In 1963, Josephine Baker found herself standing in front of 250,000 people, dressed in a French Military Uniform encrusted with medals, about to deliver a speech to no less than Martin Luther King. Throughout her life, Baker went from being a housemaid forced to sleep in the basement to the toast of Paris, a decorated war hero lead and a leading voice in the fight against racial inequality. So, where did it all start?
Even as a child, Josephine Baker defied boundaries. She was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. However, she grew up in East St. Louis which is actually within the state lines of neighbouring Illinois. Her mother was an incredibly ambitious woman with dreams of becoming a successful music hall dancer. Indeed, it was while she was travelling the segregated mid-west as a dancer that she met the man Josephine would come to regard as her father. Much of her early life would have been spent peering up at the lip of a stage, surrounded by onlookers, all of whom had paid to watch her mother dance. But it wasn’t to be. Neither of her parent’s careers took off and, by the age of eight, Josephine was working in local houses to keep her family afloat. Eventually, she became a live-in maid for one of the wealthy white families in her neighbourhood, who forced her to sleep in the basement with the dogs. For Josephine, this discomfort was lessened only by her love of animals. As well as the dogs, she cared for the family’s chickens, going on to keep one particular hen as a pet. For months she doted on it, until one day she was handed a rusty wooden hatchet and told to kill the chicken and pluck its feathers in preparation for roasting.
On leaving this particular family, Josephine and was forced to scrape by on the money she earned from dancing on the street. She’d always had a passion for dance and put on shows for her parents while growing up. But as Josephine grew older, her mother made her opinions about this seemingly uncontrollable passion quite clear. Having spent a life on the cabaret circuit herself, she tried to dissuade Josephine from pursuing dance in a professional capacity. However, at the age of 15, one of Josephine’s street-side routines caught the attention of a travelling theatre troupe, The Jones Family Band, whom she decided to join on the road to New York. She didn’t hesitate, not even once. What she was leaving behind – her family, her home – had already been destroyed, along with the rest of her neighbourhood following days of rioting.
When she arrived in New York, Baker was forced to lie about her age in order to join the chorus line for the travelling stage show Shuffle Along and, later, The Black Dandies, which were some of the first Black shows on Broadway. At this time, Baker won praise for her unique routines, which saw her fake a clumsy routine only to launch into highly syncopated steps that sent the crowd wild. She became a stand-out performer, showing up the other chorus girls, much to their chagrin. The theatre-going public had never seen anyone like Baker before. To many at the time, she was both terrifying and ravishing in equal measure, a woman with an intense sexual appeal who seemed as though she might eat you whole at a moment’s notice.
Then, In 1925, Baker travelled across the Atlantic to Paris, where she danced with La Revue Nègre, a review put together by a wealthy American socialite that was designed to introduce the Parisian public to jazz, a new form of dance music that had emerged during the Harlem Renaissance. At this time in Paris, there was an obsession with Black art and culture, borne from a European colonial mindset. While this might seem deeply problematic from a modern perspective, for Baker, this exoticism was at least preferable to the rampant and frequently violent racism she had faced in the US.
Baker quickly became a sensation across France, having created the ‘Danse Sauvage’, a seminude routine in which she wore a G-String ornamented with a dress of bananas. Then, in 1930, she sidestepped into a singing career, releasing several incredibly successful films and songs, including her biggest hit ‘J’ai Deux Amours’ in 1931. It’s hard to convey just how famous Baker was by this time. Not only was she the best-paid performer in Paris (spending most of her money on a menagerie of diamond-collared animals from around the world) but she was also regarded as such a powerful figure of beauty that white Parisians started buying almond oil to darken their skin.
However, in 1939, everything changed. The German occupation of France put an end to her blossoming film and music career, prompting her to join the French resistance in the early 1940s. Some say that she was trained to shoot in the sewers beneath Paris, which were surely a far cry from the opulent dressing rooms she had once called home. Using her diva status to infiltrate the Nazi Party, she travelled Europe to target diplomats and military officials, feeding back to her confidants in Paris by writing messages in invisible ink on sheet music. Following the liberation of France, Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour, the nation’s highest honour.
After the war, Baker decided to return to the US, where she used her celebrity to bring attention to the racial inequality that had forced her to leave all those years ago. On her return, she refused to play shows that were segregated. Indeed, these laws meant that Baker herself – who was nothing less than a war hero – was refused entry into several venues. While dining with a group of friends in the Stalk club in 1951, for example, Baker noticed that while the establishment’s white diners were still being served, service to her table had stopped altogether. Baker made two important phone calls: one to her lawyer and the other to the chief of police. As you would expect, service quickly resumed, but it was a little too late. Baker picketed The Stalk Club, leading a boycott that caught the attention of the papers, resulting in her being accused of communism and prompting the FBI to put her on their watch list. For more than a decade, Baker became a victim of censorship, meaning that she couldn’t make a living in the US and was forced to move back to France.
Throughout the 1950s, Baker lived on to her estate in southwestern France, where much of her time was spent adopting babies from around the world in what she described as “an experiment in brotherhood”. The ‘rainbow tribe’ consisted of 12 adopted children that, to her, heralded a sort of post-racial utopia. Then, in the 1960s, Josephine Baker was invited back to the US for another key moment in world history, the march on Washington. She was one of only two women invited to lead the march and was the only woman invited to make a speech. And so Baker, who white American society had continually shunned, now stood in front of thousands of people, dressed in her French Military uniform, about to change the world yet again.