It’s time to rediscover Josephine Baker, the world-famous entertainer who stood for equality.
One of the most significant entertainers of the 20th century, Josephine Baker isn’t as recognized as she should be today, partly because it’s not easy to access the few films she appeared in. It is, however, time to rediscover her, as so many lessons learned from her life are at risk of being forgotten.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906, Baker would emigrate and gain fame in Paris as a hypnotic dancer at the Folies Bergiere, and would go on to become a correspondent for the French Resistance during World War II, an ambassador for racial harmony as a mother to 12 adopted children she called the Rainbow Tribe, and a champion of civil rights who would eventually speak alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
Born to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson, Freda Josephine McDonald hopped into a show business career at a very young age. Her family destitute, Baker would perform little comic sketches on the streets for money. Even at a young age, her innate charm, irrepressible spirit and comic timing came through. At 13 she was discovered by vaudeville producers, who brought her on tour along with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers in 1919. Josephine grew up fast in these years, marrying and divorcing twice before she even turned 18. Despite two later marriages, she chose to keep the last name of her second husband, Willie Baker, for the rest of her life.
Touring with the troupe in segregated theaters in an era when Black audiences were forbidden from attending many headlining “white” shows, Baker soon found herself in Harlem, where she was exposed to many of the great Black performers of the 1920s, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Like Robinson, one of the most electric dancers of his day, Baker had a unique style and an overwhelming magnetism that more than made up for any technical faults. No matter how large the chorus line in which she appeared, Baker always attracted attention because of her comic antics, her love of making funny faces, and her rubbery dances.
Her innate star power took her to Broadway in 1924 in the chorus line of an all-Black revue called Shuffle Along, where she was discovered by impresario Caroline Dudley Reagan, who had the idea of bringing a group of Black musicians to Paris to show the French what the Jazz Age was all about. Baker joined La Revue Negre on tour in France and was an absolute sensation.
Josephine Baker later said of her decision to leave the U.S.: “One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be Black. It was only a country for white people. Not Black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States…. A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore…. I felt liberated in Paris.”
Baker would move on to the Folies Bergère, the most noteworthy music hall in Paris, which had been operating continuously since 1869, where she would star in a revue called La Folie du Jour. Often performing topless, like so many women working in the more tolerant European nightclubs, Baker wowed the audience with her comic timing, her vivacity, her charm…and her skirt made of 16 bananas tied together. The image of Baker dancing her banana dance proved to be the most lasting picture of her, and her fame grew exponentially.
While the act in which she performed has racist undertones by today’s standards, in 1927 it was extraordinary for a Black woman to be the headlining act in a revue in one of the most famous nightclubs in the world. Such clubs were always deeply segregated in America, where she never would’ve had the chance to achieve anything close to the global fame and adoration she received while living in France.
At the age of 21, Baker earned more than any entertainer in Europe and was universally beloved. Her fame was unrivaled. She inspired artists as varied as Alexander Calder, who sculpted her in wire, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings and more. She starred in two movies in the 1930s — Zou Zou and Princess Tam Tam — and moved her family from St. Louis to her estate in France.
The contrast between her success in Europe and how she would be perceived in the United States would prove to be stark. Her 1936 return to the U.S. to star in the Ziegfeld Follies was greeted by negative — and usually virulently racist and condescending — receptions from critics. Returning to France, Baker was greeted with acceptance and fame. That fame, in fact, would come in handy when World War II broke out in 1939.
Baker began the war working for the Red Cross, becoming a sub-lieutenant in France’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and touring Europe and South America. She became a wartime spy as an honorable correspondent for the French Resistance, relaying information to them on her sheet music, written in invisible ink. German officers attending her performances never would’ve suspected this famous entertainer of spying on them, so they were often far too free in the conversations they had in her presence. Baker’s espionage efforts were lauded by General George S. Patton among others, and she was awarded the Medal of Resistance by Charles De Gaulle.
Following the war, Baker’s performing career faltered, but she used her celebrity to support racial harmony and civil rights. Her first mission, beginning in 1953, was a bold experiment she called the Rainbow Tribe. She would eventually adopt 12 children from around the world and raise them in her castle in France, which she turned into a kind of open theme park to show that the ideal family would consist of many races living in harmony. The French newspaper Le Monde in a story that year said the children would be “raised like brothers” but each would still “maintain the language, the dress, the customs and the religion of his/her country.”
Tourists by the thousands would come to Chateau des Milandes and see the children, who would perform orchestrated material for them. Critics and some of her children years later condemned her problematic approach. Baker was on a mission to gain attention for racial harmony and civil rights that was needed in the ’50s and ’60s.
Baker’s championing of civil rights culminated in a speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. She spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on the occasion of his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. “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 — much more,” Baker said in her speech. “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.”
As the ’60s fell into the ’70s, Baker’s performing career was resurrected, culminating in a triumphant performance at Carnegie Hall, where she was greeted with a standing ovation. She would go on to begin a run at the Bobino Theater in Paris on April 8, 1975, but would die of a cerebral hemorrhage four days later at the age of 68.
Though she is gone, Baker’s legacy remains. She was a brave entertainer who wanted to make the world a better place in the face of the ugly racism that itself remains alive in her country of birth.
A selection of Josephine Baker films is available on the streaming website Filmstruck through July 6, including Zou Zou and Princess Tam Tam, along with a very rare silent film at the beginning of Baker’s meteoric rise called Siren of the Tropics, and others.