Josephine Baker can be remembered as one of the most outstanding women of her time in show-business, paving the way for African-American women, an important civil-rights activist, and a fighter against racism, inequality, injustice, and Nazi regime.
Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri 1906. At age 12 Baker had to drop out of school to work full-time under such ghastly conditions that she chose to rather be homeless. 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 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.
France where race relations were years ahead of those in the United States in1925. Josephine was introduced to Paris in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées. Josephine was the “first star to sing and dance and also appear half naked” (Wood 79). At the same time French people were unsure of whether to be in awe or disgust of her savage dancing that involved “unbridled sexuality” (Wood 84). This was rather risqué at the time because only the dancers in the chorus line were bare-chested; Josephine made her mark as the first star of a show to dance naked. Josephine never achieved the same level of success in the United States as she did in France. This was in part due to the racism that was rampant throughout the nation.In Paris, Josephine enjoyed life without racial discrimination. Although she had been told of the racial equality in France, she was still surprised when she arrived and received a warm welcome from the citizens. Here she was treated equally, and due to the extreme racial inequality she faced in both St. Louis and New York, Paris was a welcome change.
Her life in Paris was a stark contrast to the life she had growing up in the United States. Life in Paris inspired her to work for racial equality, and she remained steadfast in her beliefs. Paris is where Josephine Baker was allowed to be free and do what she wanted, and she excelled in all that she did. Josephine Baker was an extremely talented dancer, but she did so much more than simply dance around the stage in a banana skirt. After the war Baker became the first American woman to receive three of the highest honors of the French state, the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance, and being made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur; all given to her by Charles de Gaulle personally.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 German forces occupied France in 1940, Josephine Baker immediately volunteered to spy and work 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. She also smuggled important information and messages from France to Morocco or Spain by hiding the messages in her underwear. She went on to star in four movies: Siren of the Tropics (1927), ZouZou (1934), Princesse Tam Tam (1935) and Fausse Alerte (1940), breaking yet more barriers as a woman of color. “She never made a Hollywood film,” says Jules-Rosette. “But at the time she was recording in France, you had the likes of Hattie McDaniel playing maids in Gone With the Wind” Even though France was home, Baker never truly turned her back on the US. “She was among the early path-breakers to use performance celebrity for political ends,” says Jules-Rosette. She traveled back to her homeland to perform on a number of occasions, including in 1951.
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 a racially mixed audience, even in the deeply divided South. In Las Vegas, Baker was among the first to break down color lines, Jules-Rosette: “She was the first person to desegregate the Las Vegas casinos, not Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.” Josephine Baker was an extremely talented dancer, but she did so much more than simply dance around the stage in a banana skirt. She forced clubs, theaters, opera houses and other cultural venues to open themselves to an integrated audience by either refusing to perform there or by simply buying the establishment and changing the audience guidelines. Baker’s celebrity didn’t 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 over a decade.
In the 1950s Josephine Baker became very active in the American civil rights movement. Not only did she protest racism by adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans as her legal children. Her speech was pivotal as she specifically defined civil rights through the eyes of a woman who had known both oppression and freedom. With the help of attorney general Robert F Kennedy, Baker finally returned to US soil in 1963 to speak at the March on Washington. Baker spoke for more than 20 minutes. This lead to her being 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. Quote from March on Washington: “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 and fight for their cause and the cause of black women. She lifted up the experiences of the average women. Her commitment to the continued struggle honored millions of women who experiences were often relegated as 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. Encouraging future generations to embrace education and future struggles associated with civil rights rounded out Baker’s speech.
She wanted to inspire the next generation to carry on the legacy of the civil rights movement, but recognized that role of civil rights would play a role in advancing education, healthcare, and women’s rights. Quote from March on Washington: “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 friends, the pen really is mightier than the sword. Josephine Baker’s accomplishments are almost too numerous to list them all: The American-French singer, dancer, and actress was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, andto become the first world-famous entertainer. She also 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-Cluade, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House, 1993. Book.
Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. Josephine Baker in art and life: The Icon and the Image. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Book.
Wood, Ean. The Josephine Baker Story. London: Sanctuary Publishing Limited, 2000. Book.