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Unsung Heroes: Josephine Baker

2011 April 14

Star of stage and screen, major civil rights player, member of the French resistance, and recipient of the Croix de Guerre? That’s quite an impressive CV by any standards, and it only just begins to cover the achievements of Josephine Baker, one of the great performers and humanitarians of the 20th century.

Born Freda Josephine Mcdonald in St Louis, Missouri in 1906, Baker’s life got off to a rough start. As a child she worked as a cleaner and babysitter for a reportedly abusive wealthy woman – Baker later spoke of having her hands burnt for making a mistake, and of being told “not to kiss the baby”, presumably to avoid somehow “racially tainting” the child. By the age of 12 she had run away to live on the streets, surviving the East St Louis Riots of 1917, and working as a waitress and a street dancer. By the age of 15 she was onto her second marriage, where she picked up the Baker name she would keep through the rest of her career.

Black and white photo of African-American performer Josephine Baker in a satin dress, posing with her pet leopard

Around about 1921 things started to improve for Baker, as she moved to New York and began dancing in Broadway and vaudeville shows. Initially she was turned down as a vaudeville chorus dancer, described as “too skinny and too dark.” Not one to be put off, Baker worked as a dresser instead, learning all the dance moves from backstage. When a space came up for a chorus dancer she made herself the natural choice, knowing all the routines already, and put on an impressive performance. Before long she was one of the most successful chorus girls in vaudeville theatre.

Though successful, Baker found that continuing racial discrimination in the US led her to feel alienated and disrespected, and she moved to Paris in 1925. Here she quickly came to the attention of the director of the Folies Bergère, quickly climbing to stardom. She became one of the most talked about and photographed women in the world, and by 1927 was amongst the most highly paid entertainers alive (much of her pay being spent on pets. There’s something fantastic about having a pet snake, goat, pig, parakeet, several cats, dogs, fish, a chimpanzee and a leopard.) In 1927 she also appeared in  the silent film Siren of the Tropics, becoming the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture.

“She kissed babies in foundling homes, gave dolls to the young and soup to the aged, presided at the opening of the Tour de France, celebrated holidays, went to fairs, joked with workers and did charity benefits galore. She was all over Paris, always good-natured and exquisitely dressed.”

- Phyllis Rose, Jazz Cleopatra

Her return to America in 1936 did not go well. Audiences refused to accept the notion of a sophisticated black woman, and newspaper reviews tore her act apart, with the New York Times going so far as to refer to her as “a Negro wench”. She soon returned to France.

When war broke out, Baker did not sit idly by. In addition to playing up her role as an entertainer and boosting troops’ morale in Africa and Europe, she worked covertly for the French Resistance, smuggling secret messages on her sheet music and pinned to the inside of her clothing. This, and her wartime work with the Red Cross saw her awarded the Croix de guerre, making her the first American-born woman to achieve this.

Following the war Baker turned her attention to civil rights activism and unleashed a whole truckload of awesomeness. After her negative experiences performing in the US in the Thirties, Baker refused to perform at segregated clubs, and this insistence is credited with being influential in the integration of shows in Las Vegas. But that was only one tiny facet of her amazing actions in the Fifties and Sixties.

Sepia tint photo of African-American performer Josephine Baker wearing her famous skirt of bananas.

The most work-safe shot of that famous Banana Skirt

You see, Baker wanted to demonstrate that there was absolutely no reason why people of different races and faiths couldn’t live together just fine. So how did she set about proving this? By adopting a dozen children (whom she called her “Rainbow Tribe”), from places as far-flung as Cote D’Ivoire, Finland, Korea and Colombia, and raising them all together. Oh, and she raised them in a castle, the Chateau de Milandes, in Dordogne. Because if you’re going to go to the effort of doing something you might as well go all the way and do it in a castle.

In 1963 Baker stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington when he made his “I Have a Dream” speech. Baker was the only woman to deliver a speech at the rally, and was later offered a place at the head of the American Civil Rights Movement following King’s assassination, though she declined.

Over the space of her career Baker managed to be a hugely influential performer, to risk her life as a part of the French Resistance, and to take a major role in the civil rights movement. There’s just far too much kickassery in there to possibly sum up in the space of one post, so for more detailed looks at her life there’s Josephine: The Hungry Heart, by her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker, and Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, by Phyllis Rose.

“Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”
– Josephine Baker

  • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting fascinating people we never learned about at school. Rob Mulligan also blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes, or send your own in to [email protected]!
5 Responses leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011

    A couple of asides that I didn’t manage to fit into the main body of the post:

    Baker stormed out of the Stork Club in New York after being refused service there, and was joined by Grace Kelly, who’d been in the club at the time. The two went on to boycott the place and became fast friends, with Kelly (by this point the princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco) later offering Baker a villa when she hit on hard times.

    Baker was also involved in an affair with Frida Kahlo. Jean-Claude Baker’s book details her affairs with other women in the entertainment business, and after it was published it became apparent that Kahlo had also been involved. Which, y’know, is pretty cool.

    • April 17, 2011

      “Baker was also involved in an affair with Frida Kahlo.”

      Two of my teenage idols having sexytimes. Thank you for this image :-D

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