Le pizzazz de Josephine Baker: “Si J’étais Blanche” / Josephine Baker’s pizzazz: “If I were White”


Si J’étais Blanche (1932)



Je voudrais être blanche

Pour moi quel bonheur

Si mes seins et mes hanches

Changent de couleur


Les Parisiens à Juan-les-Pins

Se faisaient gloire

Au soleil d’exposer leurs reins

Pour être Noires


Moi pour être blanche

J’allais me roulant

Parmi les avalanches

En haut du Mont Blanc


Ce stratagème

Donne un petit rigole

J’avais l’air dans la crème

D’un petit pruneau


Étant petite, avec chagrin,

J’admirais dans les magasins

La teinte pâle de poupées blondes

J’aurais voulu leur ressembler

Et je disais à l’air accablé

Me croyant toute seule brune au monde


Moi, si j’étais Blanche

Sachez que mon bonheur

Qui près de vous s’épanche

Garderait sa couleur


Au soleil c’est par l’extérieur

Que l’on se dore

Moi c’est la flamme de mon cœur

Qui me colore


Et si ma figure

Mon corps sont brunis

C’est parce que la nature

Me voulait ainsi


Mais je suis franche,

Dites-moi, Messieurs:

Faut-il que je sois Blanche

Pour vous plaire mieux ?




If I were White (1932)



I’d like to be White

What a joy it would be

If my breasts and my thighs

Changed colour for me


The Parisians at  * Juan-les-Pins

Grant themselves glory,

Get sun on their backs

So they can be  Blacks


To make myself White

I went to the Alps

And rolled in an avalanche

At the peak of   ** Mont Blanc


My strategy

Played a joke on me

– I seemed like a prune

In a blanket of cream


As a little girl I looked with ‘chagrin’

At the blonde dolls in stores

With their pale skin

I’d’ve liked to look like them,

And I’d say, overwhelmed:

I believe I’m the only brown girl in the world.


Me, if I were White,

Know that my happiness,

Which next to you flows,

Would keep its hue


Others by the sun

Get their golden glow

But the flame in my heart

Is what colours me so


And if my shape

And my figure are “bronze”

It’s because Nature

Wanted me this way


But, gentleman, tell me,

I’m going to be frank:

To please you all better

Must I be White?




* Juan-les-Pins – resort town with beaches in the south of France;  during the 1920s the “place-to-be” for the brand-new “fad” of suntanning – popularized by wealthy Europeans and Americans

* *  Mont Blanc (literally, White Mountain) is snow-capped, and is the highest mountain in Europe



Josephine Baker  (1906-1975)  was born in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.   She started out in near-poverty and at 12 years old she was dancing on street corners and living the life of a street child.   Her birth coincided with the era of Ragtime and the evolution of Jazz – those first popular, native American musics that came out of Black-American life.

By the age of 16 – in 1921 – she’d made her way to New York City where the Harlem Renaissance was gathering steam.  She worked as a dancer and chorus girl in Broadway revues.  In 1925 she set out for Paris, where she became a sensation in an all-Black spectacle, La Revue Nègre.  Her athletic style of dancing, her modern sexiness and humorous facial gestures were something the French had never experienced;   she was a complete original.

There was a rage for all things “African” – mostly inaccurate – artifice for “exotic” effect – and impresarios tried to fit Baker into this mold.  But she had so much natural joie-de-vivre, so much energy and inventiveness that she was up for all of it, and she subverted many ideas about race, gender and culture.  She titillated audiences with her nudity and did the same when she wore a tuxedo and tophat with pomaded hair.  Described by literary-‘macho’ Ernest Hemingway as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”,  Baker also had love affairs with women such as Colette and Frida Kahlo.   Biographer Bennetta Jules-Rosette writes:  “Sidestepping the imprisonment by colonialist categories of Race through her performances, Baker transformed Race into a series of costume changes that foreshadowed the desire to be postmodern.”

She was a cheeky prankster and a clever self-promoter, using the gimmick of her pet cheetah, Chiquita – who wore a diamond collar – to enhance her “exoticism”;   Baker would release the animal – an alter-ego of sorts ! – from the stage so it could go a-prowling in the orchestra pit and slinking through the theatre.

Yet the Black-American experience of her childhood – St. Louis, like many U.S. cities, was rife with segregation, Whites-Only “laws” – placed a fierceness at the core of her exuberance.  Happily she became a French citizen in 1937, spied for France in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II ( – Hitler’s belief in his “Master Race” included the exclusion of Blacks as well as Jews, and Baker’s husband during the 1940s was Jewish – ), receiving the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest honour.  She adopted 12 children of different races and birth-nationalities, calling them “my Rainbow Tribe”, and raised them in a fantasy-château, realizing – in France, of all places – an oh-so-American Dream of wealth and celebrity.

Baker became fluent in her adopted country’s language, but sang also in English.  We feature here one of her French “chansons” – “Si J’étais Blanche” (If I were White), from 1932 – which Baker performed in “white face”, wearing a blonde wig – an act of sophisticated minstrelsy that held up a double-mirror to the audience.


French-to-English translation:  Alexander Best