An Interview with Anne Cheng

Professor Anne Anlin Cheng specializes in race studies and psychoanalytic theory and works in 20th-century American literature, with special focus on Asian American and African American literature. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Assimilation, Psychoanalysis, and Hidden Grief, which examines the notion of racial grief at the intersection of culture, history, and law. Her new book Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface, traces the story of the unexpected intimacy between the invention of a modernist style and the theatricalization of black skin at the turn of the twentieth century. This study situates Baker's famous nakedness within larger philosophic and aesthetic crisis about the ideal of the "pure surface" that crystallized at the convergence of modern art, architecture, machinery, and philosophy. She is currently working on a new project on the discourse of "shine" in early century philosophy and aesthetics.

Baker made her career in Europe and notably inspired a number of European artists and architects, including Picasso and Le Corbusier. What was it about Baker that spoke to Europeans? What did she represent for them?

Anne Cheng: It has been traditionally understood that Baker represents a "primitive" figure for male European artists and architects who found in Baker an example of black animality and regressiveness; that is, she was their primitive muse. Yet this view cannot account for why many famous female artists were also fascinated by her, nor does it explain why Baker in particular would come to be the figure of so much profound artistic investment. I would argue that it is in fact Baker's "modernity" (itself understood as an expression of hybrid and borrowed art forms) rather than her "primitiveness" that made her such a magnetic figure. In short, the modernists did not go to her to watch a projection of an alienating blackness; rather, they were held in thrall by a reflection of their own art's racially complex roots. This is another way of saying that, when someone like Picasso looked at a tribal African mask or a figure like Baker who mimics Western ideas of Africa, what he saw was not just radical otherness but a much more ambivalent mirror of the West's own complicity in constructing and imagining that "otherness."

Baker was present at the March on Washington in August 1963 and stood with  Martin Luther King Jr. as he gave his "I have a dream" speech. What did Baker contribute to the struggle for civil rights? How was her success in foreign countries understood within the African American community?

AC: These are well known facts about Baker's biography: in the latter part of her life, Baker became a very public figure for the causes of social justice and equality. During World War II, she served as an intelligence liaison and an ambulance driver for the French Resistance and was awarded the Medal of the Resistance and the Legion of Honor. Soon after the war, Baker toured the United States again and won respect and praise from African Americans for her support of the civil rights movement. In 1951, she refused to play to segregated audiences and, as a result, the NAACP named her its Most Outstanding Woman of the Year. She gave a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall for the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality in 1963.

What is fascinating as well, however, is the complication that Baker represents to and for the African American community. Prior to the war and her more public engagement with the civil rights movement, she was not always a welcome figure either in the African American community or for the larger mainstream American public. Her sensational fame abroad was not duplicated in the states, and her association with primitivism made her at times an embarrassment for the African American community. A couple of times before the war, Baker returned to perform in the US and was not well received, much to her grief. I would suggest that Baker should be celebrated not only for her more recognizable civil rights activism, but also for her art: performances which far exceed the simplistic labels that have been placed on them and which few have actually examined as art. These performances, when looked at more closely, embody and generate powerful and intricate political meditations about what it means to be a black female body on stage.

Baker's legacy is, for many, defined by her performances, by the way in which she interweaved the avant-garde with stereotypically racist and primitivist imagery. In your book, however, you have largely chosen not to interpret the specific aspects of Baker's performances. What was your motivation in making this choice?

AC: I think I have paid a great deal of attention to the specificities of Baker's performances but, yes, precisely not as stereotypes. There are primitivist imageries in her work, and I need not rehearse that for readers. But I also think the primitivism or stereotypes being performed on stage by Baker are also often done with so much self-conscious theatricality that she ends up de-naturalizing, rather than confirming, the so-called "truths" behind the stereotypes. More importantly, this attention to stereotypes has blinded generations of viewers to those aspects of Baker's performances that are not only highly Modernist (references to Martha Graham in her choreography, etc.) but that also, more intriguingly, reveal how Modernism is in fact Primitivism. For example, I have shown in my research how the "animal" as trope in Baker's film Princesse Tam Tam is in fact wholly identical to the trope of the "machine," so that the figure of the primitive animal collapses right into the figure of modern movement and speed. Similarly, I trace how the explosion of "zebra prints" in the early twentieth century, symbolized by the Josephine Baker House designed by Adolf Loos, is simultaneously a reference to primitive animality and a reference to new-century ideals of technological reproduction and harmony.

To what does the "second skin" of your book's title refer?

AC: The phrase refers to the idea that we are all never truly naked. It aims to complicate the binary thinking that tends to separate interiority from exteriority–being from performance–as distinct realms, rather than understanding them to be mutually forming. "Second skin" refers not only to the layeredness of Baker's nakedness but also the layeredness of her white spectators. What I am calling the dream of a second skin–of remaking one's self in the skin of the other–is a mutual fantasy, one shared by both Modernists seeking to be outside of their own skins and by racialized subjects looking to escape the burdens of their skin.

Did your research into Baker's life uncover any surprising or unexpected bits of information? What was the greatest challenge you experienced in carrying out your research?

AC: I was repeatedly stunned by how much writing has been generated about her life (from facts to gossip) but how little attention has been paid to really analyzing her work, be it on stage or in film. The work itself is so idiosyncratic and layered and complex that this critical oversight is really a testament to how much we have been blinded by our received image of her. I was also surprised to learn how insecure she was about her singing voice when it is in fact a very unique voice with great adaptability. Baker's voice can be deep and sonorous or high and pitchy, depending on the context of each performance. In the film Zou Zou, for example, Baker is shown dressed in feathers, singing while swinging inside a giant gilded bird cage. Many reviewers criticized her performance as jittery and staccato. But I suggest that her voice was actually mimicking the sounds that would be made, not by a real bird, but by a mechanical bird and, in doing so, reminding us that we are not seeing naturalized primitive animality at all, but its mechanical reconstruction.

For me, the challenge of writing the story of Baker rests in learning how to delineate a material history of race that forgoes the facticity of race. The very visible figure of Baker has taught me a counterintuitive lesson: that the history of race, while being very material and with very material impacts, is nonetheless crucially a history of the unseen and the ineffable. The other great challenge is the question of style. I wanted to write a book about Baker that imitates or at least acknowledges the fluidity that is Baker. This is why, in these essays, Baker appears, disappears, and reappears to allow into view the enigmas of the visual experience that I think Baker offers.

Are there any contemporary figures whom you might identify as "descendants" of Josephine Baker, particularly in terms of the way in which these figures' presentations of themselves disrupt ideas of identity?

AC: This is difficult for me to answer because I cannot think of anyone today with the kind of play of identity that we see in Baker. This may say something revealing. Oddly enough, in the early 20th century, when one might think that racial categories were ossifying into racist categories, it was actually a time when those categories reveal their fluidity. Now, in our presumably post-racial time, racial categories seem to be firmer than ever.

In my work, I have quoted a European critic who rhapsodized about Baker's "wildness," only to conclude with the following somber reflection: "But is she in need of us or are we not sooner in need of her?" In a way, that critic is much more honest than we are today about how racial differences are used (and continue to be used) by mainstream culture. When it comes to a complex phenomenon like Modernist Primitivism, what continues to invite our attention is not its repressed colonial ideology but what its expressiveness tells us about the complex dynamics of racial fantasies and identifications.

Baker's naked skin famously scandalized audiences in Paris, and your book is, in many respects, an extended analysis of the significance of Baker's skin. Why study Josephine Baker and her skin today? What does she represent for the study of art, race, and American history? Did your interest in studying Baker develop gradually, or were you immediately intrigued by her?

AC: I started out writing a book about the politics of race and beauty. Then, as part of this larger research, I forced myself to watch Josephine Baker's films. I say "forced" because I was dreading seeing exactly the kind of racist images and performances that I have heard so much about. But what I saw stunned, puzzled, and haunted me. Could this strange, moving, and coated figure of skin, clothes, feathers, dirt, gold, oil, and synthetic sheen be the simple "black animal" that everyone says she is? I started writing about her, essay after essay, until a dear friend pointed out that I was in fact writing a book about Baker.