“You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.”
– Josephine Baker
This week we move to Josephine Baker, a renowned dancer, singer, mother, spy, and bisexual woman of colour. It is rare for us to identify a historical figure so clearly, but with some help from her son, historian Jean-Claude Baker, we can. Born on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Baker’s life was never without its share of obstacles. Josephine Baker, however, wasn’t familiar with the word “stop”; she worked as an entertainer, an activist, a military woman, and a mother, and did not rest. Summarizing her life in a brief, concise, and full manner is next to impossible, but we will do our best.
Baker’s troubles began when she was quite young. She began working at eight years old to help support her family. Being impoverished, black, and female in America, she was not treated well by her employers. One woman forced her to sleep in the doghouse and scalded her hands when she made minor mistakes. At thirteen, Baker was forced to marry a man over a decade her senior—one Willie Wells—without her consent. Soon after, she divorced him but was forced to marry again at age fifteen. Baker was forced to grow up faster than any person should, with both employers and men treating her more as a commodity than a human being.
But just as she found hardships, young Baker found success early. She was hired for a vaudeville show at fifteen and moved to New York soon after. She was hired to perform on Broadway and was billed as the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville during her time. Her career was just as fraught as it was fruitful though. America during the 1920s was an intensely racist place, and even with Baker’s growing fame, she faced it everywhere she went without reprieve. While she spent a good part of her life fighting against racism, becoming friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and other well-known civil rights activists, Baker eventually left America for France. This is not to say that France was free of racism, but Baker found it a more liberating place to live than “America the Beautiful.”
It was in France that Baker’s involvement in World War II began. She found much more fame and respect in France than she had in America, and it had become her home. During the war, she defended that home. While she was far too well-known to be a soldier, she was just well-known enough to be a spy. While performing for German officers, Baker would write information she had gathered on her music sheets in invisible ink and smuggle it across borders in her underwear, counting on her fame to save her from being strip-searched.
While that alone was enough to put her in danger, it was not the end of her efforts. She also helped house refugees and revolutionaries in her home, and would often move them around by disguising them as a part of her band. After the war, she was awarded two of the highest war honours: the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. Baker’s work was not limited to France, however. She toured the French colonies in North Africa and continued her intelligence gathering there. Even after the war, she wasn’t politically silent. The king in Cairo asked her to perform for his citizens, but Baker refused him, due to the country’s lack of support for the movement to free France. Baker also ensured that her audiences, no matter where she went, were not segregated, something she had fought for from the beginning of her career.
After the war, Baker did not stop fighting, but she also didn’t stop enjoying herself. She returned to America for a while, forcing all the clubs she entertained in to open their doors to both white people and people of colour. She made many friends in her post-war years and had many lovers as well. Artist Frida Kahlo fell into both categories. Baker also remained an important part of the American civil rights movement. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in fact, Dr. King’s wife asked Baker to step up as the head of the movement. Baker politely declined as, at the time, she was beginning to take up another task.
She had adopted twelve children from around the world, and after the divorce from her fourth husband, she was raising them alone. This was a heavy financial burden, but it was one she faced with the support of her fans, both financially and otherwise. Some of the more generous and high rankings of her followers even offering her an island at one point, which Baker politely declined as well, as she did not want to leave her home in France.
Though Baker’s love of France was well known, and she was known for wearing her military uniform often, France was not as generous with their service to her. They refused her financial aid in her time of crisis and only returned to her side after she had died, giving her the only military funeral for an American woman.
There was a group of people, however, who never left Baker’s side. While her fans remained fickle as she got involved in different political disputes, her two countries both abandoning her in different ways at different times, and she was married and divorced many times throughout her life, the children she had brought together from all corners of the world stayed strong. They continued to honour her after she died.
While many historians and biographers have denied that Baker was bisexual, her son has since embraced the label, calling Baker a “lover of women” in her biography, and never attempting to deny her many affairs with women throughout her life. This openness, one must believe, is because of love. When one person truly cares for another and wants to keep their legacy, one is honest. Because Jean-Claude Baker had a deeper connection to his mother than most historians had to their object of study, he gave a unique, personal, and honest view of Baker’s life without judgment or censorship.
It is this honesty that many historians have yet to learn and apply to their accounts, but it's unsurprising that he was leagues ahead of the rest; he woman who raised him changed the world, so much so that her influence can still be seen in popular culture today. Baker loved her world of entertainment, but never compromised her values for it. With that same willpower, she managed to raise twelve children on her own and push the rest of the world forward through unbending determination in concert with her legendary charm and talent.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
(1963) Josephine Baker, “Speech at the March on Washington”. (2011, November 3). Blackpast. Retrieved from http://www.blackpast.org/1963-josephine-baker-speech-march-washington
Croasly, S. (2016, July 6). Exploring the France Josephine Baker Loved. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/travel/josephine-baker-paris-france.html?_r=0
Griffith, J. (2014, December 31). Josephine Baker: From Exotic Dancer to Activist. BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20141222-from-exotic-dancer-to-activist
Jerkins, M. (2016, June 3). 90 Years Later, The Radical Power of Josephine Baker´s Banana Skirt. Vogue. Retrieved from http://www.vogue.com/13442586/josephine-baker-90th-anniversary-banana-skirt/
Jolley, L. (n.d.). Josephine Baker. The State Historical Society of Missouri. Retrieved from http://shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/b/baker/
Josephine Baker (n.d.). National Women´s History Museum. Retrieved from https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/josephine-baker/
Onion, R. (2014, April 8). Josephine Baker´s Rainbow Tribe. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/history/2014/04/josephine_baker_s_rainbow_tribe_before_madonna_and_angelina_jolie_the_expat.html
Theile, M. (2009, October 2). Josephine Baker´s Rainbow Tribe. The Spiegel. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/adopting-the-world-josephine-baker-s-rainbow-tribe-a-652613.html
Weber, B. (2015, January 15). Jean-Claude Baker Dies at 71; Restaurateur Honoured a Chantause. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/16/nyregion/jean-claude-baker-a-restaurateur-dies-at-71.html