Long before Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow and Madonna made headlines with their adoptive families, 1920s star Josephine Baker tried to combat racism by adopting 12 children of various ethnic backgrounds from around the world. Today the members of her “rainbow tribe” are still searching for their identity.
He is trying to describe what it was like to grow up here, to trace the vestiges of his childhood, but not much of that remains in this chateau that was once his home. Today Akio Bouillon, a slight, affable man of Japanese origin, can only serve as a guide through an exhibit that pays tribute to his dead mother. In the former living room, a dozen of her robes are now displayed on headless mannequins, and in the study lies a semi-nude wax figure of Bouillon’s mother, with a string of flowers draped around the neck. The “banana skirt” that made her famous hangs in a glass case; strips of gold material in the shape of bananas are attached to a narrow belt. His mother was the singer and entertainer Josephine Baker.
Bouillon, her oldest adopted son, turned 57 in July. He walks across creaking floorboards and into Baker’s bathroom, with its black tiles and Dior bottles, and then into a series of rooms filled with photos, posters and her jewelry. Somewhere in this labyrinth is the small room where Bouillon slept as a child. Today, the bed is cordoned off from the hallway with a velvet rope, and a sign admonishes visitors not to touch anything.
Part 4: ‘Nobody’s Perfect’
Akio now lives in an apartment building on the outskirts of Paris, works in a bank, smokes large numbers of cigarillos and likes to watch animated films. He relates information about streets and squares as we walk through the city. He often walks around aimlessly, without any destination in mind, he says.
And he is often alone. He was in a relationship with an alcoholic for 15 years, until she finally left him, and he has been single since then. He knows nothing about his Japanese mother. Baker wanted to make sure that the children would never search for their biological families, and in some cases she even withheld information.
A Japanese journalist who recently investigated Akio’s story found the woman who had worked in the small shop in Yokohama where he was left as a baby in 1952. He gave Bouillon the information and suggested that the woman might know something about his biological mother. All he had to do was contact her, perhaps by writing her a letter. Bouillon has been carrying around the address for a year now. He says he doesn’t know how to begin the letter.
Did Baker do the right thing? “She was a great artist, and she was our mother,” says Akio Bouillon. “Mothers make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.”
Bouillon says that his mother proved that people of different skin colors could live together as equals. “I love my brothers and sisters,” says Bouillon. They all keep in touch by telephone. He says he feels closest to Jarry, because they were together when their adoptive father died in 1984.
The last time all 12 children were together in one place was in 1976, shortly after the death of their famous mother. Even in the last year of her life, Baker, to earn money, performed on a Paris stage, wearing a sequined dress and a towering feather headdress.
The children never wanted to be celebrities. They live ordinary lives — working as gardeners, greengrocers or insurance agents. Child number eight died of cancer 10 years ago. Child number 11 became schizophrenic and now lives in an institution. Some of the siblings married and had children, while others remained single.
None of them adopted children.
“We are completely normal people,” says Akio Bouillon. He and his siblings want to feel like a family, not a project.
Sometimes Bouillon flips through magazines and sees the photos of today’s rainbow tribes, of Madonna with her children from Malawi, of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, traveling around the world with their six small children and their nannies, in the glare of the media spotlight. But he doesn’t feel taken aback by the images. In fact, they make him feel proud.
“It’s great,” he says. “These stars are following in my mother’s footsteps.” Of course, he adds, the paparazzi are a problem, as is their constant quest for pictures of the children. But when Jolie adopts a baby from the Third World, says Bouillon, there is also a higher principle at work. “When these children grow up, they’ll understand.”
Bouillon feels that his adoptive mother made a great and enduring contribution, and that our impression of Josephine Baker should not be clouded by her weaknesses. She was, as he says, a child of her time, a time when even stricter morals applied. That helps to explain why she and Jari didn’t get along, he says.
- Part 1: Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Tribe
- Part 2: The Lust for Pleasure
- Part 3: A Dream Childhood?
- Part 4: ‘Nobody’s Perfect’
- Part 5: The Banished Son
Adopted Children (on Wikipedia)
During Baker’s work with the Civil Rights Movement she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe“. Josephine wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.” She often took the children with her cross-country, and when they were at Les Milandes tours were arranged so visitors could walk the grounds and see how natural and happy the children in “The Rainbow Tribe” were. Baker raised two daughters, French-born Marianne and Moroccan-born Stellina, and ten sons, Korean-born Jeannot (or Janot), Japanese-born Akio, Colombian-born Luis, Finnish-born Jari (now Jarry), French-born Jean-Claude and Noël, Israeli-born Moïse, Algerian-born Brahim, Ivorian-born Koffi, and Venezuelan-born Mara. For some time, Baker lived with her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Château de Milandes, in Dordogne, France, with her fourth husband French conductor Jo Bouillon.