Depression & Melancholy: Animated Videos Explain the Crucial Difference Between Everyday Sadness and Clinical Depression

“Depression,” the TED-Ed video above informs us, “is the leading cause of disability in the world.” This may be a hard fact to swallow, the product, we might think, of pharmaceutical advertising. We all feel down from time to time, we think. “Then circumstances change, and those sad feelings disappear.” Isn’t it like this for everyone? It is not. “Clinical depression is different. It’s a medical disorder, and it won’t go away just because you want it to.”

Depression can linger for up to two weeks, and become so debilitating that sufferers cannot work or play. It interferes with important relationships and “can have a lot of different symptoms: a low mood, loss of interest in things you’d normally enjoy, changes in appetite, feeling worthless or excessively guilty,” restlessness and insomnia, or extreme lethargy, poor concentration, and possible thoughts of suicide. But surely we can hear a paid promotional voice when the narrator states, “If you have at least 5 of those symptoms, according to psychiatric guidelines, you qualify for a diagnosis of depression.”

What we don’t typically hear about in pharmaceutical ads are the measurable physiological changes depression writes in the brain, including decreased brain matter in the frontal lobe and atrophy of the hippocampus. These effects are measurable in humans and rats, in study after study after study. But while most of us know the names of a neurotransmitter or two these days, not even neuroscientists fully understand the biology of depression. They do know that some combination of medication, therapy, and, in extreme cases electroconvulsive treatment, can allow people to more fully experience life.

People in treatment will still feel “down” on occasion, just like everyone does. But depression, the explainer wants us to understand, should never be compared to ordinary sadness. Its effects on behavior and brain health are too wide-ranging, pervasive, persistent, and detrimental. These effects can be invisible, which adds to an unfortunate social stigma that dissuades people from seeking treatment. The more we talk about depression openly, rather than treating as it as a shameful secret, the more likely people at risk will be to seek help.

Just as depression cannot be alleviated by trivializing or ignoring it, the condition does not respond to being romanticized. While, indeed, many a famous painter, poet, actor, etc. has suffered from clinical depression—and made it a part of their art—their examples should not suggest to us that artists shouldn’t get treatment. Sadness is never trivial.

Unlike physical pain, it is difficult, for example, to pinpoint the direct causes of sadness. As the short video above demonstrates, the assumption that sadness is caused by external events arose relatively recently. The humoral system of the ancient Greeks treated all sadness as a biological phenomenon. Greek physicians believed it was an expression of black bile, or “melaina kole,” from which we derive the word "melancholy." It seems we’ve come full circle, in a way. Ancient humoral theorists recommended nutrition, medical treatment, and physical exercise as treatments for melancholia, just as doctors do today for depression.

But melancholy is a much broader term, not a scientific designation; it is a collection of ideas about sadness that span thousands of years. Nearly all of those ideas include some sense that sadness is an essential experience. “If you’ve never felt melancholy,” the narrator says, “you’ve missed out on part of what it means to be human.” Thinkers have described melancholia as a precursor to, or inevitable result of, acquiring wisdom. One key example, Robert Burton’s 1621 text The Anatomy of Melancholy, "the apogee of Renaissance scholarship," set the tone for discussions of melancholy for the next few centuries.

The scientific/philosophical/literary text argues, “he that increaseth wisdom, increaseth sorrow,” a sentiment the Romantic poets turned on its head. Before them came John Milton, whose 1645 poem Il Penseroso addresses melancholy as “thou Goddes, sage and holy… Sober, stedfast, and demure.” The deity Melancholy oversees the contemplative life and reveals essential truths through “Gorgeous Tragedy.”

One of the poem’s loftiest themes showed the way forward for the Romantics: “The poet who seeks to attain the highest level of creative expression must embrace the divine,” write Milton scholars Katherine Lynch and Thomas H. Luxon, "which can only be accomplished by following the path set out in Il Penseroso.” The divine, in this case, takes the form of sadness personified. Yet this poem cannot be read in isolation: its companion, L’Allegro, praises Mirth, and of sadness says, “Hence loathed Melancholy / Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born, in Stygian Cave forlorn / ‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy.”

Rather than contradict each other, these two characterizations speak to the ambivalent attitudes, and vastly different experiences, humans have about sadness. Fleeting bouts of melancholy can be sweet, touching, and beautiful, inspiring art, music, and poetry. Sadness can force us to reckon with life’s unpleasantness rather than deny or avoid it. On the other hand, in its most extreme, chronically intractable forms, such as what we now call clinical depression, sadness can destroy our capacity to act, to appreciate beauty and learn important lessons, marking the critical difference between a universal existential condition and a, thankfully, treatable physical disease.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch “The “Art of Flying,” a Short Film Capturing the Wondrous Murmurations of the Common Starling

In the tradition of Andrew Sullivan's Dish, we start the week--before it even gets a bit hectic--with a Mental Health break. Above, watch The Art of Flying, Jan van Ijken's short film that captures the mysterious flights--or murmurations--of the Common Starling. A blurb accompanying the film adds a bit more context:

It is still unknown how the thousands of birds are able to fly in such dense swarms without colliding. Every night the starlings gather at dusk to perform their stunning air show. Because of the relatively warm winter of 2014/2015, the starlings stayed in the Netherlands instead of migrating southwards. This gave filmmaker Jan van IJken the opportunity to film one of the most spectacular and amazing natural phenomena on earth.

Also, over at janvanijken.com, you'll find a longer seven-minute version of this film, featuring "wonderful close-ups and a spectacular final scene." The €2,99 fee for watching that full-length film goes toward supporting van Ijken's work as an independent filmmaker.

Enjoy.

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The Proof That Mel Blanc–the Voice Behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck & Porky Pig–Was a Genius

Bugs Bunny is a talented mimic.

His effortless impersonations of the celebrities of his day are not always politic (see Al Jolson) but  there’s no denying that his impressions of Liberace, Edgar G. Robinson, Bing Crosby, and Hollywood Bowl conductor Leopold Stokowski introduced these personages to subsequent generations.

Clearly he was not working alone. In the 1981 interview with David Letterman below, Mel Blanc, who voiced Bugs, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn and many other animated favorites demonstrated his versatility.

Blanc shaped the characters from the get go, inventing voices for character sketches and storyboards, though it was clear to him that tough nut Bugs should have an equally tough  accent - either Brooklyn or the Bronx. (Rather than split hairs, he invented a hybrid.)

Hank Azaria, who is as central to The Simpsons’ mythology as Blanc is to Warner Brothers, marvels (up top) at Blanc’s ability to mimic one character imitating another, as Bugs and Daffy Duck do above.

Regionalism steered many of Blanc’s most memorable creations, from Foghorn Leghon’s Texas drawl to French loverboy, Pepe Le Pew.

Nice Maurice Chevalier, Bugs...

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Map of Biology: Animation Shows How All the Different Fields in Biology Fit Together

Of all the science classes required throughout primary and secondary school, most students seem to like biology the best. Maybe, dealing as it does with such familiar things as plants, animals, and human beings, the popularity of biology has to do with its clear relevance to their life — or more to the point, to life itself. But any biology-loving youngster who decides to go take their studies more deeply into their favorite subject must sooner or later make a difficult choice: what kind of biology will they focus on? Biophysics, cellular biology, ecology, environmental biology, biomechanics, molecular biology, biochemistry, evolutionary biology... the list seems endless.

So instead of looking at the world of biology as a list, why not look as it as a map? Domain of Science, the Youtube channel previously featured here on Open Culture for their map of mathematics, map of physics, map of chemistry, and map of computer science, have just recently put together one for biology, a video tour of which appears above.

It begins with "the most basic unit in the foundation of all life," the cell, continues on to molecular, chemical, and physical processes, then to genes, populations, anatomy, the immune system, genetic engineering, paleontology, and even the search for life in outer space, with many other stops along the way besides.

"If there's one word that describes biology, it's complexity," says series creator and narrator Dominic Walliman. "There's a huge amount we still don't understand about how life works, how it started, and how it ended up with intelligent apes like us who are able to look back and try and work out. I feel like we'll be making new biological discoveries for many, many years to come." Encouraging words for those students now considering going into one of the many biological sciences, although they'll still have to decide exactly which biological science to go into — bearing in mind how many of those subfields have yet to emerge. It doesn't take that intelligent an ape to understand that, before long, biology's going to need a bigger map.

You can purchase Domain of Science's maps as posters here.

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Free Online Biology Courses 

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Giant Clown Sings a Creepy Cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”

You can't unsee this. You can't get it out of your head. Tonight, in your dreams, you'll see Puddles Pity Party, the 6'8" clown, singing a creeped out version of Radiohead's "Creep." He's backed by Matthew Kaminski, organist for the Atlanta Braves. You've been warned.

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The “True Size” Maps Shows You the Real Size of Every Country (and Will Change Your Mental Picture of the World)

We all understand, on some level, that as adults we must go back and correct the oversimplifications we learned as schoolchildren. But for a sense of how large the scale of those quasi-truths, you must imagine the whole world: that is, you must imagine how you imagine the whole world, a mental picture probably taken straight from the map hung on the classroom wall. And the lines of that map came straight, in a sense, from the work of 16th-century cartographer Gerardus Mercator.

Though Mercator's world-mapping method came as a revolution, it has also given generation after generation after generation very much the wrong idea about how big the world's countries actually are. Mercator Projection, as Citymetric describes it, "re-imagines the earth as the surface of a cylinder.

When laid out flat, it’s pleasingly rectangular, and its eastern and western edges line up neatly." But while "in reality, lines of longitude converge at the poles; on the map, they're parallel. As a result, the closer you get to the poles, the more distorted the map becomes, and the bigger things look relative to their actual size."

Hence the need for such re-imaginings of the world map as The True Size, "a website that lets you compare the size of any nation or US state to other land masses, by allowing you to move them around to anywhere else on the map." Just search for any country in the box in the map's upper-left corner, and that country's borders will appear highlighted in color. When you click and drag those borders to another part of the world, specifically a part of the world at a different latitude, you'll notice that the shape of the dragged country seems to deform.

But that appearance of distortion is only relative to the shapes and sizes we've long internalized from the Mercator map: when you move Australia up and it covers a third of Russia, or when you move the vast-looking Greenland down and it doesn't even cover Argentina, you're looking — perhaps for the first time — at a geographically accurate size comparison. Does that (to quote the humorless representative of the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality in the West Wing episode cited as one inspiration for the True Size Map) blow your mind?

Explore the True Size Map here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why So Many People Adore The Room, the Worst Movie Ever Made? A Video Explainer

Not since the height of the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s midnight screenings have I seen a crowd go so nuts for a film, but 2003’s The Room seems to have really hit a cultural nerve. And it’s only going to get bigger with the upcoming release of The Disaster Artist, James Franco and Seth Rogen’s retelling of how writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau made his so-bad-it’s-brilliant film, based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.

Whereas Rocky Horror was an adaptation of an already successful East End musical, and a knowingly camp one at that, The Room is sui generis. As The Disaster Artist’s co-author Tom Bissell describes it, “It’s like a movie made by an alien who has never seen a movie but had movies thoroughly explained to him.”

The above video from Vox takes the uninitiated into the phenomenon of this piece of “paracinema”--any film that lies outside the mainstream--and tries to explain why The Room is so beloved while so many other bad films disappear into the ether.

One reason is its campy nature, though never knowingly so--Wiseau thought he was making something great. And because it’s so hard to find somebody so driven, yet so unaware of the basics of acting, storytelling, and moviemaking, The Room stands out compared to other films that try to be intentionally bad. You just can't fake that kind of thing.

The other reason is what critic Pierre Bourdieu would call cultural capital. That’s the shared joy between fans, and the importance placed on dressing up like the characters, going to midnight screenings, and seeing who knows the most lines.

The current trailer for The Disaster Artist reframes the story as a typical Hollywood story, where one follows their dreams no matter what, and hints at how The Room’s plot mirrored actual events in Wiseau’s life.

Meanwhile, what is really getting the buzz is James Franco’s uncanny and spot-on portrayal of Wiseau and some of The Room’s recreated footage. It’s almost exact down to the second.

People’s love of The Room has led some to treat it like the work of art it so wanted to be. In YouTube essayist This Guy Edits' video, he examines Wiseau’s blocking of a scene much like The Nerdwriter broke down Hitchcock’s blocking of Vertigo. Camp in this instance has birthed irony, but in the most loving way.

If you are new to The Room, please follow Tom Bissell’s advice and watch it for the first time at home, not at a midnight screening when you won’t hear any dialog and spoons are thrown at the screen. Hell, don’t even watch The Disaster Artist until you’ve sat down and watched Wiseau’s...masterpiece. (Yeah, we said it.)

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Meet Mandy Harvey, the Deaf Singer Songwriter Who Performs Barefoot & Feels the Music Through Vibrations in the Ground

Attractive young female singer-songwriters who shuck their shoes onstage sometimes find that this small attempt to pass themselves off as folksy and “real” has the opposite effect.

Mandy Harvey, however, is above reproach. The deaf singer-songwriter performs barefoot out of necessity, using her unclad soles to pick up on the vibrations of various instruments through the floorboards. It allows her to keep time and, in so doing, helps her to stay emotionally connected to the other musicians with whom she’s performing, as she told NPR earlier this year, when she was one of 10 finalists on America's Got Talent.

“I’ll feel and concentrate on the drums through the floor, through my feet and then the bass through your chest,” she said in an interview with Colorado Public Radio. “And then if a saxophone player is next to me then it will be on my arm. So you just designate different parts of your body so you can concentrate on who’s playing what and when.”

Born with near perfect pitch and a connective tissue disorder that impaired her hearing, she was able to pursue her love of music by relying on hearing aids and lip reading until 18, when she finally lost her hearing for good, as a freshman Vocal Music Education major at Colorado State University.

While she has never heard fellow songbirds Adele or Taylor Swift, she has gotten over the stage fright that plagued her when she still retained some hearing. Vocally, she turns to muscle memory and visual tuners to see her through.

Her talent is such that some listeners are convinced her deafness is a publicity stunt, a misperception that eats at Wayne Connell, founder of the Invisible Disabilities Association, a non-profit with whom Harvey is active:

We've created an idea [of] how people are supposed to look when they're broken and so when you don't fit that imaginary mold, then it's a trick, or you're a liar — or you're not really broken, so you shouldn't be doing certain things.

See Harvey performing barefoot at the Kennedy Center on the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet the Characters Immortalized in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: The Stars and Gay Rights Icons from Andy Warhol’s Factory Scene

Lou Reed weathered his share of bad press in the decades after leaving one of the most influential bands in rock history—either for his famed irascibility or his spells of lackluster songwriting. Somehow, he always had a way of bouncing back, proving again and again his cultural relevance. For example, when it seemed like he had cashed in all his credibility with the godawful “Original Rapper” in the mid-eighties, he returned in 1989 with the gritty classic rock and roll of New York (and played the White House at the request of his longtime fan and friend Vaclav Havel). Reed was a true survivor of a downtown scene that claimed more casualties than it made stars, and he mostly made survival look pretty good.

When he released his first solo album after quitting the Velvet Underground in 1972, however, it seemed likely Reed was headed for obscurity. Lou Reed is mostly a great collection of (mostly overproduced) songs, “but it isn’t a terribly interesting” record, writes Mark Deming at Allmusic, “and it stands today more as a historical curiosity than anything else” for its early versions of songs like "Berlin." Not so the follow-up, Transformer, an album boasting what may well be some of the best recordings Reed ever made, like “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love.” What made the difference? The influence of David Bowie, who produced with Mick Ronson, didn’t hurt one bit.

Transformer also happens to contain the only song that broke Reed “through to the mainstream,” notes the Polyphonic video above, the “rock classic” hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” The song draws its narrative strength and its “incredibly subversive” nature from its subject: the 60s Factory scene surrounding Andy Warhol, which, in effect, made Lou Reed, Lou Reed when Warhol took the Velvet Underground under his wing. The song reminds us that Reed was at his strongest when he told the tales of his milieu, whether that be the world of junkies, hustlers, and sexual outsiders, or of fringe downtown artists unafraid to experiment with new identities and personas.

These were shared worlds, and Reed knew them well enough to capture them in a literary frame provided by Nelson Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wild Side (1956). Rather than create an adaptation of the book as he first intended, Reed wrote about six compelling Factory characters, “Superstars” in Warhol’s coterie, who embodied the edgy, courageous cool Reed made his theme. First up is Holly Woodlawn, a transgender woman who moved to New York from Miami to escape discrimination. Warhol discovered Woodlawn working the streets, and put her in films, “where she thrived,” the video notes, becoming “an important figure in LGBTQ history and, thanks to Lou Reed, in music history, too.”

The next verse introduces us to another important member of Warhol’s inner circle, Candy Darling, who was also transgender and a star of Warhol’s films, and who inspired not only “Walk on the Wild Side” but “Candy Says” and, quite possibly, the Kinks’ “Lola.” Darling is already familiar to those who know the Factory scene, as is the subject of the third vignette, Joe Dallesandro, whom Warhol turned into a cult star in films like Flesh, and who—unlike most of the Factory artists—actually achieved mainstream success, with roles in The Cotton Club and The Limey. (He also served as the crotch model on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and the “topless torso” on the cover of The Smiths’ debut album.)

As the video outlines brief biographies of each “Walk on the Wild Side” muse, we see that Reed wasn’t only paying homage to his artistic community of origin, he also was also preserving a pantheon of cultural figures who were important to the gay rights movement in one way or another, as well as to the 60s Warhol aesthetic and the birth of glam rock in the 70s. “Walk on the Wild Side,” notes Polyphonic, “gives us a great little glimpse into a historical scene, and it helps us understand the people around Lou Reed that influenced the great artist he was.” Without a doubt, Reed’s most enduring work comes from his sympathetic portraits of the artists and hangers-on who made the world he wrote of so sexy, dangerous, complex, and intriguing.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Josephine Baker Went From Homeless Street Performer to International Superstar, French Resistance Fighter & Civil Rights Hero

There has maybe never been a better time to critically examine the granting of special privileges to people for their talent, personality, or wealth. Yet, for all the harm wrought by fame, there have always been celebrities who use the power for good. The twentieth century is full of such figures, men and women of conscience like Muhamad Ali, Nina Simone, and Paul Robeson—extraordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. Yet no celebrity activist, past or present, has lived a life as extraordinary as Josephine Baker’s.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 to parents who worked as entertainers in St. Louis, Baker’s early years were marked by extreme poverty. “By the time young Freda was a teenager,” writes Joanne Griffith at the BBC, “she was living on the streets and surviving on food scraps from bins.” Like every rags-to-riches story, Baker’s turns on a chance discovery. While performing on the streets at 15, she attracted the attention of a touring St. Louis vaudeville company, and soon found enormous success in New York, in the chorus lines of a string of Broadway hits.

Baker became professionally known, her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker writes in his biography, as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” A great achievement in and of itself, but then she was discovered again at age 19 by a Parisian recruiter who offered her a lucrative spot in a French all-black revue. “Baker headed to France and never looked back,” parlaying her nearly-nude danse sauvage into international fame and fortune. Topless, or nearly so, and wearing a skirt made from fake bananas, Baker used stereotypes to her advantage—by giving audiences what they wanted, she achieved what few other black women of the time ever could: personal autonomy and independent wealth, which she consistently used to aid and empower others.

Throughout the 20s, she remained an archetypal symbol of jazz-age art and entertainment for her Folies Bergère performances (see her dance the Charleston and make comic faces in 1926 in the looped video above). In 1934, Baker made her second film Zouzou (top), and became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. But her sly performance of a very European idea of African-ness did not go over well in the U.S., and the country she had left to escape racial animus bared its teeth in hostile receptions and nasty reviews of her star Broadway performance in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies (a critic at Time referred to her as a “Negro wench”). Baker turned away from America and became a French citizen in 1937.

American racism had no effect on Baker’s status as an international superstar—for a time perhaps the most famous woman of her age and “one of the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe.” She inspired modern artists like Picasso, Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, and Alexander Calder (who sculpted her in wire). When the war broke out, she hastened to work for the Red Cross, entertaining troops in Africa and the Middle East and touring Europe and South America. During this time, she also worked as a spy for the French Resistance, transmitting messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

Her massive celebrity turned out to be the perfect cover, and she often “relayed information,” the Spy Museum writes, “that she gleaned from conversations she overheard between German officers attending her performances.” She became a lieutenant in the Free French Air Force and for her efforts was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance by Charles De Gaulle and lauded by George S. Patton. Nonetheless, many in her home country continued to treat her with contempt. When she returned to the U.S. in 1951, she entertained huge crowds, and dealt with segregation “head –on,” writes Griffith, refusing “to perform in venues that would not allow a racially mixed audience, even in the deeply divided South." She became the first person to desegregate the Vegas casinos.

But she was also “refused admission to a number of hotels and restaurants.” In 1951, when employees at New York’s Stork Club refused to serve her, she charged the owner with discrimination. The Stork club incident won her the lifelong admiration and friendship of Grace Kelly, but the government decided to revoke her right to perform in the U.S., and she ended up on an FBI watch list as a suspected communist—a pejorative label applied, as you can see from this declassified 1960 FBI report, with extreme prejudice and the presumption that fighting racism was by default “un-American.” Baker returned to Europe, where she remained a superstar (see her perform a medley above in 1955).

She also began to assemble her infamous “Rainbow Tribe,” twelve children adopted from all over the world and raised in a 15th-century chateau in the South of France, an experiment to prove that racial harmony was possible. She charged tourists money to watch the children sing and play, a “little-known chapter in Baker’s life” that is also “an uncomfortable one,” Rebecca Onion notes at Slate. Her estate functioned as a “theme park,” writes scholar Matthew Pratt Guterl, a “Disneyland-in-the-Dordogne, with its castle in the center, its massive swimming pool built in the shape of a “J” for its owner, its bathrooms decorated like an Arpège perfume bottle, its hotels, its performances, and its pageantry.” These trappings, along with a menagerie of exotic pets, make us think of modern celebrity pageantry.

But for all its strange excesses, Guturl maintains, her “idiosyncratic project was in lockstep with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement." She wouldn’t return to the States until 1963, with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and when she did, it was as a guest of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the organizers of the March on Washington, where, in her Free French Air Force uniform, she became the only woman to address the crowd. The visual recounting of that moment above comes from a new 600-page graphic biography that follows Baker's “trajectory from child servant in St. Louis,” PRI writes, “to her days as a vaudeville performer, a major star in France, and later, a member of the French Resistance and an American civil rights activist.”

In her speech, she directly confronted the government who had turned her into an enemy:

They thought they could smear me, and the best way to do that was to call me a communist.  And you know, too, what that meant.  Those were dreaded words in those days, and I want to tell you also that I was hounded by the government agencies in America, and there was never one ounce of proof that I was a communist.  But they were mad.  They were mad because I told the truth.  And the truth was that all I wanted was a cup of coffee.  But I wanted that cup of coffee where I wanted to drink it, and I had the money to pay for it, so why shouldn’t I have it where I wanted it?

Baker made no apologies for her wealth and fame, but she also took every opportunity, even if misguided at times, to use her social and financial capital to better the lives of others. Her plain-speaking demands opened doors not only for performers, but for ordinary people who could look to her as an example of courage and grace under pressure into the 1970s. She continued to perform until her death in 1975. Just below, you can see rehearsal footage and interviews from her final performance, a sold-out retrospective.

The opening night audience included Sophia Lauren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days after the show closed, Baker was found dead in her bed at age 68, surrounded by rave reviews of her performance. Her own assessment of her five-decade career was distinctly modest. Earlier that year, Baker told Ebony magazine, “I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed.” We might not agree with her critical self-evaluation, but her life bears out the strength and authenticity of her convictions.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness





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