It's hard to overstate the impact Josephine Baker made on European Black history in the 20th century. She changed the creative landscape for black artists in Paris, and as a consequence, the world over. Paris was the beating heart of the artistic world at the time Baker first appeared on her doorstep, and her astonishing performances left Parisians open-mouthed in admiration and rapturously welcoming. But she was not just an extraordinarily talented dancer. She was the first African American woman to appear in a motion picture, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur for her World War II work with the French Resistance. She emerged as a strong advocate in the American Civil Rights Movement, and spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jr in 1963 at the March on Washington rally.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3rd, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Carrie had been adopted by Richard and Elvira McDonald, both of whom had worked as slaves and were of African and Native American descent. Josephine had a particularly difficult and traumatic early life, working as a domestic from the age of eight and suffering abuse at the hands of her employers. She dropped out of school by the age of 12 and lived on the streets in St Louis,sleeping in the open and scavenging for food.
To make money, she began dancing on street corners, and was so gifted that a passing talent scout signed her up on the spot. This extraordinary turn of fate saw her join the St Louis Chorus Vaudeville Show at the age of 15. Before long she was performing at the Plantation Club and from there, on Broadway.
Finally disillusioned with the United States, Josephine set off for Paris in 1925 and immediately caused a sensation. Her risqué dancing and onstage nudity was not entirely unusual at that time, but was seldom achieved with such aplomb. She stormed the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and ended up as a performer at the famous Folies Bergère. Her wild dance routine, La Folie du Jour, brought elements of African tribal dance to western audiences, and was seized upon by the tolerant and open-minded French. Here she is in Siren of the Tropics (1927)
She was a hugely popular performer, not just for her dancing ability, but for her comedic skill. She clowned around, pulling faces to add comedy to her dances. Audiences loved her irreverence and character.
There was another side to her performances, however, that today's audience might find problematic. Although to a modern audience her act may seem to pander to stereotypes of African ‘native’ dancers, dressed in leaves and made ‘exotic’ and ‘other’, it is important to remember the cultural context in which she was performing. Theatre-goers had never seen dancing like this before. Josephine’s physical beauty was overwhelming for many of the audience, who had never seen African bodies moving and dancing, especially not as exuberantly and freely as Baker did. She was a natural and irresistible performer, witty, lithe and tremendously engaging. She kept her audience entranced, and they grew to love her.
Josephine in her famous 'Banana Dance' costume
Her act coincided with an increasing interest in African culture, which was partly due to the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, and partly to Picasso’s preoccupation with African tribal art at around the same time. Black jazz musicians were welcomed in Paris between the wars, and many escaped the poverty and racism of America to find their way there; there was simply nowhere better for a black artist to be at that time. Soon Josephine Baker became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Christian Dior, and Picasso himself. She starred in two films in the early 1930s, called Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. But despite her huge fame in Europe she was unsuccessful on a return trip to the United States in 1936. Audiences were not ready for a black female performer like Baker, and newspaper reviews of her work were cutting. America had yet to catch up with Europe in their attitude to racial equality. Josephine gave up and returned to France.
"One day I realised I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States... A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn't stand it anymore... I felt liberated in Paris."
When WWII began, Baker was well placed to help the French Resistance. As a touring artist she could move around the country without attracting suspicion, and her success also meant she could mix with high society and pick up intelligence while she did so. She smuggled hidden messages for the Resistance on her sheet music. When the Germans invaded, she escaped to the South of France, where she helped protect Belgian refugees and continued to work towards a free France. For her work in the war she was awarded the Croix de guerre, Rosette de la Résistance, and given the extraordinary honour of being made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. At her funeral there was a 21 gun salute. She was the first American woman ever to be buried in France with military honours.
Civil Rights Activist
Baker was always a vocal supporter of the American Civil Rights Movement, and refused to play to segregated audiences when she performed there. She spoke along side Martin Luther King Jnr and after his assassination was approached by his widow to ask if she would take over as leader of the movement. Baker declined, thinking the risk of her own assassination would be an unfair burden on her adopted children. Her 'Rainbow Tribe', as she called them, of adopted children of all races was a statement to the world about racial tolerance.
Josephine with her family
In 1963, at the age of 57, Baker flew in from France, her adopted homeland, to appear before the largest audience in her career, the 250,000 gathered at the March on Washington. Wearing the uniform of the French Resistance, in which she was active during the Second World War, she was the only woman to address the audience.
Return To America
In 1973 Josephine finally overcame her disappointment at the negative response she received in the States. She nervously accepted an invitation to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall. As she walked on stage to a standing ovation she was so overcome that she wept openly. America had finally moved on culturally and politically, and welcomed their star back with open arms.
When Josephine Baker died in April 1975, it was just days after a triumphant show to celebrate her 50 years in show business. Joséphine à Bobino garnered rapturous reviews, and mass celebrity attendance, including Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren. A few days later she died from a cerebral haemorrhage. She was 68. Over 20,000 people gathered in Paris to watch her funeral procession. From a barefoot child on the streets, she died loved and honoured by the whole world. Her quiet charm and moral courage remain an inspiration to this day.