Josephine Baker: The Exotic Activist
Josephine Baker, born in St. Louis in 1906, was an astonishing woman. From being the star of the Paris nightclubs and stage to her extensive work with the French underground in WWII to her work with Martin Luther King in the 1960's American Civil Rights Movement, she was indomitable. She was called "Bronze Venus," the "Black Pearl," and even the "Créole Goddess." Star of stage and screen, singer and activist, she became a woman of "firsts."
LateFruit's blog tells us :
She was the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-renown entertainer.
Ernest Hemingway called her "... the most sensational woman anyone ever saw."
She refused to perform for any segregated audiences in the United States, which led to integrated shows in Las Vegas.
But let's take this back to the early days. The official Josephine Baker site tells us:
Josephine toured the United States with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919, performing various comical skits...she tried to advance as a chorus girl for The Dixie Steppers in... "Shuffle Along". She was rejected because she was "too skinny and too dark." Undeterred, she learned the chorus line's routines ...Thus, Josephine was the obvious replacement when a dancer left. Onstage she rolled her eyes and purposely acted clumsy. The audience loved her comedic touch, and Josephine was a box office draw for the rest of the show's run.
She had some success in New York at the Plantation Club, but went to Paris for a new revue -- La Revue Nègre. Josephine danced her way into celebrity in Paris, wearing not very much more than a feather skirt. She was exotic, and could be comic. Her dancing was wild, uninhibited, bold and sensual. She played to packed houses after that at the Follies Bergere. She would perform with her pet cheetah, or in a skirt made of plastic bananas. She says of her dancing, according to her official site:
"... I improvised, crazed by the music... Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever. Each time I leaped I seemed to touch the sky and when I regained earth it seemed to be mine alone."
By 1927 she was the highest paid entertainer in Europe. She became one of the most photographed women in the world.
She was thrilled to be invited back to America to perform in the famous Ziegfield Follies. But it was not triumphant. Her biographer says:
A 1936 return to the United States ...proved disastrous, despite the fact that she was a major celebrity in Europe. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power, newspaper reviews were equally cruel (The New York Times called her a "Negro wench"), and Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.
At that point, her love for the France that had given her recognition and love grew even more. In 1937 she became a French citizen. During WWII she not only entertained the French troops, but also began smuggling messages out of occupied France for the Resistance and the Allies on her music scores, written in invisible ink. She helped people in danger of being taken by the Nazis get fake visas to escape. When she was hospitalized in Morocco for many months for exhaustion, it provided the perfect venue for "visitors" to come see her who were really members of the Resistance meeting at her bedside. She even performed for liberated prisoners of Buchenwald who were too ill to be moved.
For her efforts, France awarded her more "firsts" for a woman. She was given the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and was also named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government for her heroism.
In the 1950's, Josephine returned to America. In 1951 she was refused service by the famous Stork Club in NYC. Wikipedia says:
Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing never to return (and she never did). The two women became close friends after the incident. Testament to this was made evident when Baker was near bankruptcy and was offered a villa and financial assistance by Kelly (who by then was princess consort of Rainier III of Monaco).
As Baker was being ushered out of the Stork Club she yelled at the famous columnist, Walter Winchell, for not supporting her. He then accused her of being a Communist with Fascist sympathies, creating rumors that she had to battle as well.
She returned to France and began, with her husband, to adopt 12 children of varying races -- what she called her "Rainbow Tribe". She traveled back and forth to America and got deeply involved with the Civil Rights Movement; so active and effective was she that when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Coretta spoke with Josephine, asking her to take up leadership for her slain husband. Josephine declined.
In 1973, Baker performed at Carnegie Hall. Times had changed. She got a standing ovation before the show began. She wept openly onstage.
In 1975 she did a series of concerts in Paris, to wild success and acclaim. After four performances, she died in her bedroom of a cerebral hemorrhage.
"I have never really been a great artist," she said in a 1975 interview, one of the last she granted before her death. "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."
"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."
"I believe in prayer. It's the best way we have to draw strength from heaven."
"Beautiful? It's all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest... beautiful, no. Amusing, yes."
"Since I personified the savage on the stage, I tried to be as civilized as possible in daily life."
"We must change the system of education and instruction. Unfortunately, history has shown us that brotherhood must be learned, when it should be natural."
"It [the Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty?"
"I did take the blows [of life], but I took them with my chin up, in dignity, because I so profoundly love and respect humanity."
"We've got to show that blacks and whites are treated equally in the army. Otherwise, what's the point of waging war on Hitler?"
This was taken from a German TV show:
Josephine Baker, a woman who would not step back, not give in. She was a fighter, an exotic blossom, a mother, a talent. She lived life fully. Over 20,000 people crowded the streets the day of her funeral. The French government gave her a 21 gun salute, as she got her final "first" -- the first American born woman to be given French military honors at her death.
~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool