s debut - and local responses to it - illustrates how important the relationship between music, entertainment, race, and politics had become in this post-Habsburg city. Viennese parliament debated for several days whether or not she should be allowed to perform, and the Catholic Church offered to host a special mass following her revue so that the Viennese could atone for their sins. In the city of Vienna in 1928, Baker’s black female sexuality became the locus for an Austrian conversation on Vienna’s relationship to the outside world.

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