Josephine Baker: The Original Superstar Activist

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.-Josephine Baker

josephine-3Long before Motown and Beyonce, there was Josephine Baker, the original superstar. Born in St. Louis in 1906 her father was a vaudeville drummer and her mother was a washerwoman who had once had dreams of being a dancer herself. Her father left them when she was young leaving her and her mother in poverty. Eventually, her mother remarried and had additional children but they were still quite poor. As a young girl, she worked as a nanny but was discouraged from being too affectionate with the children because of her race. That in conjunction with the race riots in St. Louis in 1917 had a large effect on who she would grow up to be.

In 1923 she landed her first Broadway role as a dancer in Shuffle Along.  At first, she was turned down for the role, she was considered to be too thin and too dark. She worked backstage until she got the opportunity to fill in with when one of the girls was sick. Josephine’s comedic dance routine endeared her to the audience.

During this time France was obsessed with American Jazz. In 1925 she joined the La Revuejosephine-1 Negre. She became a huge hit when she danced wearing nothing but a feather skirt. When that review closed she joined the La Folie du Jour. This popularity even led to movies such as Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. However, her most famous dance was when she wore nothing but a skirt made of bananas. Josephine became the highest paid performer in Europe. Though Josephine was a huge star she didn’t forget her family. She moved them all out to her estate in France.

In 1936 Josephine came back to America to make it as a performer in her home country as a star in the Ziegfield Follies. However, her home was not so welcoming. The New York times called her a “Negro Wench.” American audiences were not ready to see a sophisticated black woman on their stages and had treated her with extreme hostility. When Josephine returned to France she married a French industrialist and revoked her American citizenship, embracing the country that had accepted her as one of their own.

josephine-2When the Germans invaded France Josephine used her superstar status to the advantage of the French resistance. No one suspected that the fun-loving singer and dancer who traveled all over France and Germany was really a spy. She carried coded messages past the Nazis in her music and sometimes even her underwear. Josephine even became a sub-lieutenant in the women’s auxiliary air force.

After the war, Josephine continued to assist the people of France. Often showing up to orphanages to visit with the children and hand out presents that she bought for them. Her commitment to equality brought her back to the United States in the 1950’s where she participated in protests against segregated clubs and participated in the march on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King Jr. Josephine used her star power to draw attention to the segregation that occurred in nightclubs in New York City and openly argued in the media with segregationists. In recognition of her work, the NAACP named May 20th Josephine Baker Day.

Josephine was so dedicated to equality that in 1950 she started adopting children from all over the world. In total, she adopted twelve children whom she referred to as her “Rainbow Tribe.” It was what she referred to as an experiment in brotherhood. She wanted to prove to the world that people of all races and nationalities could live together in peace and harmony.josephine-4

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