The story of Josephine Baker takes us on a fascinating tour of 20th-century race relations on both sides of the Atlantic, yet it leads to no conclusion, and black girls in search of a role-model tend to look elsewhere. Part of her appeal is her startlingly unique appearance. Simply nobody has ever looked or acted like her. She fits no black stereotype. Nor does she look like any recognizable strain of Afro-American. I'd always heard she was half-white, but it seems that her paternity is unknown, and her contradictory claims on the subject don't do much to enlighten us. (We are tempted to imagine quite an exotic mix.) Her origins in sharply-segregated St. Louis, where she is said to have witnessed a lynching, do not seem to have left her embittered. Perhaps she had too much to give. There is a special innocence about that smile, and when she performs her cross-eyed gag, we are lifted into a strange pixie-world, all its own.
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