Before, we pictured her without diamonds,
Without sequined gowns and a face of paint.
We could see that this show was not the time
For a lithe St. Louis girl of her race
To flaunt her flanks in front of New York men.
How could she expect us to find applause,
When we had saved to throw coins of applause
To Fanny Brice1, our star, a diamond
On a stage of lights? Besides, what these men
Wanted was a dream well drawn beyond paint,
Not a life-size black doll flaunting her race
And wares as if this were her place and time.
Parisian and brown? This was not the time
For a poor Negro girl to find applause
When she had given up her one true race—
America—for filthy France. Diamonds
Draped from her neck and ears, but even paint
Chips on the wrong surface. A street woman
Posing as a lady—please. Petty men
Could appreciate her dance, which was timed
To a beat of rags and old iron. Paint
The picture true, and let’s save the applause
For patriots—Eve Arden, a diamond,
And Bob Hope, a charm—not this girl with race
On her hips and tongue. The spice of race
Can be sweet or tart; the lips of the man
Who tastes will be surprised. To think diamonds
Will clear the palate is a waste of time.
Sure, we gave Princess Tam Tam2 an applause,
Even if she mumbled through songs and paint,
Even when she would cry and run her paint,
We listened. This is not about her race
But her choice of song, her need for applause
That would outshine Fanny Brice. Any man
Would give her a break, but the place and time
Was not this night. Yes, Brice was our diamond.
JOSEPHINE BAKER RESPONDS:
They want bananas on hips, not diamonds
On my décolletage. I’m under the paint,
Sinews dancing through segregated time;
It’s not all about jazz or even race.
Fanny Brice’s bland version of “My Man,”3
In smoke-filled bars couldn’t steal an applause,
So how do they think she deserves applause
On Broadway under lights and with diamonds
Dangling from her dewlap? I got a man,
He stays with me when I take off the paint,
And he doesn’t care about this whole race
Hoopla; he loves Josephine for me. Time
Magazine just started taking the time
To acknowledge Negroes, and now applause
From them is supposed to predict racial
Equality on stage? Talent? Diamonds
Determine my success. They can go paint
Broadway as white as they please, all the men
On the Champs will tell you I’m the woman
By which they measure others; only Time
Had a problem with my act, when the paint
Comes off, that’s all it comes down to: applause
From friends not foes. Just look at this diamond
On my hand from my Pepito4; does race
Refract in its eye, or light? You see race
is not real, only light and love; no man,
Negro or white, can change that. The diamond
Holds so much truth because it endures time;
It struggles through nothingness for applause;
It holds its breath, dark, naked without paint
Or the benefit of believing paint
Will change things because she is the same race
As coal underneath it all. And applause
Is just some dream. At times, even my man
Who, after all, is white, doesn’t see time
And again how I’m merely a diamond
Trying to catch some light under the paint. Man,
I’m telling you, race problems will change with time,
Long after applause and this diamond’s light fades.
1 Fanny Brice, the longtime star of the Ziegfeld Follies, was known for her talents as a comedienne as well as a singer.
2 Princess Tam Tam was a film starring Josephine Baker, produced in 1935.
3 “My Man” was a popular song written by Maurice Yvain as “Mon Homme.” Later, the English lyrics were written by Channing Pollock for the Ziegfeld Follies.
4 Pepito was Josephine Baker’s fiancé from 1935–1936. He died of cancer before she completed the run of the Ziegfeld Follies.
From M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A: Poems by A. Van Jordan. Copyright © 2004 by A. Van Jordan. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.