The Scandalous Joy of Rihanna and Josephine Baker

 When I saw Rihanna tweet an image of herself donning the head-to-toe, Swarovski-crystalled Adam Selman gown she wore to this week’s CFDA Fashion Awards next to an image of the great Josephine Baker, I thought, “Yes! She gets it.”

I mean, I’m certain Rihanna isn’t concerned with my approval or yours, but it feels amazing to see her acknowledge another Black woman who created both scandal and joy with the way she chose to present her body. Rihanna’s gown seemed to celebrate the vintage fashion of the roaring ’20s, and we just celebrated Baker’s birth yesterday. Sadly only a few know of her Baker’s glory.

Baker was a performer extraordinaire, yes, but more, she was the first Black woman international star—pushing through often humiliating vaudeville performances before playing in (and eventually expatriating to) Paris. Heidi Williamson writes an exceptional post on Baker’s March on Washington speech (she was the only female speaker) and how that speech, and Baker’s presence, offered a glimpse into women’s lived experiences during the Jim Crow era.

Understand, I’m not comparing Rihanna’s gown and lovely T&A exposure to Josephine Baker’s dedication to the French Resistance, where she worked as a spy. But I will say that the fire that Baker possessed, and which ultimately pushed her out of the U.S., is similar to the fire we saw in Rihanna this week as she full out murdered the CFDA red carpet.

Baker, like Rihanna, used her body to exhibit freedom, to turn the shame we attempt to hurl at Black women and their bodies on its side. I’d even venture to say that the two women are human personifications of the part Mammy, part Sphinx sugar-molded figure that seems to be stunning everyone at Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” exhibition. Like many visitors to Walker’s exhibition who chose to (instead of reflecting on Walker’s commentary on American slavery and its atrocious abuses against Black women) take lewd pics standing next to the Mammy/Sphinx, folks don’t really overstand what’s so f*cking awesome about Rihanna’s latest fashion moment. 

In her gown, Rihanna pushed back against historical images which argue that Black women are simultaneously undesirable and enviable—that our bodies are not our own, that we have no agency. Rihanna seemingly bowed to Josephine Baker with an understanding that Baker made space for her, and many Black women took to Twitter to celebrate the fashion icon for publicly doing the same for them.

As I reflect on all of the women I mentioned here—Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Kara Walker, Rihanna—I am certain of one thing: our nation is obsessed with Black women’s bodies (and what they do with them), but is ashamed to admit it.

For me, Twitter’s @tgirlinterruptd said it best:

Of course, as is the nature of social media, many who viewed Rihanna’s photos from the awards show immediately began shaming the singer for her wardrobe choice. Some commented that Black women shouldn’t praise the star’s fashion choices because our parents wouldn’t approve of our dressing similarly to Rih. “What happened to the Maya Angelou quotes y’all was just on last week?” asked Instagrammer @hammerjr87, as if Black women can’t enjoy bedazzled breasts and pay homage to Queen Mother Maya all at once.

I’m almost certain he isn’t familiar with Angelou’s views on modesty. Dawn Reiss quotes Angelou in The Atlantic as saying, “I have no patience with modesty. Modesty is a learned adaptation. It’s stuck on like decals. As soon as life slams a modest person against the wall, that modesty will fall off faster than a G-string will fall off a stripper.” 

I’m sure he also doesn’t know that Angelou, at one point in her life, supported herself as a sex worker (which should serve as an example to all of us that sex work is a profession and not a determination of a person’s character or life trajectory).

As I reflect on all of the women I mentioned here—Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Kara Walker and the gorgeous Rihanna—I am certain of one thing: our nation is obsessed with Black women’s bodies (and what they do with them), but is ashamed to admit it.  And men, through the lens of patriarchy, constantly tell women that they should keep their bodies (and more so their vaginas) to themselves, yet they feel an entitlement to our bodies so strong that they murder us when they can’t have access to them like they wish.

Was Rihanna making a public or political statement with her crystalled gown? I can’t say. But the beautiful thing about resistance is that sometimes it is asserted by simple acts of being. 

Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and solider of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.