Black Pearl Magazine Interview with Sherry Jones
Author and journalist Sherry Jones, author of JOSEPHINE BAKER’S LAST DANCE, is perhaps best known for her international bestseller The Jewel of Medina. She is also the author of The Sword of Medina, Four Sisters, All Queens, The Sharp Hook of Love, and the novella White Heart. She lives in Spokane, WA, where, like Josephine Baker, she enjoys dancing, singing, eating, advocating for equality, and drinking champagne. Visit her online at AuthorSherryJones.com.
BPM: It is such a pleasure to have you join us to discuss JOSEPHINE BAKER’S LAST DANCE. Describe yourself in three words.
SJ: I am passionate, powerful, and relentlessly curious. Or I’m cranky, lazy, and highly distractible. It depends on the day.
BPM: Tell us about your body of work. How did you break into publishing?
SJ: My first novel, THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, started as an honors thesis project while I was getting my bachelor’s degree at the University of Montana. This was in February 2002, just a few months after 9/11. I was a non-traditional student, 40 years old, having worked as a print journalist since I was 18. I was upset by news accounts of women’s oppression in Afghanistan, and in my reading of books by, among others, the excellent writer Geraldine brooks, I discovered that the Muslim prophet Muhammad had twelve wives and concubines after his first wife died. The story of his youngest wife, A’isha, whom he supposedly married when she was just a girl, gripped me and would not let go. As I read more about her, I discovered that she was a clever, cunning, cheeky girl with a big heart who became a great leader in her own right.
Entranced, I wrote a novel about A’isha and found an agent in the amazing Natasha Kern, a dear friend now who still represents my work. She sold the publishing rights to it and a sequel to Random House for six figures. What a day it was when I got the news! I called a girlfriend and we chanted, “Random House” as I danced in my kitchen.
In 2008, just a few months before publication, it all came tumbling down. An American professor whose book on A’isha I had used as a source got an advance copy of my novel and sounded alarm bells. “A national security incident,” she called it. “More dangerous than the Satanic Verses or the Danish cartoons.” She told a Wall Street Journal reporter, “You can’t take sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.” Well, yes, you can. But that’s not what I had done.
Random House cancelled publication of the book. My British publisher’s home office was set on fire. Some countries have banned THE JEWEL OF MEDINA and its sequel, THE SWORD OF MEDINA, which tells A’isha’s story as an empowered woman after Muhammad’s death and also shows how Islam moved from egalitarianism to the same old patriarchal b.s. when he died.
As you might imagine, I felt devastated to have my books dropped by the biggest English-language publisher in the world. But my commitment to publishing them never faltered. Islamophobia, and the oppression of women in extremist Muslim societies, had only increased since I’d first begun these books. I had come to view them as a potential bridge between cultures, and a wake-up call to women everywhere about religion’s power to turn back the clock on progress. I’m sad to say that my books are as relevant today as they were 10 years ago, or even more so.
Eventually, we found an American publisher. We never found another British publisher, although one or both these books was published in 19 languages around the world, and were best-sellers in many countries. When I moved into the Middle Ages with FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, Simon and Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint became my publisher, and still is today.
BPM: This book is so well written and I can feel the passion! What’s the backstory as to your decision to bring this book to life?
SJ: I like to write about amazing women whose stories haven’t been told to a wider audience. Josephine Baker is the opposite of that but, like many people, I had long been intrigued by the American dancer in the banana skirt who made it big in Paris. As an arts reporter, I had written about the exodus of black artists from the United States to Paris after World War I because of the terrible racism here. Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington—I was already a fan of these artists and so many others from that era. And Paris is my favorite city in the world, hand-down. So, wanting to immerse myself in that time and place, I began reading about Josephine Baker.
Before I’d finished my first biography of her—THE HUNGRY HEART, by Jean-Claude Baker, who called himself her oldest adopted son and even took her last name—I had second thoughts. This woman seemed over-the-top narcissistic, promiscuous, and mean. Did I want to spend years of my life with her? As I read, though, I came to think that Jean-Claude’s snide comments said more about his relationship with her than about Josephine herself. They had unresolved issues when she died.
The next biographies I read gave me a much different picture: of a woman who suffered terrible abuse and privation as a child and yet followed her dream of performing on stage with verve and heart. She never faltered, never wavered for even an instant. And when, later in life, she had the chance to help save France from Nazi rule, she plunged in without hesitation, giving her all to the cause. Her years as a spy for the French Resistance, hardly a narcissistic cause as Jean-Claude’s book suggests, transformed Josephine Baker into a mature, empowered woman who understood at last what it means to live for something bigger than yourself. And so, after the war, she came to the United States to speak out against segregation. She was a mighty force for change, very inspiring to me, and this is the woman I wrote about.
BPM: Can you share with us a few of the amazing things Ms. Baker accomplished in her life?
SJ: Josephine Baker accomplished many “firsts”:
She was the first black woman to dance “nude” on the Paris stage at a time when topless white women filled the city’s music halls such as the Moulin Rouge and the Folies-Bergère.
She was the first woman of color to star in a feature film—she made three of them in France before Hollywood had even thought of putting a person of color in a lead role.
Josephine was the first black person to headline at the Ziegfeld Follies, a longtime and very famous revue on Broadway in the United States. She suffered so much discrimination because of her color during that year—1934—that she did not return to this country until 1951, when her nationwide tour included only integrated nightclubs and theaters. In this way, she ended racial segregation in many places.
She was Paris’s first black opera diva, starring in Offenbach’s La Créole. She became the highest-paid performer in Europe, and the highest-paid black performer in the world.
Josephine was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, appearing immediately before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
BPM: Can you see any parallels between Mrs. Baker’s activism and the celebrities of today?
SJ: When Josephine Baker came to the United States in 1934 after nine years in Europe, she felt keenly the humiliation of discrimination because of skin color—something she had never experienced in Paris except from white American tourists. In New York, booked as a headline act at the Shubert Theater in the Ziegfeld Follies, she traveled from hotel to hotel in search of a room, but none would admit her because of her skin color. After a performance one night, she went out with fellow cast members to a club where the doorman turned her away and suggested she try Harlem, instead. (So she opened her own club, and made a bundle.)
When invited to perform at the Copa City Club in Miami in 1951, Ms. Baker refused unless the owner, Ned Schuyler, integrated the audience. He resisted but ultimately agreed, and bussed and flew people of color in for her shows. Other Miami clubs, seeing the Copa City Club’s success, followed suit. Schuyler became Ms. Baker’s booking agent, and had a tour lined up across the country. Ms. Baker had a press conference to announce that, henceforth, all her venues would be integrated—or she wouldn’t perform in them. True to her word, when she went to Atlanta and got turned away by several “whites only” hotels, she canceled her shows there.
At one point, she had an ingenious idea: she would sit in the front seat of a public bus and refuse to move. Schuyler talked her out of this, saying it would be suicide for her American career and destroy her chances to integrate the clubs and theaters where she was booked. Ultimately, her protests regarding an elite New York City restaurant where she was refused service inspired J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to begin investigating her as a possible Communist sympathizer—and her bookings got cancelled. She left for Paris, and was informed that she could not return to the U.S. She had been banned.
Josephine Baker used her platform and her presence to make a difference in the world, especially in the United States, where she succeeded in drawing attention to the injustices of racial segregation as no one before her had done. (She was subsequently invited to lead the NAACP, but declined because she didn’t want to leave her family in France.) She demonstrated what even one person can do to heighten awareness of a problem, which is a crucial first step toward change.
Today, we see celebrities of color doing the same: using their fame to draw attention to issues such as police brutality against black people and other forms of oppression and discrimination. Colin Kaeparnick’s taking a knee on the football field; Rihanna’s and Jay-Z’s refusals to perform during the Super Bowl in support of him—Josephine Baker would have proudly supported them, I know.
BPM: The book discusses poverty, colorism, and abuse. What types of research went into detailing her story?
SJ: I read a lot, from a long list of books and articles not only about Ms. Baker, but also about the Harlem Renaissance, the history of racism, and the perspectives of women of color including Maya Angelou and bell hooks.
I also visited Saint Louis, Missouri, Ms. Baker’s hometown, where the wonderful Gwen Moore took me on a driving tour in the rain to try to find the places where Ms. Baker had lived as a child. As we drove from parking lot to parking garage—all that remains of the historic Mill Creek Valley neighborhood today—Ms. Moore told how the city’s (white) leaders had razed 5,000 homes, churches, synagogues, and businesses, including black-owned banks–and displaced 20,000 people, mostly people of color, driving them out of the downtown area for “redevelopment.”
The St. Louis Arch, a sports arena, an apartment complex, and St. Louis University are there now—hardly the economic vitalization the city had anticipated. Ms. Moore, who works at the Missouri Historical Society, told how being forced from her neighborhood and her school changed her life—her story affected me deeply.
But a lot of what I learned about poverty and abuse I have already lived, and known. My parents grew up very poor, and they both abused me in different ways. My mother most certainly has borderline personality disorder, which caused her to draw me close one minute, and revile me (and abuse me) as her “enemy” in the next.
I experienced sexual abuse, as well. So I know what having an traumatic childhood feels like, and the determination that it takes to escape and break the cycle of abuse. I know the shame of being sexualized at a young age, and the behaviors victims engage in to try to miminalize it—sleeping with many men, for instance, so the original abuse feels not as remarkable, or as bad.
BPM: Since so much of her life dealt with race and racism, how did this affect your outlook on the subject?
SJ: Growing up on diverse military bases in diverse neighborhoods and schools, I already knew first-hand that the person we are on the inside is what counts, and that skin color is just pigmentation. Having conservative, Southern parents, I also knew how racially prejudiced people think. And yet—I had never taken that logical step back to imagine my own ancestors as slave owners or part of a lynch mob, or some other atrocity in the South’s ugly racist history.
As part of my research, I made it a point to read works by authors of color. Reading Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” really made me think about my North Carolina ancestors’ probable persecution and murder of black people. Given the racist words and sentiments I heard from my extended family so often, I have no doubt that our ancestors perpetuated the ugliest of deeds. I also know who most of my family voted for. It’s one reason why I live across the country, although Election Night reminded me that, again, there’s no running away. Bigotry and hatred surround us wherever we are, and can even be found inside us if we care to look.
While researching this novel online, I came across a photo of black chorus dancers at a baseball game—sitting in the “colored” section. I felt sick to think of those beautiful young women having to endure public sequestration because of their skin color, as though they were dirty or diseased. I read about black people’s being turned away from white hospitals because the only blood on hand was white people’s blood. I just felt so much disgust.
And so, although I have always considered myself to be a person who believes in equality for all regardless of skin color, gender, religion, or any other factor—and I was privileged as a member of the oppressing race to be able to espouse this view–I felt more and more shame and humility and more and more anger as I researched the history of racial relations in the United States.
I understand why black people are angry, and I think that those who are not angry, should be. One African-American friend says I got “woke” from working on this book, but I don’t like to think of it as a one-and-done thing. Staying awake is key, and perhaps the hardest to do—for it entails keeping my eyes and ears always open to the truth, which can be so difficult to face.
BPM: Share one specific point in your book that resonated with your present situation or journey.
SJ: There’s a moment at the Wailing Wall when Josephine Baker is crying and praying to God, after she has helped defeat the Nazis with her work as a spy, when she realizes that her life is now bigger than herself. I had such an epiphany when “The Jewel of Medina” was causing such an uproar, and I was getting threats and criticism from people who hadn’t even read the book. I felt afraid, and tried to run away to a Montana mountaintop. But you know, you can’t run away from yourself: wherever you go, there you are.
Full of despair, I looked out a high window to the blue sky, and summoned my inner angels for help. I saw, in my mind’s eye, the image of A’isha with her sword and long red hair lashing in the breeze, a true hero, and I heard in my soul these words: I am love, peace, courage, and strength. This empowering mantra helped me through the months to follow, which were incredibly trying, when I was attacked by extremists of every stripe.
I’d remind myself what I was about, and why I’d pursued publication of the book—to counter Islamophobia and misogyny—and respond to hatred with love, peace, courage, and strength. I’m far from perfect, but these four pillars support me today, in everything I do.
BPM: Are you involved in any community programs or panels around this book?
SJ: I will read at the Lady Jane’s Salon at Madame X in New York on Friday, Dec. 3, and plan a public launch party on Dec. 7 in Spokane. I do welcome any and all opportunities to talk about Josephine Baker and the era in which she lived, as well as racial and feminist themes in the book.
BPM: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
SJ: I was shocked when I read that, after World War I, the French government offered free Sorbonne educations to the American soldiers who had fought with the French, but the U.S. government withheld the offer from black soldiers until they’d returned home—but the white soldiers were informed while still in France. I felt horrified and angry. Travel across the Atlantic happened solely by ship, and was expensive. Most of those black soldiers could not afford to return to Europe, so they missed out on a free education, which was no doubt the U.S. government’s intention.
BPM: How can this book spark discussions on racism during these troubled and divisive times?
SJ: We can certainly notice how far we haven’t come as a nation. White people got all complacent, especially those of us who supported (and still love) the Obamas. Many of us thought racism was, if not completely over, at least irrelevant. But progress is fragile, indeed, and there is always a backlash to change from those who benefit from the status quo. And of course, people of color have always known that discrimination and oppression still exist uniquely for them.
Ten years ago, I bought a new car, and gave my Subaru to a less-fortunate friend who was also Latino. Before he drove it home (he lived in Missoula, 200 miles away from me), he had the car meticulously detailed inside and out. I wondered why he didn’t wait until he got home—the car would only get dirty again on the highway. “I have dark skin, and if my car looks shabby that only gives them more reason to pull me over,” he said. I was so surprised by this. All those years driving it, and I never thought of this because it wasn’t an issue for me, a white person. I really had no idea of my own privilege.
So we can look at Josephine Baker’s life and how, even as a world-famous superstar, she suffered terrible discrimination and oppression because she was African-American. She really hadn’t come so far, not in this country, from her grandmother’s situation, being the child of a slave. I know that Ms. Baker would support Black Lives Matter, but would she be surprised that, nearly 25 years since her death, white people still need to hear this message?
And in our system, it isn’t just black people who are suffering. Consider all the brown-and-black-skinned immigrants held in cages—more than 13,000 children, the last I read. Consider the Muslim “travel ban” still working its way through the courts, and the mass slaughter of innocent Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. White Christian supremacy has reared its ugly head in a way that we haven’t seen since the 1930s and ‘40s. How do we finally put an end to this hatred? What must we do? Is it even possible, or is our country doomed by its white-conquest beginnings? Did we forfeit our soul by slaughtering the indigenous people we encountered here and decimating the buffalo?
Did we destroy any hope for one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all when we allowed people to be bought, sold, and owned as slaves? What further damage are we wreaking now, and how can we ever recover, if at all?
BPM: African American women are gong through troubled times right now, what were some of the challenges Mrs. Baker faced as a woman, period?
SJ: When Ms. Baker arrived with the troupe of La Revue Négre, she hoped to become a singer like her idol, Clara Smith, draped in feathers and silk and wowing crowds with her passionate, bluesy songs. Instead, the Frenchmen who watched the rehearsals demanded that she dance topless on the stage. She tearfully tried to refuse, and demanded to be sent home. “I’m not a stripper,” she said. The men agreed to send her home on the next ship—two weeks hence—but only if she did as they said, and perform in a costume that consisted of little more than a few feathers. She was a huge hit, in part because of the highly sexual, scandalous dance she performed, and never complained about dancing nude again. In fact, she seemed to embrace nudity. As soon as she could, however, she put away her banana skirt, donned designer gowns, and sang. The consummate survivor, she made the most of her exploitation, but she never forgot that she had been exploited. And for much of her life she was used, objectified as a sex symbol, in spite of her prodigious talent and shrewd intelligence.
And yet, she was never overtly a feminist. She did not speak out for the rights of women. When I first started writing this book, I thought it would be a feminist novel, as my others have been. I wanted to go beyond the banana skirt, so to speak, to find the heart and soul of the woman who danced in it. And when I did, I found that her issue wasn’t gender or misogyny, but race, and colorism.
I’m reminded of the time, early in my research, when I asked a panel of black women how we could all pull together, women of every color, and join forces for equality. What a powerful group we could make! And how very naïve I was.
First of all, the women on the panel agreed that they identify first as people of color, and then only secondly as women. This surprised me. As a white person, race wasn’t something I’d ever had to think about, except to decide it shouldn’t matter, while being female meant everything: I’d been shut down, put down, and kept down because of my gender. The editor of the Black Lens News, Spokane’s African-American newspaper, told me that she couldn’t begin to address misogyny and other women’s issues until she’d been heard as a person of color. That was powerful, and it struck me to the bone. I think Josephine Baker felt the same way.
BPM: Moving on to publishing, have you ever received a rejection from an agent or a publisher?
SJ: Yes, I received many agent rejections for my first novel, THE JEWEL OF MEDINA. Part of the problem was that I sent out my first, bloated draft. “Failed to sustain my enthusiasm,” one agent wrote—with good reason. I picked up the manuscript six months later and felt horrified. It was truly awful. Lesson one: never send out your first draft, unless it’s to an editor to help with revisions.
And then, after Random House acquired it and a professor issued warnings of terrorist attacks and the book got dropped, my agent and I had a very challenging time finding another publisher gutsy enough to take it on. Eight or nine publishers expressed interest, but declined because they were afraid—they told my agent so. Of course, my editor at Random House turned out to be the smart one: once the book came out, the furor faded. Because “The Jewel of Medina” is respectful to Islam and Muslims.
BPM: Do you ever have days when writing is a struggle?
SJ: I frequently have insomnia, and if I don’t get seven hours’ sleep, I’m the most plodding writer in the world. Every word ekes out. Often, though, those turn out to be the best words.
BPM: Have you written any other books that are not published?
I wrote an awful autobiographical novel about sex addiction called “Baby Doll” that no one will ever read. But it was good to get it out of the way.
BPM: What projects are you working on at the present?
SJ: I’m pondering my next book—do I want to continue writing about real women who lived, or is it time to branch out and write a memoir or autofiction, or even create characters from scratch? Mostly, though, I’m focusing on giving JOSEPHINE BAKER’S LAST DANCE the readership I hope it deserves. She was so inspiring and so wonderful that I’m still not tired of her, even after four years of eating, drinking, sleeping, dreaming, living, and breathing Josephine Baker. I’m so excited for the book to launch so I can talk and write about her to my heart’s content. If you meet me in person and ask about her, make sure you aren’t in a hurry to do anything else!
BPM: What legacy do you hope to leave future generations of readers with your writing?
SJ: I love to write about the obstacles women have historically faced to reaching their highest potential, and continue to strive to overcome.
I hope that someday my books become irrelevant because society has progressed to the place where we no longer need inspiration from their examples—but that won’t happen during my lifetime. That makes me sad, but I’m writing as fast as I can.
BPM: What is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you?
SJ: I’ve long been on Facebook, but my author page gets mostly posts about my books while my personal feed—www.facebook.com/authorsherryjones–is where all the authentic action is; I’m very open about my wacky personal life.
I use Twitter primarily as a (super depressing) news feed. I like Instagram and Goodreads best, especially the great communities around books and people who love them. I’m just getting started on Book Bub now, too, and hope to make more reader friends there.
BPM: How can readers discover more about you and your body of work?
Book Bub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/sherry-jones
Purchase Josephine Baker’s Last Dance in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats on Simon and Schuster’s website (available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BooksAMillion, Indiebound, Kobo, and other sites). Learn more about Sherry’s books at www.authorsherryjones.com
Photo Credit: Richard Kielbon