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Hero Status: Josephine Baker

Is this a human being or a superhero?

Collage by Minna

I’m not intimidated by anyone. Everyone is made with two arms, two legs, a stomach, and a head. Just think about that.
—Josephine Baker

I was 12 years old when my obsession began. My mother and I were watching TV, and a movie came on—a biopic about a dancer named Josephine Baker who, in the 1920s, became the first black woman to achieve international superstardom. In retrospect that movie, The Josephine Baker Story, was kinda shitty. It portrayed Baker as nothing more than an object, a sex symbol, and reduced her original, funny performances to pretentious exotic dance. It also all but erased the courage, intellect, and steely determination it took for her to literally dance her way out of poverty and into total Hero Status.

But I didn’t realize that at the time—even though there’s no footage of Baker herself in the movie (she’s played by Lynn Whitfield), some of the bare facts of her life were there, and those were thrilling enough. To wit:

  • She started out as a preteen street performer in St. Louis, Missouri, and toured the country on the vaudeville circuit at the age of 13.
  • When she’d hit the limit of what a woman of color could achieve in the U.S., she just scampered off to Paris, where she was instantly worshipped.
  • She had a PET CHEETAH who wore a DIAMOND COLLAR.
  • She adopted 12 children of different races and nationalities and called them her “rainbow tribe.”
  • She retired to a giant CASTLE in the French countryside.

I mean, is this a human being or a superhero? Even though The Josephine Baker Story was a mediocre made-for-TV movie, I was smitten. I wanted to know more.

What I learned, from the books and documentaries I sought out soon after, was that Josephine Baker wasn’t just talented, glamorous, successful, and cool; she was also important. Her work both onstage and off exploded social, sexual, and racial taboos. When she was told she couldn’t do something because of her race and gender, she always found a side route to get where she wanted to be. She worked with the Red Cross and the French Resistance during World War II. She was active in the American civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. It would be impossible to cram into one article everything that Josephine Baker crammed into her remarkable life, but here are just a few of the reasons she’s a hero to me.

1. She invented herself.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis in 1906, Josephine grew up in a one-room shack. Her family was poor and often had to forage for the food and heating coal they couldn’t afford to buy. When she was 12, Josephine dropped out of school and started making money by performing on street corners. A year later she went on the road with a vaudeville troupe that toured the South and the East Coast. Josephine was the comedy act.

She moved to New York City a few years later, where she got her first big break as a chorus girl in the all-black Broadway musical Shuffle Along. She made the most of the small part, hustling to the front of the stage whenever she could and doing anything (e.g., crossing her eyes while dancing) to get a laugh. Her comedic improvisations won hearts and often stole the show. But she realized her opportunities as a black woman in the U.S. would never match her ambitions, so in 1925 she set sail for Paris, where she became a massive star.

Josephine Baker was neither the greatest dancer nor the greatest singer in Paris at the time. She was undeniably beautiful, but not untouchably so. But she made that all work for her—she had the kind of onstage charisma that connects with audiences instantly. She was sexy but funny, energetic but totally in control, outrageously glamorous but willing to make fun of herself. When she danced topless at the Folies Bergère it never seemed bawdy—it was elegant and self-aware and like nothing anyone had ever seen.

She performed her most famous dance, “Danse Sauvage,” at a Parisian theater as part of a black American vaudeville act called La Revue Nègre. While France wasn’t as racially segregated as the U.S., it wasn’t color-blind either, and Josephine knew how to manipulate racial stereotypes to her advantage. In that piece, she appeared naked except for a tiny skirt made of (fake) bananas, playing the role of the primal, over-sexualized, exotic “native girl” to the hilt, but with a wink and a joke, cleverly toying with white people’s ideas about race and sexuality. She performed racist fantasies in a way that questioned, complicated, and ultimately rejected them. That takes control, people. That takes genius.

2. She was a pioneer who lived life on her own terms and pushed boundaries.

Not content simply being a world-famous dancer, Josephine also became an actress, a singer, an author, a cabaret club owner, and even a Red Cross nurse and a spy for the French Resistance during World War II. She accomplished many impressive firsts: she was the first female African-American star in a major motion picture, performed in the first all-black Broadway musical, and was the first American-born woman to receive the French Legion of Honor. Even in death she achieved a first, being the first American-born woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral. She was in total control onstage and off, and fiercely ambitious about her career in an era when women were expected to aspire mainly to marriage and motherhood. She was openly bisexual; there were rumors that she had an affair with Frida Kahlo. She was also openly fabulous—she was known to arrive at parties wearing nothing but a fur coat, and she would walk Chiquita, her cheetah, around town in his diamond collar (and sometimes brought him onstage when she performed).

Josephine and Chiquita

3. She fought against racism and for equality.

In 1951 Josephine, the grandchild of former slaves, was offered $10,000 a week (more than $85,000 in today’s money—per week) for a two-week engagement at the Copa City Club, a segregated venue in Miami. She turned it down, saying she wouldn’t perform unless it was to a mixed audience. The club eventually relented, and every show sold out; following this victory Josephine embarked on a nationwide tour, playing to integrated audiences only.

She continued to speak out against racism and segregation for the next decade, and in 1963 was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech).

4. She loved helping others.

Not everybody has the same color, the same language, or the same customs, but they have the same heart, the same blood, and the same need for love.
—JB

After the March on Washington, Josephine played four charity shows at Carnegie Hall benefitting the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. She also gave so much of her own personal fortune to civil rights causes, hospitals, schools, and charities that by the late ’60s she was nearly broke and had to book a bunch of “comeback” gigs to raise money to support herself and her kids.

Here she is in Paris in 1930, performing at a benefit for children with tuberculosis:

5. JB’s got the moves!

I wanted to be more like Josephine Baker…she seemed like she was just possessed, and it seemed like she just danced from her heart, and everything was so free.
—Beyoncé

6. She was a trendsetter and a muse.

Josephine inspired a long list of artists, including Langston Hughes, Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Christian Dior, and Paul Poiret. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

In the 1920s and ’30s Josephine exemplified flapper style. She became a style icon of the day, and even marketed her own hair pomade, Bakerfix, so women could emulate her glossy spit-curled hairdo; and, while most women were trying to lighten their skin, she offered Bakerskin, a skin-darkening lotion for Parisian fans who coveted her complexion. Go Josephine Baker the entrepreneur!

She inspired Beyoncé too, who paid tribute at Fashion Rocks in 2006, complete with banana skirt!

Diana Ross loves her too!

And Boney M.! And Bobby Farrell!

7. She lived in a castle with her “rainbow tribe” and menagerie of animal friends.

Unable to bear children herself, Josephine adopted 12 kids from all over the globe and brought them to France to live with her, Chiquita, a chimpanzee, a parakeet, a snake, a pig, a goat, some dogs, cats, fish, and parrots in a magnificent castle called Les Milandes with a mini-golf course, a theater, and a J-shaped pool. Sounds like a beautiful dream, doesn’t it?

I could go on and on all day about how amazing Josephine Baker was! She wrote coded messages in invisible ink on her music sheets when she was a spy, she was buddies with Grace Kelly, she was still performing at the age of 69…it goes on an on! If you want to find out more about her inspiring life, I recommend you watch the documentary Josephine Baker: The First Black Superstar, embedded in its entirety here:

I did take the blows [of life], but I took them with my chin up, in dignity, because I so profoundly love and respect humanity.
—JB ♦

40 Comments

  • ElleEstJolie January 7th, 2013 3:08 PM

    AHHH I LOVE josephine baker! Ever since I saw the animated film “Les Triplettes de Belleville” in French class last year :) she’s so amazing!

  • whenyougrowupyourheartdies January 7th, 2013 3:17 PM

    Wahhh! I am so glad you did this. She’s been one of my idols a long long time! <3

  • Mary the freak January 7th, 2013 3:31 PM

    What a question. of course she is a superhero! She’s amazing!

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • soviet_kitsch January 7th, 2013 3:40 PM

    Sighhhh Josephine Baker <3333

  • ghostbrat January 7th, 2013 3:41 PM

    wow this lady blows me away amazing beautiful woah

  • Christi January 7th, 2013 3:41 PM

    Josephine Baker!!!!!!!!!
    My grandma talks about her all of the time!!!
    but its a shame because when I asked my old French teacher if he knew who Ms. JB was, he said NO!!!!

  • Flower January 7th, 2013 3:43 PM

    My RS teacher did a presentation on her last year and it was incredible. She’s just wonderful and inspiring <3

    http://www.bobblyrainbowsocks.blogspot.com

  • Rae0320 January 7th, 2013 3:51 PM

    I do feel a bit sorry for the cheetah on a leash..

  • Ellie January 7th, 2013 3:53 PM

    I love Josephine! I’ve been listening to her music for a while now (I have two of her albums – one in English and one in French), but I’ve also been aware of her all-around awesomeness for some time. She is the bees-knees!

  • Jamia January 7th, 2013 3:53 PM

    Bianca, LOVE!!!!! Josephine Baker is my fave!

  • avecbianca January 7th, 2013 4:18 PM

    J’adore Josephine, she is an inspiration and an idol! She continues to inspire me to reach my dreams and not be stopped by what appears to linger in the way!

  • rachelisms January 7th, 2013 4:42 PM

    I couldn’t have said any of this better myself, Bianca. Josephine Baker is glorious.

    I remember after I first discovered her, a few years ago if I remember rightly (she was brought up in my French class or maybe it was History?), I virtually tore apart the internet looking for as much information on her as I possibly could. She’s an inspiration, and so empowering. Her story blows my mind a little more every time I hear it.

  • ellamccartney January 7th, 2013 4:54 PM

    I adore her!

  • rosieandthewolf January 7th, 2013 4:59 PM

    I am so happy with this month’s theme. I LOVE FLAPPERS SO MUCH.
    Has anyone else read the BYT series by Anna Godbersen? It’s the best.

    http://rosieandthewolf.blogspot.co.uk/

    • ellamccartney January 7th, 2013 11:39 PM

      I read the first one and loved it! I should get the second one… the era of the 20′s is such an interesting time period.

  • hiraari January 7th, 2013 5:01 PM

    I didn’t know about Josephine Baker and I’m so glad I know about her right now!
    She is SUCH an inspiration to ANYONE, seriously.
    Thank you so much for this amazing article!! <3

  • paige.xo January 7th, 2013 5:38 PM

    wow. im so embarassed that i didn’t know who she was prior to this…. amazing women though. so inspiring.

  • Kathryn January 7th, 2013 5:57 PM

    What the heck, is this woman for real??!?
    Amazing!

  • Bianca January 7th, 2013 6:11 PM

    Glad y’all are digging Josie B as much as I do! She’s one of my favourites too, Jamia. And, Rachelisms, I feel the same way as you do, every time I hear JB’s story or learn something new about her it blows my mind a little more too. Thanks guys for the love on my first piece for Rookie. Sending all you Rook-stars great big hugs from the land Down Under <3 xo

  • Erykaneisha January 7th, 2013 6:25 PM

    I adore her. It was in 3rd grade when I got cultured by an amazing teacher and learned about Baker. So glad I.
    She’s so magnificent.

  • love_soup January 7th, 2013 7:44 PM

    oh my god. i was received seventeen magazine in the mail today (we get them for free and it is very colorful so i use it for collages) and spent the entire afternoon complaining and annoying everyone about what an awful influence on teen girls and what a waste of paper the shit was. THIS IS WHY I LOVE ROOKIE. you guys actually work hard and write real articles about real people. not justin beiber who sings misogynous songs and is still considered an ‘idol’. what an inspiring person josephine baker is. really.

  • emilycarolina January 7th, 2013 8:20 PM

    Josephine Baker is the epitome of fabulousness! Just amazing.

  • llamalina January 7th, 2013 8:49 PM

    josephine baker is so so so amazing! her life sounds like a fantasy. i want to be that fabulous someday.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • babyybat January 7th, 2013 9:24 PM

    SUPERHERO.

  • Meriel January 7th, 2013 9:36 PM

    I like this but “She adopted 12 children of different races and nationalities and called them her ‘rainbow tribe.’”? Precursor to the Harajuku girls – more racist and awful than heroic.

  • sherbert January 7th, 2013 10:00 PM

    wonderful

  • chargrills January 7th, 2013 10:15 PM

    a good article on the rainbow tribe thing – http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,652613,00.html

  • Lillypod January 8th, 2013 3:50 AM

    I lived down the road from her chateau — you can go visit it, its in Perigord. I never went but I want to!!

  • Pearl January 8th, 2013 4:13 AM

    I was watching Frida last night & this was on Rookie!!! I wanted to know more about Frida & Jennifer Baker’s wiki page popped up too & the rest is history. Rookie has just fueled my obsession!
    http://www.pforpearl.blogspot.com

  • Teez January 8th, 2013 7:35 AM

    great article, i love josephine baker. in fact my nickname used to be princess tam tam hahaha. really love this bianca

  • juanita January 8th, 2013 7:38 AM

    Whats not to love about this great story’it’s. A blast of a article !!!

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild January 8th, 2013 11:13 AM

    She is such an inspiration! I absolutely adore her uniqueness and revolutionary ways.

    <3 Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • Annie at Cher Ami January 8th, 2013 11:30 AM

    wow this is amazing!i’d never heard of her before i read this, and thank you so much bianca for sharing her story, it;s so inspiring!:’)

  • JosephineK January 8th, 2013 1:29 PM

    I’ve been to her castle! It was absolutely amazing, if you ever go to France you should definitely visit it! The castle itself was beautiful and inside they had pictures of her hanging everywhere and dresses she wore and even her banana skirt! And the rooms are beautiful, for example each bathroom was designed in the style of a certain perfume bottle!

    • Kathryn January 8th, 2013 3:34 PM

      perfume bottle bathrooms?! every new detail I learn about her is just so amazing that it doesn’t even seem real

  • ♡ reba ♡ January 8th, 2013 2:57 PM

    she’s amazing!! i’m obsessed..

  • Bianca January 8th, 2013 5:18 PM

    On the subject of JB and perfume, I came across this fun, interesting article (http://www.cafleurebon.com/scents-of-scandalous-women-josphine-bakers-joy-perfume-draw/) the other day that explores perfumes JB liked/used. It also gives a little insight into the fragrances favoured by other awesome ladies like Frida Kahlo, French novelist Sidone-Gabrielle Colette and other rad women.

  • Caden January 8th, 2013 10:46 PM

    Josephine Baker is a goddess. Those dance moves are to die for!!

  • barbroxursox January 9th, 2013 9:39 PM

    I love Josephine Baker! I did a project on her in like the 5th grade for historic figures from St. Louis (reppin’ the 314!). But I didn’t know nearly this much about her, so this article was pretty cool! Thanks, Bianca! She really must’ve been a superhero, and she truly lived out her dreams.

    lizard-on-a-window-pane.tumblr.com

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica May 27th, 2013 4:34 PM

    Wow! I had heard of but knew very little about Josephine Baker before reading this but I am completely enamored now! She is a queen. <3