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The Unconventional, Dance-Filled, and Espionage-Infused Life of Josephine Baker

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

By Talia Chen

Image via Vanity Fair

There is a common idea that being feminine is a weakness. That misconception has been put through a lot in the past years, but disappointingly, it is still alive today. It is alive in the way people are judged by how they express themselves. Think about AOC- how her signature red lipstick is mocked because makeup is often seen as superficial rather than as something that emulates confidence and helps people express who they are. Think of the people who disliked WAP because it was “too suggestive” when it was really about women/femme people appreciating their sexuality. The underlying thread of bias against anything femme is still here. To combat this, I would like to introduce you to one of the many people who proved that expressing yourself in a feminine manner does not make you a weaker person. Hold onto your hats; this lady’s story might blow them away.

In June of 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker- then known as Freda Josephine McDonald- was born. As stated by the National Woman's History Museum, her mother and (supposed) father were entertainers. However, their careers never took flight and her father left soon after she was born, leaving the family in poverty. With two younger sisters and a younger brother, Josephine had to keep her family afloat by working odd jobs and dancing in the streets. At just fifteen years old, she left to perform with an African American theatre troupe. Josephine danced in vaudeville performances and then moved to New York City, contributing to the explosion of art and culture that was the Harlem Renaissance. She was known for the touch of comedy she brought to shows and her refusal to perform for segregated audiences. A few years later, she wound up in Paris, gaining the fame and popularity that would make her the highest-earning entertainer in Europe by 1927. Her dances took on an “exotic” theme, exploiting the objectification of cultures foreign to Europe, and her costumes were unique and risqué. According to CMG, her most notable costume was a skirt of sixteen bananas linked together with string for one of her signature pieces. She also starred in a few popular motion pictures in Europe. Her fame as a dancer, singer, and actor was huge, and she was one of the most photographed women of the century. As I listen to her music now, she had a charming voice. Even so, when she returned to the states in 1936, she faced a lot of racist criticism because people did not like that she was a popular and successful black woman. The press said some incredibly disrespectful things about her, so she went back to France. She also gave up her American citizenship in protest of the racism taking hold of America. Then came World War Two, in which this woman (pardon my gen z slang) popped off.

That’s right, as per the title of this article, Mrs. Josephine Baker became a spy for the French Resistance. She would hear things during her performances and pass the information on to French officials by writing it in invisible ink on her sheet music. She was also a sub-lieutenant in the women’s auxiliary air force and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. She was even named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French government for her persistence and her work.

After the war, she adopted twelve children from different countries around the world to demonstrate that cultural harmony was possible. She called them her “rainbow tribe” and took her kids with her when she traveled. She even arranged tours of Les Milandes, her estate in Paris, so people could wander around and see that her children were happy together, even though they were from different places. Kind of a weird way to raise children, but hey, every family has its quirks. When she returned to the states, she became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. According to the National Women’s History Museum, in her speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, she described her outrage over racist institutions by saying, "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”. She participated in demonstrations and in 1951, she was recognized by the NAACP, who named May 20th as Josephine Baker Day. After Martin Luther King was assassinated, his wife asked her to take on leadership of the civil rights movement but she declined because she wanted to be present for her children.

Josephine was officially married four times, with her first (and shortest) marriage taking place when she was 13. Josephine took the last name of her second husband and got her French citizenship through her union with the third. She was also unofficially married to American artist Robert Brady, her fifth husband, for the latter part of her life, and had a close platonic relationship with him.

Her last performance was in April of 1975, and it sold out. Extra chairs were brought out to accommodate the audience, and they gave her a standing ovation. Sadly, she went into a coma a few days later and died from a cerebral hemorrhage. Over 20,000 people came out to the streets of Paris for her funeral procession, and the French government gave her a twenty-one gun salute, making her the first American woman to be buried in France with French military honors.

Image via Money Inc

So let’s recap. This woman was a prominent entertainer and exotic dancer, World War Two spy, and civil rights activist. She utilized the colonial stereotypes of Africans in her work and became an incredibly well-known celebrity in Europe. She also fought racism in the United States and was honored by the French government for her service in the French Resistance. Her life is an embodiment of how femininity and strong character aren’t distant from each other. Josephine Baker embraced her femininity and demonstrated courage and strength as well, exemplifying that being femme doesn’t limit the impact you can have on the world.

By way of TheFamousPeople, I leave you with one of her iconic quotes: “I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.”

Written by writer Talia Chen

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