For someone whose life had such an incredible influence over contemporary pop culture, it amazes me that more people don’t know who Josephine Baker was. Her influence can be seen in the work of celebrities such as Rihanna and Beyonce and she has been referenced and featured in countless films – my favourite cameo of hers is in Anastasia (Don Bluth, 1997) along with her pet cheetah Chiquita. In 2016, Vogue US stated that Josephine “radically redefined notions of race and gender through style and performance”, but her influence did not by any means only stretch to aesthetic matters.
Josephine Baker’s story is so unbelievably colourful that it almost seems like fiction. Born in 1906 in Missouri to an ex-slave family, she was all too aware of the prejudice she faced as a black woman in 20th century America from a young age. This was an element that would remain a prominent part of her life always, along with the other thing to which she was introduced to at a young age; show business. Josephine grew up surrounded by the St. Louis vaudeville scene and became a part of it at only a year old, when her mother began bringing her onstage as part of her own song-and-dance shows. Despite this glimpse of glamour so early on in life, Josephine grew up poor, having to work rather than receive education. She received racial and physical abuse from her white employers and, due to a deteriorating relationship with her mother, resorted to living on the streets of St. Louis.
Choosing to leave St. Louis behind, Josephine found herself in New York at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, known at the time as the New Negro Movement. Finally in a community in which she could flourish as a black artist rather than be punished for her race and for her poverty, Josephine found herself gaining notoriety and performed on Broadway in Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). However, the racial liberation offered by the Harlem Renaissance only existed as far as performances were concerned; black artists were still treated as second class citizens, only allowed in clubs if they were performing or waiting tables, and even their performances were tainted by the racist views of the white audiences. Josephine performed a number of blackface routines for New York audiences, a gimmick that made her popular but at the cost of her portraying black people as being too unintelligible to speak correct English, enforcing damaging racial stereotypes. These performances earned her her ticket out of the USA however, and in 1925 Josephine sailed to Paris to perform at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
In France, Josephine found her home. Originally meant to return to America after her contracted run in Europe, Josephine broke this contract and made a life for herself in Paris. With more freedom than ever, Josephine found success with her erotic dancing and near-nude performances. Now finding herself at the beginning of the Art Deco movement, she incorporated fashion into her acts, a key example of this being her infamous banana skirt which, when paired with her pet cheetah Chiquita, served as an acknowledgment of the fascination with non-Western art forms that were so prominent in the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs.
Josephine’s fame in Europe was unmatched at this time, but this fame did not translate to American audiences. Josephine returned to Broadway in 1936 to star in the Zeigfield Follies, but failed to generate satisfactory numbers at the box office and was later replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee. A scathing review by Time magazine slated her as a “Negro wench”. Apparent that her work would never be recognised in America, Josephine returned to France and renounced her US citizenship. She was now a French citizen.
Until 1939, Josephine Baker was simply a performer. She’d starred in a number of films, released some songs and made a name for herself on stage – all remarkable achievements. But the start of World War Two began a very different chapter of her life. When war broke out in Europe, Josephine was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau to be an undercover spy for the Allies. Her socialite life not only allowed her access to parties filled with German, Italian and Japanese military officials, but also meant that she would be the last person the Axis Powers would suspect. Notes were passed around Europe written in invisible ink on the back of Josephine’s song sheets and she used her power to supply visas to those wishing to join the Free French effort. Touring numerous countries under the guise of entertainment reasons, Josephine often pinned notes detailing military plans inside her underwear, running the risk of being discovered at any moment.
Josephine’s courageous acts did not end when the war did. Having faced racial discrimination all her life, she began to truly fight back in the 1950’s. Although she was offered thousands of dollars to perform at various venues throughout America, Josephine refused to appear at any club that enforced a segregated audience; this move led to the official integration of live shows in Las Vegas. As she became more outspoken in her anti-racist beliefs, she began to attract negative attention. She received threatening phonecalls from the Ku Klux Klan on multiple occasions, and yet refused to back down, becoming a prominent member of the NAACP and even speaking at the March On Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr – the only woman to speak that day. Upon King’s death in 1968, Josephine was approached to take over as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but declined due to the thought of her (adopted) children losing their mother.
Josephine adopted 12 children from numerous countries, calling them her “Rainbow Tribe”, proof that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers”. Though she married 4 times, it was her children who remained a constant in her life and she loved them dearly.
Josephine Baker is an unsung legend. She made incredible strides in the worlds of entertainment, fashion, sexuality (she was bisexual, having had an affair with Frida Khalo) and racial tolerance. In an age in which her gender and race may have worked against her, she refused to settle with what society would have her remain at. She acknowledged that high aspirations may only be achieved with hard work – “To realise our dreams, we must decide to wake up”, and proved this time and time again, making strides that still echo to this day. She continues to influence modern celebrities in terms of body positivity, fashion and beliefs, and her involvement in World War 2 and the American Civil Rights Movement have been recognised as being of great importance in ensuring the more liberal world we live in today.
Josephine Baker was the perfect balance of silly and serious, unafraid to tackle important matters, but doing so with poise, grace and glamour. She saw a world she was not happy with and chose to do everything in her power (and more) to ensure the happiness of herself and others. Her message of love, hope and acceptance sadly is still needed today, but it is one that will continue to echo even though Josephine herself is gone.
Her vibrancy, courage and passion will remain eternal.