Cabaret and Collaboration: A Symposium Honoring the Rich Life of Josephine Baker


A roaring brass section, limbs gliding effortlessly across the stage to the beat, shining costumes, or sometimes lack thereof, capturing the audience’s regard -- this was cabaret in the 20’s and the backdrop for the performances of one of the most memorable figures of the decade, Madam Josephine Baker. Known as the world’s first Black superstar, the many avatars of Josephine Baker are still being celebrated today, whether it be at the Pantheon in Paris, or at our very own university thanks to “J’ai deux amours: A Josephine Baker Symposium” which took place on October 3rd and 4th at the Omid & Gisel Kordestani Rooftop Conference Center. The symposium was coordinated by Professor of comparative Literature and English, Biswasmit Dwibedy and Jeannine Cook (Summer ‘22), the proud owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia. Jeannine Cook is known for amplifying the voices of Black thinkers as well as for her “installations” that strive to turn mundane gathering spaces into “festive and celebratory” environments where Black creators and intellectuals showcase their work to audiences that would have otherwise continued to lack this sort of interaction with rich and diverse perspectives.

The Josephine Baker Symposium that took place at AUP is yet another one of Cook’s successes. As Professor Dwibedy explains, it consisted of “the most diverse, proud, and all Black women panelists.” Together, they celebrated Josephine Baker not just as a performer, but also as a member of the French Resistance, and “the whole side to her that was dedicated to Paris and France, which people don’t talk about very much. So, that was important and impactful,” says Dwibedy.

The symposium owes much of its success to the engagement and enthusiasm of its panelists and audience members, including having Josephine Baker’s daughter, Marianne in the crowd. Marianne cherished her mother, and this sort of tribute honoring her mother’s ambitious and boldly generous legacy is something that she would love to participate in again in the future, if AUP continues to host such events.

Dwibedy mentioned that the environment in which the symposium took place caused the students to end up taking a more active role than any of them likely foresaw needing to take. He emphasizes that “by creating a space in which both sides could be heard meant it could result in a fruitful creative discussion. It also made students realize how much work still needs to be done […], and what a younger generation of writers needs to do. We need to raise the presence, and we need to have people realize that times are changing, and some things aren’t acceptable.”

The students in attendance impressed in more ways than one. Cook loved having young folk like Nia James presenting on how they had AI create a conversation between Josephine Baker and James Baldwin. Cook says that it was brilliant to have folks question and congratulate this use of technology. It is also not often students have the chance to interact with dancers and a live band who are, “Bakering all over people” in the middle of a symposium. Lifestyle fashionista, as Cook referred to them in an interview, Ajiri Aki, said that that this type of environment perfectly encapsulated “Baker as a Lifestyle”. Aki and other participants learned that it’s ok to be Baker-esque by using the good plates, being your full self, and enjoying a particular quality of life in which you can take your time connecting with the world around you.

Dwibedy underlines the importance of creating a one-of-a-kind symposium for the students because providing engaging learning experiences for the students is what makes this type of event so impactful. These one-of-a-kind conferences need to stem from the desire to bring voices and lives that are silenced, unheard of, or forgotten to the forefront so that we can provide, “more holistic views of the people we look up to.”

Thanks to the memorable response to “J’ai deux amours: A Josephine Baker Symposium”, we can look forward to more conferences like this one in the future. Professor Dwibedy is already speaking with the James Baldwin Foundation and several other organizations in and around Paris to create a symposium honoring James Baldwin in 2024. AUP and its community proudly await seeing in what other ways we inspire future generations by celebrating the most influential members of past generations, such as the magnificent Josephine Baker.

Watch the full highlight video below!