The Warmth of Other Suns

Katie Gee Salisbury
ZORA
Published in
14 min readJan 30, 2024

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how Paul Robeson & Josephine Baker’s success in Europe paved the way for Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong descending from a train, bouquet in hand, courtesy of Creative Commons

The story of Anna May Wong’s sojourn in Europe has become the stuff of legend. Seeing that there was nothing for her in Hollywood — except the same old exoticized roles where she never got the guy and died in the end (or sometimes died at the very beginning) — she gathered up every ounce of her youthful gumption and set sail for Germany in the spring of 1928. At UFA in Berlin, not only was Anna May cast in the leading role, but the screenplay was crafted specifically for her and the film was retitled in honor of her Chinese name, to boot! (If you ask me, Song is still one of the best films she ever made.)

By the time she returned to the U.S. three years later, she had been hailed as an international sensation. Studio heads suddenly realized they’d better give the Chinese American actress a second look. Los Angeles Times reporter Harry Carr put it this way: Anna May had to leave Hollywood “to glow and dazzle… Now that she has become world famous, Hollywood tries to assure us that they knew her all the time. But this is not true.”

Anna May, of course, was not the first entertainer of color to prove her mettle on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s impossible to talk about this period of her life without recognizing the exodus of Black American performers who first made the leap to Europe. The most famous among them were Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, whose groundbreaking careers paved the way for someone like Anna May to follow in their footsteps.

Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker, circa 1920s

The woman who became known as the Black Venus was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman who sometimes performed in a local vaudeville act with drummer Eddie Carson. Little is known about her father, who many speculate was white or mixed race. Josephine stuck out as a young girl, even among her half-siblings, on account of her lighter complexion. The kids at school made fun of her and called her father a “buckra,” a derogatory term for a white person that comes from a West African word meaning…

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Katie Gee Salisbury
ZORA
Writer for

Author of NOT YOUR CHINA DOLL, a new biography of Anna May Wong, forthcoming from Dutton on March 12, 2024. Available for pre-order: www.notyourchinadoll.com