Josephine Baker, born Freda Josephine McDonald, went hungry often and was poorly dressed growing up in East St. Louis. She began working as a live-in domestic worker for a white family by the age of eight, and had left school by the end of fifth grade. One woman she worked for abused her by burning her hands after she put too much soap in the laundry–something one should probably expect when they hire children to do their housework for them, right? By age 13, there were riots going down in East Saint Louis, and she was working as a waitress, dancing on the street for money, and sleeping on the street as well, scavenging for food from the garbage. Her first escape from this existence was marriage–she was married twice by the time she was 15, keeping the last name of her second husband, since she was starting to get recognized under it–but her second and most important one was dancing. She went on tour with the Dixie Steppers, and ends up in Harlem, alone. She works in blackface comedy and minstrel shows and as a chorus line girl, garnering a lot of attention in the first all Black musical comedy to be seen on Broadway, Shuffle Along.
Baker goes to Paris in 1925 with a troupe organized by a rich woman who wanted to show the French what jazz was all about. France was in the midst of colonizing northern Africa, and there was an enormous cultural interest in Africa as a result. France was not segregated, and for this reason was a completely different world for Josephine; the racism was much less stark and obvious. This show was called the Revue Negre. She joins the cast as a young girl at the end of the chorus line, and she performs essentially nude minus a pink ostrich feather, dancing very provocatively. Many people at the time believed this could be the end of European civilization. She disrupted ballet and more formal, classical styles of dancing with moves from minstrel shows. There are no video recordings of her dancing in this particular show, but we do have this video of her dancing topless from around the same time. She is seen in a very exoticized way–as a beautiful jungle creature, with animal-like instincts for rhythm. She did not find this racist or problematic, and she became a huge symbol of sexual liberation, but it is noted by many that her sexuality was never subordinate to anything or anyone–it possessed the masculine, making it hers, and that she never appeared to be the victim, and is in fact always laughing at the stereotype as it is being performed. But for a semi-literate girl from the slums, this was a very heady time to be making such a big splash in a place she never dreamed she would go.
Josephine makes her first official diva move and breaks her contract for the Revue tour to go back to Paris and do the “Banana Dance.” She was dressed more modestly than she had been in her debut, but the eroticism of her dancing is still an effront to France, which remains a society of rigid social conventions. Josephine symbolizes a new sexual and bodily freedom for women right at a time of increased movement towards the liberation of women in France, but some people see her as an upstart or an interloper, and she is relegated to the life of being a dancehall performer in France, meaning she is just perfect for adventure, but never for respectability. This leaves Josephine insecure and alone despite her fame, and she partners with a gigalo named Pepito Abatino, who functions as both her lover, her manager, and her right hand man in films she would soon make; both her public image and her singing voice would be transformed during this time.
Josephine is now the biggest American entertainer working in Paris, and the first Black actor to star in an international film, The Siren of the Tropics (1927). She is also in Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). In all of these films she plays a Black woman who is in love with a white Frenchman who does not love her, and she is never given a role in a Hollywood film, but she starred in all of these films in France while Black actresses in America–such as Hattie McDaniel–were playing the roles of maids in much celebrated and deeply racist films like Gone With the Wind.
In 1931, her most famous music recording–“J’ai deux amours”–a song about her two loves, one of her country, and the other of Paris, comes out. But her love of her native country is about to get seriously tested.
In prepation for a role in La Creole (1934), she goes through months of vocal training. Previously, French people had found her sort of thin soprano voice speaking broken French to be endearing in an infantile way, but she would soon become ‘la grande diva magnifique,’ with many great artists such as Hemingway, Picasso, and Jean Cocteau saying they had never seen a better singer and performer in their life. She would be dubbed “Black Venus”, the “Black Pearl”, the “Bronze Venus”, and the “Creole Goddess” by the various artists and writers she inspired.
She goes back to America in 1936 to be the first and last Black woman to star in the Ziegfeld Follies, and has plans laid for an overseas tour to try to establish prominence in the United States outside of Hollywood, but she arrives in New York and is shocked by the racism of America again after being in France for so long. Despite being one of the most famous women in the world, she is treated very poorly and denied services often because of her skin color, and there is also a lot more competition in NYC where there is no shortage of Black entertainers. Additionally, her act is not appreciated at Ziegfeld Follies, and she is referred to as a “bucktooth negro wench” in a review. It was seen as being a criticism of the United States to leave, and Black sexual femininity being openly expressed, modern, and powerful was deeply offensive to the American sensibilities of the time. As a result, she becomes a French national and throws away her American citizenship. Pepito had not told her he had cancer, and is dead when she returns to Paris. Going through a period of despair, her new French industrialist husband teaches her to drive a car, fly his plane, and she also becomes a horse jockey.
At the onset of World War II, Josephine spends time comforting the wounded. She learns counter-espionage from her new husband, and gives the French resistance access to all of her resources. In order to work as a spy, she has to leave France, so as to be inconspicuous. She is gone for four years, and this is something she does completely voluntarily, that no other women of her social standing chose to do. She ends up being very sick with peritonitis and septicemia, after developing an infection so severe it required a hysterectomy, in northern Africa and many believe she may die, but she is able to watch the victory parade from her bedroom. She is not allowed to speak about her contributions to the war, but it is reported that she acquired crucial information for an allied invasion, and that she pinned notes with the information she gathered into her underwear, relying on her fame to avoid a strip search. She is given the Medal of Resistance and honorary rank in the French air force. She also entertained troops and was brought to Liberty Plaza to help reduce the tensions between white and Black soldiers.
Josephine’s authority and confidence grow as a result of being more respected due to her work in the war. She returns to NYC, refuses to tolerate segregated audiences, and would confront racism head on–she had become militant about Blackness and discrimination, and she was greeted by literally everyone in the Black community–around 100,000 people. The NAACP makes her their “Most Outstanding Woman of the Year,” and makes May 20th “Josephine Baker Day.” By the 1950s, Black youth in the United States have never had access to her work, but they know she is Black, rich, famous, lives in France, speaks French, and Josephine is a huge icon and inspiration in the U.S. on the basis of this reputation alone. She loses all of her U.S. contracts and her visa after filing a complaint about not being served at The Stork Club and insinuating that a journalist who was there who had previously been sympathetic towards her did not come to her aid, and he retaliates by attacking her as communist during the height of the McCarthy era.
In her sixties, Josephine focuses on singing. Her life becomes a little strange here: her behavior becoming increasingly autocratic, she buys a chateau in France, and unable to have children herself, adopts eleven orphans from all over the world, calling them her “rainbow tribe.” She also makes the chateau a tourist center, so these children basically feel like they grow up in a zoo. She wanted to demonstrate that many different ethnicities and cultures can live in peace and kinship, but she is rarely ever there, and her first husband leaves when a twelfth orphan arrives, with recriminations on both sides. She is running out of money, has a heart attack, and is eventually forced to move the rainbow tribe to Paris, to be cared for by a friend while she fights for her chateau. She is homeless, penniless, and very ill.
Attending the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine wore her French resistance uniform, and was pleased at the progress being made in the United States. More militant civil rights activists found her out of step, however, not realizing how much work she had been doing for decades previous, since the United States wanted nothing to do with her as a performer. She is the only woman to speak at the march, however.
Josephine makes a comeback with Bobino, at age 68, and her culminating performance was a celebration of her life’s work. It was met with ecstatic reviews, and is followed with large celebrations the first and second nights, but after going to bed the second night of show, Josephine never wakes up. According to the medical examiner, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage, but her friends say that she “died of joy.” She received a full twenty-one gun salute state funeral, and remains the only American woman to be given that honor in France.
Josephine Baker was literally not afraid of anything. Her body became democracy’s body. The fight for civil rights was taking place every time she performed on a stage, asserting her irreverent attitude and complete freedom of movement and spirit into the racist material she was asked to play, and mocking it as she did, and as she stacked her money. She was all of the modernist movements in art and literature rolling through one body. She came from less than nothing and became the most famous woman in the world, and the most sensational woman the world has ever met, according to many. But I think we can say that her biggest contribution to the world is that she allowed liberated sexuality and integrity to exist in the same body. While her queerness is largely ignored even now, and was kept under wraps almost to the point of homophobia by Josephine herself, she was also a queer Black woman, with many known female lovers: Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, Mildred Smallwood, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Colette, and Frida Kahlo.