Josephine Baker: I knew so little

Genius in France

Josephine BakerI knew that Josephine Baker was a famous black entertainer starting in the 1920s. Yes, I was aware that she left the United States because of its open segregation laws. She was a big star in France. That’s about it.

That is until I was watching CBS Sunday Morning while waiting for my train to arrive. This segment is rightly titled The legacy of Josephine Baker.

First a bit of biography. “She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906, to washerwoman Carrie McDonald and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson. Eddie abandoned them shortly afterward, and Carrie married a kind but a perpetually unemployed man named Arthur Martin.” After a brief and difficult career in the US, her career thrived in Paris.

I’m fascinated by how France has been perceived as this sanctuary, at least for a little while. Some of the notable transplants, at least for a time, included James Baldwin and Lenny Kravitz. My noted activist cousin  Frances Beal lived there for a few years. And American soldier Henry Johnson, for years, got a lot more recognition for his World War I exploits by the French than by his home country, the US.

A star over there, but…

For Josephine Baker, a “1936 return to the United States to star in the Ziegfeld Follies proved disastrous, despite the fact that she was a major celebrity in Europe. American audiences rejected the idea of a black woman with so much sophistication and power, newspaper reviews were equally cruel (The New York Times called her a ‘Negro wench’), and Josephine returned to Europe heartbroken.”

She was active in the French resistance during World War II. “She performed for the troops” and… smuggled “secret messages written on her music sheets.” The French government later awarded her medals for her valor.

In the 1950s, “she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as ‘The Rainbow Tribe.’ aided by her third husband, composer Joe Bouillon. Josephine wanted her to prove that ‘children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.’ She often took the children with her cross-country.” She raised two daughters, from France and Morocco, and 10 sons, from Korea, Japan, Colombia, Finland, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and three from France.

Civil rights advocate

But she did make it back to the United States again. I was struck by this dialogue in the CBS piece.
Reporter: “How long are you going to stay?”
Baker: “You want me to stay, don’t you?”
Reporter: “I’d like you to stay. I think you could help the Negro movement in the United States.”
Baker: “Oh, don’t say that.”
Reporter: “Why not?”
Baker: “Because it’s not a Negro movement. It’s an American movement.”
True enough.

She spoke at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. “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, and much more. 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.”

Triumphant return

Josephine Baker “agreed to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall” in 1973. “Due to previous experience, she was nervous about how the audience and critics would receive her. This time, however, cultural and racial growth was evident. Josephine received a standing ovation before the concert even began. The enthusiastic welcome was so touching that she wept onstage.

“On April 8, 1975, Josephine premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris. Celebrities such as Princess Grace of Monaco and Sophia Loren were in attendance to see 68-year-old Josephine perform a medley of routines from her 50-year career. The reviews were among her best ever. Days later, however, Josephine slipped into a coma. She died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 5 a.m. on April 12.”

And in 2021, she has been inducted into France’s Pantheon, the first black woman, the first performing artist, and the first American so honored. She joins Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie among the 80 so honored.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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