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Information courtesy of Eugene Redmond.

Student Essay--Poetry and the Identity of East St. Louis

Maia Paluska
Honors English 112
Drs. Patterson and Collins
Paper #3

Since its inception, East St. Louis has struggled to form an identity. The 1917 East St. Louis race riot hindered the city from developing a positive identity, and intense racism and poverty only worsened the situation. Because of the tumultuous history of East St. Louis, its inhabitants struggle with conflicted identity. Josephine Baker, who I consider the most fascinating African American entertainer to grow up in East St. Louis, strained to positively represent black Americans, and East St. Louis leaders struggled to selflessly improve conditions of the city because of East St. Louis' lack of an identity. Poetry written about the city clearly expresses the identity crisis of East St. Louis, and by carefully analyzing it, I understood that its conflicted identity continues and causes the city's problems today, including poverty, racism, and a lack of educational opportunity.

As the city of East St. Louis struggles to develop an identity, so did the dancer, Josephine Baker, who grew up in East St. Louis. Baker gained fame throughout the 1920s in the United States, especially in black communities, and in Europe. Baker, a black woman, defined herself as an impressive icon of modernism, as she, in the era of flappers and speakeasies, defied traditional norms concerning dress, style of dance, and attitude, earning such nicknames as "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess" (The Official Josephine Baker Website). Despite her success and popularity among blacks and whites, Baker perpetuated white stereotypes of blacks by dancing topless, in Caribbean themed costumes accented by banana headdresses. Moreover, while performing, she often crossed her eyes, thus representing blacks as ignorant, while walking on all fours and dancing primitively. Baker's behavior enthralled white audiences, exciting men and entertaining women, yet by eluding through dress and dance that blacks functioned so differently from whites, she perpetuated whites' racist attitudes in America. White American audiences believed blacks behaved in a more animalistic manner after watching Baker dance, for her performance suggested few similarities to white mainstream culture, although Parisians celebrated Baker as a star. The idea that Americans enjoyed Baker's performances, but still treated her as an inferior black, caused the dancer to struggle with her identity. The poet, Elizabeth Alexander, in "The Josephine Baker Museum," recognizes Baker's frustration as she writes, "Ablutions/ In the cinema Mammy hands Scarlett/ white underthings to cover her white skin/ I am both of them and neither, tall,/ tan, terrific, soaking in my tub of milk," alluding to the similarities between both Mammy, a slave, and Scarlett, a pampered debutante. Josephine Baker, while earning popularity as a primitive dancer, fueled Americans' racist attitudes that caused the dancer personal unhappiness.

Although Josephine Baker's performances perpetuated American stereotypes of blacks, Baker surely wanted her race viewed positively, despite her personal profit. As her career progressed, she tired of the primitive dances, as "The Josephine Baker Museum" suggests. "I'm sick of touts le bananes/ What is original, what is facsimile?" Baker laments and questions in the poem. This interpretation of Baker's emotions suggests that she aimed to please audiences, but realized how her dancing influenced racial attitudes of the era. Also, the poem reiterates that Baker, as a world renowned dancer, struggled with identifying with the white upper class and also the blacks of the East St. Louis 1917 race riot and slaves, as she at once experienced adoration and racism from American audiences. Baker's internal struggle to find an identity no doubt influenced her decision to live most of her life in France, rather than in her hometown of East St. Louis, as she feared returning to the racist place of her upbringing, which she escaped once. According to Baker, "One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States... I felt liberated in Paris." Perhaps as reparation for the stereotypical black image of Baker's early career, she later worked to fight racism in America by fighting pro-segregationalists in the 1950s and 1960s, causing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to name May 20 Josephine Baker Day in her honor (The Official Josephine Baker Website). Although Baker struggled to establish her identity in early years, her fame as a black artist and her civil rights work helped forge the racial identity of East St. Louis, and of America.

Though the civil rights movement originating in the 1950's and 1960's influenced Josephine Baker to fight for African American equality in East St. Louis and elsewhere, the city of East St. Louis still struggled to find an identity, as blacks failed to work together to make necessary change to the city. Rather than blacks uniting to gain rights, selfish ambitions arose in certain black leaders. Corrupt politicians, businessmen, and other city leaders took advantage of average black citizens' attempts to gain unity. This corruption weakened the civil rights movement in East St. Louis, a truth that poet, Eugene Redmond, powerfully addresses in the poem "A Tale of Two Toms." Redmond blames blacks and whites alike for the problems of the city and claims that black politicians harbored prejudice agendas similar to whites and that city leaders cared more about personal agendas than fighting for race equality. "Tom is: Politician with rump for sale/ School principal bent on blackmail/ Black teacher who is not for real/ Fire captain making deals on hills/ Preacher sneaking in City Halls/ Slick policeman on fixed-up calls/ Deacon sleeping on fat pay-roll/ Poverty pimp in suits of gold/ Shiny Black mayors-for-a-day/ Alderman with nothing to say." Redmond suggests that some blacks personally profited from the civil rights movement, as blacks and progressive whites favored black public figures over the status quo white man. The most striking example of this comes later in the poem, as Redmond recognizes that black businesses raised their prices higher than those of whites, but placed "SOUL BROTHER" signs in their windows to entice blacks to support their own race. Personally, I had never considered the corrupt agendas of blacks during the civil rights movement and, perhaps naively, believed that social justice and equality were to be the only profits gained from the struggle. Although Redmond directs much attention to crooked black public figures during the civil rights movement, he suggests that racist whites laugh at the plight of blacks and the fact that the group failed to cohesively seize justice, and instead looked for personal gains. I sensed while reading the poem that Redmond believes that East St. Louis' failure to unite during the civil rights movement led to some of the disarray that the city battles today, from poor educational opportunities to crumbling landmark architecture. The failure of African Americans to unite during the civil rights movement increased East St. Louis' lack of an identity, as the city dealt with intense racism, while not properly working towards civil rights.

In undesirable situations, like those present in East St. Louis, personal profit can overtake moral ambition in such an every-man-for-himself environment, as individuals search for an identity. Josephine Baker, as well as East St. Louis leaders, struggled to put moral ambitions above personal ones, which the poetry of East St. Louis helped me to recognize. Poetry about East St. Louis enriched my understanding of the city's identity crisis, which still exists today and causes harm to the city, including poverty, racism, and educational inequalities. East St. Louis risks losing its title of "city," which would further devastate the economy of East St. Louis by losing tax revenue. Despite East St. Louis' floundering identity, the city refuses to relinquish hope. Throughout the history of East St. Louis and the conflicted identity of the city, the spirit of East St. Louis remains strong, determined to continue fighting for opportunity and a positive image.

Works Cited

Alexander, Elizabeth. Furious Flower: American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present. "The Josephine Baker Museum." 1st. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Baker, Josephine. "Biography." The Official Josephine Baker Website. 2007. 5 Apr 2009

Early, Gerald . "Ain't But a Place": An Anthology of African American Writings about St. Louis. 1st. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1998.

Redmond, Eugene. "A Tale of Two Toms." n.d.
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