She was a world-renowned performer, vocal activist and even a World War II spy, but to this day we most often remember her for her banana skirt. One of the first internationally-recognised, African-American performers and a Jazz-Age superstar, Josephine Baker is an icon often remembered and revered in burlesque history. Well known for her comedic style of dance performance, Baker also goes down in history for helping to radically redefine ideas of race and gender through performance, art and entertainment.
This week we are taking a look at one of the historical influencers of burlesque, the vaudeville icon and 1920s superstar, Josephine Baker. As a talented performer, a vocal human rights activist and even as a bisexual woman, Josephine was well before her time in her beliefs and ideals. Her influential actions helped to shape attitudes around people of colour across Europe, and by becoming one of the most renowned entertainers of her time, she was able to use her platform as an entertainer to change the world.
“Surely the day will come when colour 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
Words by Eva Devore.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, her mother a washerwoman and her father, a vaudeville drummer. Her paternal father left shortly after she was born, and her mother married a kind, however perpetually poor man and their family grew to include two more daughters and a son. Josephine grew up cleaning houses and caring for the children for wealthy white families (where she was reminded that she must not kiss the baby, due to her skin colour.) At 13, she got a job waitressing at the Old Chauffeur's Club, and it was here that she met her first husband, Willie Wells. Despite marrying Wells, she remained financially independent and divorced him shortly after when the relationship soured. Josephine would go on to have several more marriages and divorces throughout her life. She is also seen as a bisexual icon, as she had many relationships with both men and women, however she fervently denied this later in her life and it only came to light in the biography published by her son, which talks of her "lady lovers." It is even said that Josephine had an affair with famous surrealist painter, Frida Kahlo.
Josephine began her career in entertainment by touring and performing comedic skits with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers in 1919. When the troupe disbanded, she performed in the chorus in St. Louis, and went to Harlem to perform in musicals. But it wasn't until she took a job in France as a part of an all-black review that she began to make a name for herself.
Paris was in the grips of an obsession with Black culture - a disturbing fascination of the "primitive behaviours" of those of colour, an opinion that many white people held at the time. Many french men and women collected African art, listened to jazz and danced the Charleston in an attempt to emulate elements of black culture. When "La Revue Negro" closed, Josephine starred in "La Folie Du Jour" at the Follies-Bergere. She brought a jaw-dropping performance of high-energy dance, peppered with comedic expressions and all in a skirt of 16 rubber bananas (and not much else!) This performance sky-rocketed her to fame, and almost overnight, Josephine became a huge sensation. By 1927 she was the highest-paid entertainer in Europe.
While her fame took off in Europe, racism and segregation still affected Josephine. American audiences in particular did not treat her favourably, rejecting the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power. Newspapers referred to her as that "Black Wench," and she faced segregation and discrimination she had not experienced before. Josephine was not one to sit back and take this, however, and often refused to play for segregated audiences (those that separated white people and people of colour.) This often forced club owners to integrate their audiences. Josephine's opposition to discrimination was recognised by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and in the 1950's and 60s she was instrumental in campaigning for Black rights in America.
"You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.” - Josephine Baker
In addition to her vocal opposition to discrimination, Josephine assisted the war efforts during WWII. Her fame as a performer granted her ease of access to countries all across Europe, and as an honourable member of the French Resistance, she would smuggle secret messages across borders, hidden in her sheet music. Border security would often be too flustered by Josephine's fame to check her belongings thoroughly, and so she was able to carry concealed messages written in invisible ink on the pages of her sheet music. She also carried photographs pinned inside her underwear. Josephine became a sub-lieutenant of the Women's Auxilary Air Force, and was awarded the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government for her hard work and dedication.
Later in her life, Josephine set her sights to battling racism, and was one of the few women allowed to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. When New York’s popular Stork Club refused her service, she engaged a head-on media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell. During this time she also began to adopt children, eventually housing 12 children of differing racial backgrounds in her 24-room Chateau in south-western France. She dubbed them her "Rainbow Tribe" and wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.”
Josephine continued to perform until her death in 1975. On April 8, Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris, with celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50 year career. The reviews were among her best ever, however a mere four days later, Josephine slipped into a coma and passed away on April 12, 1975. Thousands of people attended her funeral, and she was given a 21 gun salute, making her the first America woman to be buried in France with military honours.