“Jozefin Beyker”: The Black Body, Femininity, and Jazz Culture in the Early Turkish Republic

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:40 PM
Room 201 (Hilton Atlanta)
Carole Woodall, University of Colorado Colorado Springs
The 1920s icon Josephine Baker had made plans to visit Constantinople in 1934, and there was much expectation surrounding her eventual arrival. Starting in 1925, cover photos and images of her soon-to-be signature dance moves graced Ottoman Turkish illustrated magazines with captions ranging from “the Charleston Queen of Negro pleasures” to “the Negro beauty.” The framing of Baker’s blackness as savage and ultra-modern carves out a space to consider the racialized language attached to the early republican period as exemplified in Istanbul’s “jazz culture” —defined as places where nightlife, music, dance performance, and illustrated print culture collide with newspaper reportage. The city’s early jazz scene coalesced during the years surrounding World War One when U.S. sailors-amateur musicians joined a circuit of black performers that connected key cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean and continental Europe and extended a trend that began in the mid-nineteenth century. By the occupation period (1918-1923), “Constan Town,” as penned by U.S. writers, captured the city’s emerging 1920s jazz culture. This culture was shaped by and reflected the overlapping diasporas and migrations of refugees, musicians, minority communities, many of whom were part of a growing commercial sector of ethnic and foreign entrepreneurs.

The work of cultural critics and editorial decisions to include depictions of Josephine Baker in snapshots, news about her life, and her blackness in post-Ottoman illustrated magazines constructs a discourse around the meaning of blackness and likewise Turkish femininity in the early Turkish republic. In particular, Josephine Baker as representative of the sexualized dancing black body connoting the “spread of contagion” asks the question of the role that jazz culture and its related manners of dress and movement, as Judith R. Walkowitz describes as a “modern urban kinesthesia” (Walkowitz, 2012), played to the emergence of republican identity as staged in Istanbul.

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