Christopher Smith & Michael Borshuk on Josephine Baker

Primary Sources 

Josephine Baker’s “Banana Dance” at Folies Bergere in Paris c1927


Josephine Baker in “Zouzou” (1934)

Duke Ellington & the Cotton Club Orchestra, “Echoes of the Jungle” (1931)

Guided Discussion Questions 

  • Why do you think that Josephine Baker chose music and dance as a way to build a career for herself, rather than other art forms, or other professional skills?
  • What do you think that New York City offered to Miss Baker which St. Louis did not? What did Paris offer to her that New York City did not? What is your evidence to support your opinion?
  • Why do you think that an older generation might have had reservations about how Miss Baker presented herself in performance? Do you agree or disagree with those reservations? Can you think of other examples of “controversial” performers who were actually seeking to make serious points?
  • Do you think that Miss Baker was “joking” in her performance, or “serious”? Or something else, or something in-between? What evidence from the performances do you have to support your opinion?
  • Can you think of other performers—African-American, female, and/or LGBTA+–who similarly sought on purpose to “outrage” audiences? Why do you think such performers did that?


Michael Borshuk is Associate Professor of African American Literature and Interim Director of the Humanities Center at Texas Tech University.  He is the author of the book Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature (2006), and many academic articles and book chapters on African American literature, American modernism, and music.

Chris Smith is Professor, Chair of Musicology, and director of the Vernacular Music Center at Texas Tech. He composed the theatrical show Dancing at the Crossroads (2013), the “folk oratorio” Plunder! (2017), and the immersive-theater show Yonder (2020). His monographs are The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (2013) and Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space, and Sound in American Cultural History (2019). He conducts the Elegant Savages Orchestra, and concertizes on guitar, bouzouki, banjo, and diatonique button accordion. He is a former nightclub bouncer, carpenter, lobsterman, and oil-rig roughneck, and a published poet. [99]

Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).