African-American History Month: Josephine Baker
“There’s one thing I’ve learned you’ll never be punished for…giving.”
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I saw The Josephine Baker Story (1991), but I do remember being captivated. I had to have been pretty young because the scenes of topless Josephine, played by Lynn Whitfield, in her banana skirt embarrassed me; I distinctly remember being flushed in my cheeks, but still unable to turn away. I had never seen a woman portrayed so starkly before, and I was mesmerized by her glamor, beauty, and aggression. It’s been one of my favorite films ever since.
It wasn’t until high school and an assignment in African-American studies that I really started to discover who the woman behind the show biz truly was. It’s been said she was the most photographed woman in the world; photographers and painters sought her out across countries. Endlessly independent, Josephine swept her way through a whirlwind of men. Being as she never had to depend on a man for monetary stability, she found it easy to discard them when things grew ugly. Born in 1906, Josephine Baker got her start touring with the Dixie Steppers in 1919, but got the opportunity to hone her craft in Paris in the early ’20s. La Revue Nègre, the show that lured the beautiful Baker to Paris in the first place, proved to be a major turning point in her career. Josephine and her dance partner at the time, Joe Alex, dazzled their Parisian audience with the Danse Sauvage. In nothing but a feathered skirt, Paris rewarded Baker’s daring unveiling with applause and critical accolades. When La Revue Nègre closed, Josephine starred in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater. It was in this revue that she donned her infamous costume–16 bananas strung into a skirt–cementing her European celebrity status.
She did not fare so well in her own country, however. In 1936, she returned to the United States to star in the Ziegfield Follies; the show received scathing reviews. The New York Times in fact called her a “Negro wench”, and Josephine returned to France licking festering wounds.
“[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?”
Singing for the troops during WWII, Josephine began to feel a distinct nudge she hadn’t since she was a little girl. The separation of black and white gnawed at her, and it wasn’t long before she began to do something about it. She fought the segregation of the troops while aiding the French Resistance. Finally, coming back to perform in the United States in the ’50s and ’60s, Josephine refused to perform in segregated clubs or eat in establishments that wouldn’t serve other blacks. Always vocal, both lyrically and socially, Josephine forced the American public to see what it refused to see: a nation living in hypocrisy. Eventually, Josephine did return to Paris, but not before leaving an indelible impact on the US.
Her “Rainbow Tribe”–12 adopted children of multiple nationalities–stood as her final testament against racism. She is quoted as saying, “I think they must mix blood, otherwise the human race is bound to degenerate. Mixing blood is marvelous. It makes strong and intelligent men. It takes away tired spirits.” The last song of her last set before her death in 1975 was “The Times Are a-Changin'”, a song that truly imparts her feelings about people that hold on to the ugliness of racism. Sung with such intensity, Josephine’s passion about humanity wafts above the music, both resounding and clear.