The Migrating Black Female Body in 1920s Central and Eastern Europe: Josephine Baker’s Reception in Vienna, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Istanbul

AHA Session 6
Central European History Society 1
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Room 201 (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Tiffany N. Florvil, University of New Mexico
Nancy Nenno, College of Charleston

Session Abstract

Glamorous, lascivious, exotic, and erotic, African American entertainer Josephine Baker captured the attention, imagination, and wallets of Western Europeans throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Contemporary portrayals of Baker tend to depict her as a modern day transnational success story whose wild dancing and exotic body enticed Parisians and Londoners to shrug off the traumas of WWI and shimmy away their troubles in jazz clubs. A fascinating mix of the “primitive” and the “modern,” the Old World and New, Josephine Baker’s blackness, her gender, and her nationality as an American were celebratory markers of a new transatlantic era between Europe and the United States. Yet Josephine Baker’s travels outside of Western Europe tell a different story than the one we usually hear of black triumph across the Atlantic.

This panel explores Josephine Baker’s travels away from Paris and London to Central and Eastern Europe. Collectively, we argue that Josephine Baker reception in cities such as Vienna, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Istanbul reveal different processes of transnationalism and migration at work. Josephine Baker’s traveling revues became sites where audiences confronted their own nationalist, ethnic, racial, class, and gendered anxieties about their changing post-WWI world. Her migrating body represented in these different Central and Eastern European cities the ascendance or decline of their localities in new and controversial ways.

Using documents collected in archives in the United States and in Central and Eastern Europe, the panelists present the migrating black female body of Josephine Baker in entirely new contexts. Kira Thurman examines how Vienna’s rejection of “die Baker” in the former Habsburg capital reflected emerging political and nationalist discourses. Jovana Babovic demonstrates that Josephine Baker’s performances in two Yugoslavian cities (Belgrade and Zagreb) had wildly different outcomes: in Belgrade, Baker was the talk of the town yet in Zagreb, listeners booed Baker off stage and pelted her with rotten fruit. Babovic argues that new processes of Europeanization in these Yugoslavian cities shaped these two centers’ responses to Josephine Baker’s performance. Carole Woodall’s analysis of “Jozefin Beyker” in 1920s Istanbul contextualizes her performance within ongoing post-Ottoman debates about femininity and race in the early Turkish republic. All of these papers reveal the convergence between the global and the local, the Old World and the New, as they trace the migration of a single black female body across numerous zones and spaces.

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