The Amazing Life of Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker is remembered as one of the most outstanding women of her time. She was an important civil rights activist. She fought racism, inequality, injustice, the Nazi regime and paved the way for other African-American women in show-business and in life.
Josephine Baker was born into extreme poverty in Missouri 1906. At age 12 Baker dropped out of school and worked full-time to help her family by “washing dishes for $3 a week” (Caravantes 30). For three years she lived in the slums of St. Louis earning money by dancing on street corners. She was married at 13. She never depended on a man to support her, so when she was bored she left. She was married four times. At the age of 19, Baker was spotted by a talent recruiter who was looking for entertainers to perform in a groundbreaking all-black revue in Paris. With a promise of $1,000 a month, Baker headed to France and never looked back.
After World War One many African-American GIs decided to remain in France because they felt respected in Europe. “In many ways, African-Americans came to France as sort of privileged minority. A group that benefited not only from French fascination with blackness, but a French fascination about Americanness” (Carter 1). France was a nice change from the open racism in the US. It was during the 1920’s that Jazz music and black culture were introduced to the French. Many celebrated Harlem Renaissance writers, singers and dancers like Josephine Baker were embraced with open arms. Although she had been told of the racial equality in France, she was still surprised. After her first performance in France Baker said “For the first time in my life, I was invited to sit at a table and eat with white people “(Caravantes 36). Baker was introduced to Paris in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées. French people were in awe of her dancing that involved “unbridled sexuality” (Wood 84). Baker made a splash as the “first headliner of a show to dance completely naked” (Caravantes 101). She spoke of the immense freedom she experienced living abroad in France: “I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to, and I didn’t have to go to a colored toilet either, and I have to tell you it was nice, and I got used to it, and I liked it, and I wasn’t afraid anymore that someone would shout at me” (Baker 104). Josephine never achieved the same level of success in the United States as she did in France. Her life in Paris was a stark contrast to the life she had growing up in the United States.
The Second World War broke out in 1939. By 1940 German forces occupied France. Josephine Baker volunteered right away to spy for the French resistance. She also used her “status as a celebrity to get false documents for members of the resistance and Jews who needed to flee France for fear of being deported to one of the camps” (Baker 225). Baker smuggled important information and messages from France by putting the messages in her undergarments. After the war Baker became the first American woman to receive three of the highest honors of the French state by Charles de Gaulle, personally.
Baker was “The first black woman to star in a major motion picture” (Rosette 31). She went on to star in four French movies: Siren of the Tropics, ZouZou, Princesse Tam Tam and Fausse Alerte, breaking yet more barriers as a woman of color. “She never made a Hollywood film, but at the time she was recording in France, you had the likes of Hattie McDaniel playing maids in Gone With the Wind” (Rosette 42).
Even though France was home, Baker never truly turned her back on the US. Life in Paris inspired her to work for racial equality back in the United States “She was among the early path-breakers to use performance celebrity for political ends” (Rosette 119). She traveled back to her homeland to perform in 1951. Baker’s celebrity did not mean she was immune to racism. During her 1951 US tour she was refused admission to a number of hotels and restaurants. At the Stork Club in New York City, Baker made charges of racism against the owner for failing to serve her. As a result, she ended up on the FBI watch list and lost her US citizenship rights for eleven years.
While others tackled the issue of segregation in the courts, Baker dealt with it head on. She refused to perform in venues that would not allow blacks and whites to sit together in the audience, even in the deeply divided South. In Las Vegas, Baker was among the first to break down color lines. “She was the first person to desegregate the Las Vegas casinos, not Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.” (Rosette 56). Josephine Baker went to the press and “She forced clubs, theaters, opera houses and other cultural venues to open themselves to an integrated audience” (Caravantes 223). She was very loud and vocal when she felt racism was stopping her from doing anything.
Josephine Baker became very active in the American civil rights movement. With the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Baker finally returned to US soil in 1963 to speak at the March on Washington. Her speech specifically defined civil rights through the eyes of a woman who had known both oppression and freedom. Baker spoke for more than 20 minutes. Baker was the only official female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. She spoke at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. wearing her Free French Army uniform and her medals. Baker said “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.” She also started working closely with the NAACP using her wealth and fame to bring attention to the cause. She lifted up the experiences of the average black women. Her commitment to the continued struggle spoke to millions of black women who experiences were often secondary to the needs of the Civil Rights movement. “Few had the power to escape the grips of segregation in the same way Baker did, but her presence lifted millions of women to the main stage, the same way her works had done decades before” (Wood 88). She wanted to inspire the next generation at the March on Washington saying “You must go to school, and you must learn to protect yourself. And you must learn to protect yourself with the pen, and not the gun. Then you can answer them, and I can tell you — and I don’t want to sound corny — but friend, the pen really is mightier than the sword.”
Josephine Baker’s accomplishments are almost too numerous to list. The singer, dancer, and actress was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture. She integrated many American concert halls, was a member of the French resistance against the Germans and a political icon of the civil rights movement in the US. Josephine Baker died at age 68 in Paris where she was the first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.
Baker, Jean-Claude, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House, 1993. Print.
Caravantes, Peggy. The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy. Chicago Press, 2015. Print.
Carter, Bryan. "African Americans in Paris." RSS. University of Arizona Africana Studies, n.d. Web. 5 May 2015.
"Josephine Baker (1906 - 1975)." Josephine Baker. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 May 2015.
"NAACP Hidden Jems." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 6 May 2015.
"Josephine Baker Website." The Official Josephine Baker Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2015.
Rosette, Bennetta. Josephine Baker in art and life: The Icon and the Image. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Print.
Wood, Ean. The Josephine Baker Story. London: Sanctuary Publishing , 2000. Print.