Break­ing down Bar­ri­ers

How Jazz Age mega-star Joe­sphine Baker put racism un­der the spot­light

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Jes­sica Leggett

“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. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

This is a small ex­cerpt of the speech Josephine Baker gave to 250,000 peo­ple at the his­toric March on Wash­ing­ton on 28 Au­gust 1963. The only woman to ad­dress the crowd that day and wear­ing her mil­i­tary uni­form, Josephine’s words res­onated with their fight for lib­erty, equal­ity and dig­nity – a cause she had spent the last four decades fight­ing for in the face of ad­ver­sity and con­tro­versy.

Josephine was a woman un­like any other. A trail­blazer for African-amer­i­cans, her name is syn­ony­mous with the Jazz Age that swept through the 1920s and 1930s.

As one of the best en­ter­tain­ers in Paris, she daz­zled au­di­ences with her stage per­for­mances at a time when African and Euro­pean cul­tures merged to de­fine an era of fri­vol­ity and razzmatazz, turn­ing Josephine into a star.

This star­dom was in stark con­trast to

Josephine’s hum­ble be­gin­nings, which fu­elled her cru­sade against racism. Born to stage per­form­ers in St Louis, Mis­souri, on 3 June 1906, Freda Josephine Mcdon­ald was thrown into a world of poverty, racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Liv­ing off mea­gre scraps of food, she worked as a wait­ress and as a live-in cleaner for white fam­i­lies – one of her mis­tresses beat her reg­u­larly and made her sleep in the base­ment.

By the time she was 15 years old, Josephine had dropped out of school and mar­ried twice, earn­ing money by danc­ing steps that she had learnt in Amer­ica’s ur­ban black cen­tres. Later in life, Josephine would re­flect on her child­hood and con­fess, “I danced to keep warm.”

Scouted for her danc­ing, she ran away to join a vaude­ville troupe and got di­vorced again, al­though she kept her sec­ond hus­band’s sur­name ‘Baker’ for pro­fes­sional pur­poses.

Mov­ing to New York City, Josephine at­tracted at­ten­tion dur­ing the Har­lem Re­nais­sance, con­sid­ered the re­birth of African-amer­i­can arts. Ini­tially re­jected from the cho­rus lines for be­ing “too skinny and too dark” a de­ter­mined Josephine learnt the rou­tines any­way in case an­other dancer fell ill. When the op­por­tu­nity came, she joined the cho­rus lines and stole the shows with her comedic per­for­mances. Wear­ing car­i­ca­tured black­face, she ap­peared in the Broadway pro­duc­tions Shuf­fle

Along and The Choco­late Dandies in 1921 and 1924 re­spec­tively. Catch­ing the eye of a re­cruiter for an all-black dance troupe in France, Josephine

“Her se­duc­tive and funny dance moves en­tranced au­di­ences who kept com­ing back for more”

left for Europe with an of­fer of $1,000 a month to join the Parisian stage. Ar­riv­ing in the City of Lights, Josephine met other African-de­scended women cel­e­brated for their erotic dances, a stark dif­fer­ence to the racial prej­u­dice that she ex­pe­ri­enced in Amer­ica.

Josephine’s big break came when she de­buted in La Re­vue Nè­gre at the Théâtre des Champ­sélysées on 2 Oc­to­ber 1925. Her se­duc­tive and funny dance moves en­tranced au­di­ences who kept com­ing back for more, even af­ter Josephine moved to per­form­ing at the Folies-bergère. How­ever, when she per­formed the Danse Sau­vage in her iconic ba­nana skirt, Josephine ce­mented her celebrity sta­tus for good.

The Danse Sau­vage was the epit­ome of un­bri­dled sex­u­al­ity, res­onat­ing with the sex­ual free­dom of the Jazz Age. It was set in the African jun­gle and Josephine never shied away from her African her­itage, in­stead choos­ing to firmly em­brace it by bring­ing tra­di­tional black dances

such as the Charles­ton and the Black Bot­tom to Paris and in­cor­po­rat­ing African themes into her per­for­mances. Au­di­ences loved Josephine’s work be­cause her dances in­dulged the stereo­type that black peo­ple were prim­i­tive, ex­otic and fool­ish.

She catered to this to pro­pel her bur­geon­ing ca­reer, pulling faces and cross­ing her eyes through­out her per­for­mances to make her dances goofy yet sexy. Her tac­tics worked be­cause by the late 1920s, Josephine had be­come the high­est-paid en­ter­tainer in Europe, tour­ing the con­ti­nent.

Josephine built a new life for her­self in Paris, a place with­out the racial seg­re­ga­tion of the Jim Crow laws, or abuse. When dis­cussing her life in St Louis, Josephine com­mented, “It was one of the worst cities in Amer­ica for racial dis­crim­i­na­tion… I have very bad mem­o­ries of that time.” It is no won­der that Josephine fell in love with France, which of­fered her free­dom and safety.

Her suc­cess was un­prece­dented for an Africanamer­i­can woman at the time, with her pop­u­lar­ity al­low­ing her to move from the stage to the sil­ver screen. In 1934, she be­came the first black woman to star in a ma­jor mo­tion pic­ture when she played the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter Zouzou.

Just as cap­ti­vat­ing on-screen as she was on stage, women flocked to emu­late Josephine’s style through cloth­ing, makeup and her fa­mous spit curls – she even re­leased a hair po­made called Bak­er­fix and a skin dark­en­ing lo­tion called Bak­er­skin for her fans to buy.

En­cour­aged by her ca­reer in Europe, Josephine wanted to achieve fame in Amer­ica. In 1936, she trav­elled to New York City to per­form in the fa­mous Ziegfeld Fol­lies, her first per­for­mance in Amer­ica since she had left for Paris. But Josephine was shat­tered when news­pa­per crit­ics pub­lished scathing re­views that laughed and ridiculed her, topped off with a bar­rage of racism – one sting­ing critic deroga­to­rily re­ferred to her as “the ne­gro wench”. Heartbroken, Josephine fled back to France and in 1937 she mar­ried French in­dus­tri­al­ist Jean Lion and be­gan the process to be­come a French cit­i­zen, re­nounc­ing her US cit­i­zen­ship.

When WWII broke out two years later, Josephine wanted to help her adop­tive coun­try. In her own words, she stated that, “France made me what I am, they gave me their hearts. Surely I can give them my life.”

Putting her fame to good use she worked for the French Re­sis­tance, as her per­for­mances gave her the per­fect cover to travel through­out Europe with­out sus­pi­cion. She at­tended glit­ter­ing par­ties filled with Axis of­fi­cials, charm­ing them to gain in­for­ma­tion for the Re­sis­tance.

Of course, it is un­likely that charm alone would have per­suaded the en­emy to di­vulge their se­crets. In fact, they sup­pos­edly trusted Josephine and

held a mis­guided be­lief that she was on their side, be­cause of an As­so­ci­ated Press re­port from 1935, which stated Josephine sup­ported Ben­ito Mus­solini’s in­va­sion of Ethiopia. This dec­la­ra­tion had stemmed from her hope that the in­va­sion would bring an end to the Ethiopian em­pire, which still prac­tised slav­ery.

None­the­less, Josephine was firmly on the

Al­lies’ side. To pass on con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion un­de­tected, she wrote it in in­vis­i­ble ink on her mu­sic sheets or con­cealed in­for­ma­tion in her un­der­wear – count­ing on her fame to pre­vent a strip search. She even ac­cepted an hon­orary role as a sub-lieu­tenant in the Women’s Aux­il­iary of the Free Free French Air Force and raised thou­sands of francs for the Free French Forces.

When Ger­many in­vaded France, Bel­gium and the Nether­lands in 1940, refugees flooded into Paris and Josephine vol­un­teered her help, vis­it­ing shel­ters and hid­ing Jewish refugees from the Nazis. She even housed her friends from the French Re­sis­tance in the château she rented at Les Mi­lan­des in the south of France, help­ing them to ob­tain visas.

In 1941, Josephine un­der­took a se­cret mis­sion in the French Colonies lo­cated in North Africa. Un­der the guise that she had gone to re­cover from a bout of pneu­mo­nia, Josephine was ac­tu­ally there to es­tab­lish a li­ai­son and trans­mis­sion cen­tre with Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence. She also helped to de­velop a net­work that made Span­ish Mo­roc­can pass­ports for East­ern Euro­pean Jews, which al­lowed them to es­cape to South Amer­ica.

Not for­get­ting the Al­lied troops who were risk­ing their lives, Josephine trav­elled through­out the war en­ter­tain­ing them with morale-boost­ing per­for­mances for free. She partly con­ducted these trips hop­ing that af­ter the war, the men would re­mem­ber her ef­forts to cheer them up would stop them de­vel­op­ing any racist no­tions.

Af­ter the war, Josephine be­came the first Amer­i­can woman to re­ceive the Croix de Guerre and Rosette de la Ré­sis­tance for her ef­forts, and was also awarded the Lé­gion d’hon­neur.

As the rav­ages of the war fi­nally came to an end, Josephine de­cided to make a change. No longer would she sit by and watch as racism con­tin­ued to run rife in Amer­ica, mak­ing her feel like an outcast in her birth coun­try. Now mar­ried to her fourth hus­band, Jo Bouil­lon, Josephine re­turned to Amer­ica in 1948.

Im­me­di­ately, she ex­pe­ri­enced the same bit­ter racism as be­fore, with 36 ho­tels re­fus­ing to give the cou­ple reser­va­tions when they ar­rived in New York City.

Though un­sur­prised, an ap­palled Josephine de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate dis­crim­i­na­tion her­self and trav­elled to the south in dis­guise, so that her sta­tus would not af­fect the way she was treated. Doc­u­ment­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences in a French mag­a­zine, Josephine’s ac­counts of racism shocked read­ers across the pond.

De­spite her pop­u­lar­ity across Europe, Josephine strug­gled to find Amer­i­can venues that would al­low her to per­form. In­stead, she chose to do a tour of Latin Amer­ica be­tween 1950 and 1951 that was a great suc­cess, most no­tably in Cuba. Josephine be­came so pop­u­lar that clubs back in Amer­ica were clam­our­ing to sign her.

One of them, Copa City in Mi­ami, was a game changer for Josephine. The owner, Ned Schuyler, wanted to sign Josephine but she re­fused, know­ing that the au­di­ence would be seg­re­gated.

“To pass on con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion un­de­tected, she wrote it in in­vis­i­ble ink on her mu­sic sheets or con­cealed in­for­ma­tion to her un­der­wear”

Des­per­ate to get her aboard, Schuyler promised to de­seg­re­gate his club and in­vite prom­i­nent Africanamer­i­cans to the show.

Josephine agreed and her show in Mi­ami was a hit, par­tic­u­larly with African-amer­i­can crit­ics who praised her ef­forts to­wards de­seg­re­ga­tion.

En­cour­aged by her suc­cess in Mi­ami, Josephine toured the States and stepped up her de­mands. She re­fused to per­form in seg­re­gated venues and stayed in the best ho­tels, a stark con­trast to her ho­tel ex­pe­ri­ence just a cou­ple of years ear­lier. Thanks to her ef­forts casi­nos across Las Ve­gas be­came de­seg­re­gated. How­ever, her ef­forts are not as widely known as those made by her male coun­ter­parts such as Martin Luther King or Sammy Davis Jr.

Josephine also en­cour­aged white busi­ness­men to hire African-amer­i­cans and spoke out against the trial of the Tren­ton Six, six men ac­cused of mur­der­ing a white man, vis­it­ing them in jail dur­ing their sec­ond trial in April 1951. A month later, Josephine paid for the fu­neral of Wil­lie Mc­gree, an African-amer­i­can who had been ex­e­cuted for al­legedly rap­ing a white woman.

For her tire­less ef­forts, the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple named 20 May Josephine Baker Day in her hon­our. Cel­e­bra­tions were held in Har­lem with 100,000 peo­ple tak­ing part in a pa­rade, in recog­ni­tion of Josephine’s fight for equal­ity.

How­ever, cir­cum­stances changed when Josephine openly crit­i­cised the pres­ti­gious New York night­club, the Stork Club, where she had been re­fused ser­vice dur­ing a din­ner with friends. Out­raged, Josephine filed charges against the Stork Club and called out jour­nal­ist Wal­ter Winchell, her one-time ally, for fail­ing to come to her as­sis­tance even though he had been present at the time.

The law­suit caused prob­lems for Josephine. An­gered, Winchell pub­licly at­tacked Josephine in his ar­ti­cles and ac­cused her of be­ing a com­mu­nist – as a friend of Sen­a­tor Joseph Mc­carthy, Winchell em­braced Mc­carthy­ism and rou­tinely con­demned those he sus­pected of com­mu­nism with­out suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence. Thanks in part to Winchell, the FBI started fol­low­ing Josephine and kept a file on her ac­tiv­i­ties, while many venues re­fused to book her fear­ing that she had be­come too con­tro­ver­sial.

The sit­u­a­tion wors­ened when Josephine con­ducted an­other tour across Latin Amer­ica in 1952, es­cap­ing from her prob­lems in Amer­ica. Dur­ing her visit to Ar­gentina, Josephine made state­ments de­nounc­ing the racism preva­lent in Amer­ica that were sub­se­quently pub­lished across the world. The Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment was hor­ri­fied as Josephine’s pop­u­lar­ity in­creased, with her words of dis­crim­i­na­tion res­onat­ing with many other races and eth­nic­i­ties.

Josephine had gained ex­po­sure for her cause but Winchell used the tour against her. She vis­ited Ha­vana, Cuba, and was said to have par­tied with the com­mu­nist Cas­tro broth­ers, Fidel and Raúl. Winchell used this as ev­i­dence for his ac­cu­sa­tions against Josephine, de­spite the fact that she had been dis­tanc­ing her­self from the left side of pol­i­tics for some time.

In re­sponse Josephine was briefly ar­rested and in­ter­ro­gated by Cuban po­lice for be­ing a sus­pected com­mu­nist at the sug­ges­tion of the FBI.

She was re­leased but a pro­pa­ganda cam­paign led by the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, per­suad­ing other coun­tries to pre­vent her from per­form­ing, was suc­cess­ful and many of her con­tracts were sub­se­quently can­celled.

Josephine’s po­lit­i­cally charged speeches about racism were high­light­ing an is­sue that the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment wanted to keep buried.

Amer­ica was locked in the Cold War against the USSR and de­nounced the com­mu­nism of the lat­ter, main­tain­ing that democ­racy was the far bet­ter po­lit­i­cal sys­tem of the two.

Yet Josephine was an­nounc­ing to the world that African-amer­i­cans across the South were de­nied the right to the vote and the right to be heard by their gov­ern­ment – point­ing out the hypocrisy of her na­tive land.

The in­ter­na­tional me­dia spread sto­ries of racial seg­re­ga­tion and abuse in Amer­ica as a re­sult, which the Soviet Union quickly seized upon to use in its anti-amer­ica pro­pa­ganda. Aside from Josephine, other prom­i­nent African-amer­i­cans such as WEB Dubois and Wil­liam Pat­ter­son had also spo­ken their mind. Try­ing to take con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion, the gov­ern­ment re­voked the pass­ports of Dubois, Pat­ter­son and other key African-amer­i­cans who openly crit­i­cised the United States.

How­ever, they could not do the same to Josephine since she held a French pass­port.

Their suc­cess­ful pro­pa­ganda cam­paign re­moved the plat­form that Josephine had carved out for her­self and to en­sure she could not re­turn to the States with her out­spo­ken com­ments, her US work­ing visa was re­voked. With no op­tion left, Josephine re­turned to home to Paris and per­se­vered with openly de­nounc­ing racism in the States across the pond.

Now in France, Josephine de­cided to take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Hav­ing pre­vi­ously suf­fered a num­ber of mis­car­riages, Josephine had to have a hys­terec­tomy dur­ing the war and never had bi­o­log­i­cal chil­dren of her own. Hop­ing to show that dif­fer­ent races could live to­gether peace­fully, be­tween the early 1950s and the mid 1960s, she adopted 12 chil­dren from all over the world

Af­fec­tion­ately nam­ing them her ‘rain­bow tribe’, the fam­ily lived in her château at Les Mi­lan­des, which she had of­fi­cially pur­chased in 1947.

Turn­ing her home into a theme park, Josephine wel­comed the pub­lic so that they could wit­ness her fam­ily project. Be­fore adopt­ing her 12th child, she sep­a­rated from Bouil­lon and they fi­nalised their di­vorce in 1961.

Af­ter a decade away, Josephine re­turned to Amer­ica to give her speech at the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton along­side Martin Luther King.

When King was as­sas­si­nated five years later his wife, Coretta Scott King, of­fered Josephine the un­of­fi­cial lead­er­ship of the Civil Rights Move­ment. Josephine was tempted but she ul­ti­mately re­fused, scared that as the head of the move­ment her chil­dren would be in dan­ger. Her fears were jus­ti­fied con­sid­er­ing that the FBI was still gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion on her, even though they had de­ter­mined that she was not a com­mu­nist.

By the mid-1960s, Josephine re­mained a renowned star but she suf­fered from se­ri­ous fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties. In June 1964, French ac­tress Brigitte Bar­dot ap­pealed on tele­vi­sion for con­tri­bu­tions to save Josephine’s home, which was on the brink of be­ing re­pos­sessed. Un­for­tu­nately, Josephine and her chil­dren were even­tu­ally evicted from Les Mi­lan­des and the es­tate was sold, but she re­fused to leave. Re­main­ing sat on the steps out­side of her home, pic­tures of Josephine’s plight were plas­tered all over the world.

With her friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, help­ing her to get back on her feet, Josephine took up per­form­ing once again. Since the war, her days of per­form­ing in a ba­nana skirt and in­dulging racial stereo­types had long gone. Now, Josephine graced her au­di­ences by de­scend­ing down long stair­cases in glam­orous, so­phis­ti­cated gowns that marked the tran­si­tion of her lengthy ca­reer.

On 8 April 1975, Josephine held a per­for­mance in Paris to cel­e­brate 50 years of her ca­reer and re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion with rave re­views to match. This was the last time she would star on the stage as just four days later, Josephine sadly passed away fol­low­ing a cere­bral haem­or­rhage, aged 68. She was given a fu­neral in France with full mil­i­tary hon­ours, with thou­sands of peo­ple turn­ing out to pay their re­spects to the woman who ded­i­cated her life to break­ing down bar­ri­ers, both on and off the stage.

Baker per­forms at the Folies-bergère mu­sic hall, circa 1925

A car­i­ca­tured poster from 1925 ad­ver­tis­ing Josephine in the La Re­vue Nè­gre at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées

Josephine on stage at the Folies­bergère mu­sic hall around 1926

Josephine per­form­ing for Bri­tish troops on leave

A pub­lic­ity por­trait of Josephine Baker in mil­i­tary uni­form from 1944

The Eton Crop and spit curl hair­style that Josephine wore be­came iconic

The en­ter­tainer and ac­tivist adopted chil­dren from all over the world

Pro­tes­tors out­side the Stork Club af­ter Josephine was re­fused ser­vice

In her later per­for­mances, Josephine was known for de­scend­ing the stairs in an eye-catch­ing dress

Josephine had a me­nagerie of an­i­mals in­clud­ing her pet chee­tah, Chiq­uita

Josephine with her fourth hus­band, Jo Bouil­lon, out­side the château in Les Mi­lan­des

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