Black History Month: The Unapologetic Series - Josephine Baker
Written by Alexis Copeland
During, Black History Month RAW Magazine presents Black History Month: The Unapologetic Series. Every week during February we will highlight influential black figures of the past and present.
Last week, we discussed Rihanna and her efforts of propelling her community forward. This week we take a trip to the past and discuss Josephine Baker, who not only broke barriers as an entertainer, but also as a World War II volunteer and activist.
Baker’s career was based in France where she danced and sung for years. However, she’s not originally from France. She was born Freda Josephine MacDonald in St. Louis, Miss. in 1906 and had a very tough upbringing. She quit school at 12 and lived on the streets. At the tender age of 13 she married her first husband. At 15, her dancing got her a spot into the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville Show. By then she was on to her second marriage to Willie Baker and from this point on she kept his last name.
At 16, Baker headed to New York and got a job dancing at the Plantation Club. Her ability to entice crowds took her to Paris. Baker rose to fame when she was cast in the musical “La Revue Negre,” a musical featuring an all-black cast. French producers came to New York looking to cast people for the production, and offered Baker the part after seeing her perform at the Plantation Club.
Baker soon found her place in France and became one of its most renowned stars. She combined nudity, comedy, and dance all into one and the crowds loved her for it. Entertainment in France was different; it was more carefree. The people there weren’t obsessed with modesty nor did they feel any hate towards black performers in contrast to America.
Besides the stream of her on-going success in France there was another reason she considered that place home. At the time America was thick with racial tension. In 1936, she came to New York to perform for a leading role in a show called "Ziegfeld Follies." Baker didn’t get the same praises as she did in France; the reviews for the show were terrible and she was soon replaced by a white woman. She was disturbed by this experience and returned to Paris. Shortly after that, in 1937, she married a French man and became a French citizen.
Baker went above and beyond her entertainment career; she became a French spy during World War II, using her stardom to hide in plain sight. She smuggled secrets for the French Resistance that were written in invisible ink on her music sheet. She pinned notes of information to the inside of her clothes. After Germany invaded France, Baker moved around France and helped Belgian refugees by letting them stay with her. She also helped people secure visas and passports so they could leave France.
Her activism extends beyond France; Baker kept up with everything that happened in America and supported the Civil Rights Movement. She never performed in front of segregated audiences and insisted on integrated audiences. In 1963, she gave a speech at the March on Washington and even stood next to Dr. King.
No only was Baker a beloved entertainer and activist, she was a mother of 12 adopted children of all different ethnic backgrounds, which she called the “rainbow tribe.” Josephine Baker is the prime example of a liberated black women during her time. Her legacy of individuality and strength still settles over the generations of today.