A trailblazing force to be reckoned with, Josephine Baker changed the world.
Image by Carl Van Vechten / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
HBO Max’s Lovecraft Country intertwines history with science fiction in such a compelling way that it often sends me reaching for my phone to look up what I’ve just seen. In one episode, the show sent Hippolyta Freeman, a mourning widow living in a racist 1950s Chicago, into an interdimensional adventure where she danced onstage with Josephine Baker.
Josephine Baker was a famous American-born, French entertainer in the 1920s, though she was so much more. She played a significant role as a spy for the Allies in World War II in France.
And later on, she had a big role to play in the Civil Rights movement in America. And though she returned to America a war hero, she was met with bigotry simply because of the color of her skin.
Baker’s rise to fame
Baker was born in St. Louis in 1906. Her family was poor and she was forced to babysit and clean houses for wealthy families starting at the age of eight. Not content with this way of life, she left home as a young teen and found success in New York dancing on Broadway.
In the 1920s, her success brought her to Paris, where her special brand of beauty, talent, and charm turned her into one of Europe’s most sought-after celebrities.
Paris was going through a Jazz obsession at the time. And they embraced Baker with a passion. Her dances were unique and her costumes outlandish. Perhaps the most famous costume of all was the banana skirt. And yes, it’s just how it sounds, a skirt made of 16 bejeweled bananas
Image by Walery, Polish-British, 1863–1929 / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
Her banana skirt dance was the turning point and it catapulted her to the status of a cultural icon. She was admired by other cultural icons of the time. Ernest Hemingway called her, ‘The most sensational woman anybody ever saw, or ever will.” Pablo Picasso said she was “the Nefertiti of Now.”
The French audiences loved her and she began a singing and film career in the 1930s. With her fame in Europe, she headed back to the US, expecting to take the country by storm. But America was in the middle of the Jim Crow days, and despite her celebrity, she was refused service at 36 hotels.
Having been welcomed warmly in France, Baker was appalled at this treatment. She refused to perform in segregated venues. She used her celebrity status to insist on performing for integrated crowds. And club owners were forced to accommodate her if they wanted to see her perform at their venues.
But the racism in America was too much, and she returned to France a year later.
The war years
France was no longer the same place it had been before she had left. Paris in the 1920s was a utopia where creative artists and writers flocked to. But the stock market crash of 1929, and the tensions with Germany, and the eventual German occupation transformed the City of Lights into a much bleaker place.
Baker left Paris to find refuge in a chateau in the South of France, where she welcomed other refugees from the Nazis. It was at this time that she began her career as a spy for the French Resistance.
She spied on Nazis
Her celebrity status gave her the perfect excuse to move through enemy territory without repercussions. She toured through Europe, performing for troops, and listening to Axis secrets.
She smuggled information back to the French, written in invisible ink undetected on her music sheets.
She even managed to pin photos of German military operations in her underwear, never being suspected by immigration officials. She was awarded the military honors of the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance for her work.
And after the war, Baker continued to do what she could for the French people that had embraced her a decade before. The German occupation had left France in poverty. Baker sold jewelry and other possessions to raise money for food and fuel for the citizens of Paris.
After the war
Though she kept her home in France, in the 1950s, Baker would often return to America to lend her help to the Civil Rights leaders of the day. She participated in demonstrations and continued to insist on performing only in integrated clubs.
Though this woman had bravely fought against the Nazis, she still faced racism and segregation in the US. She was even denied lodging in Atlanta in 1951 when she was scheduled to speak at an NAACP meeting.
She continued to tour the South, speaking out against racism, participating in demonstrations, and doing her part to bring about change.
And in 1963, she spoke during the March on Washington. This was the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Baker lived her life the way she wanted, without buckling to the current prejudices of the day. She was married four times and was open about her bisexuality at a time when few were. Over her lifetime, she adopted 12 children of different cultures and called them her “Rainbow Tribe.”
Her last performance
In 1973, she made a comeback to the stage at Carnegie Hall, where she received a standing ovation and critical acclaim. This marked a triumphant return to the stage, but it was to be short-lived.
Two years later, after her very last performance at the Bobino Theater in Paris, she died at the age of 68. Over 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to mourn her death and celebrate her life. She was honored by the French government with a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors.
A trailblazing woman
Image by Rudolf Suroch / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
Baker changed the world in her unique way with her bravery, charm, and flair. And with her bejeweled banana skirt. No wonder Lovecraft Country’s Hippolyta wanted to be dancing on stage with her.