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.

Race in America, late summer, 1963

“We often hear it said here that while the Negro drive for equality is a justifiable movement, in the last year the Negroes have been pushing too hard and too fast….”

NBC News did a very interesting thing last month: it rebroadcast the August 25, 1963 episode of the news panel program Meet the Press, 50 years after the original broadcast. You can read the transcript at the site as well. The guests were Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, and Martin Luther King, Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They were speaking three days before the massive March on Washington.

What I found fascinating is that there are two overriding themes in the questioning. One comes in the first question from Lawrence E. Spivak, “permanent member of the MEET THE PRESS panel,” and future moderator of the program: “Mr. Wilkins, there are a great many people, as I am sure you know, who believe it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting. What do you see as the effect on the just cause of the Negro if you do have incidents, if you do have any rioting?” Love the use of the word “militant.”

Of course, the march was peaceful, as Wilkins suggested would be the case, even larger than Wilkins’ upper estimation of up to 190,000 participants, and with a great number of them white people.

I found this concern particularly interesting in terms of current MTP host David Gregory’s description of the times: “The previous months of 1963 were tumultuous ones in the civil rights movement.

“King was jailed in April, images of brutality were widely publicized as police turned fire hoses and attack dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, and the NAACP ‘s Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson Mississippi in June.”

The other emphasis was based on this question to Dr. King: “We often hear it said here that while the Negro drive for equality is a justifiable movement, in the last year the Negroes have been pushing too hard and too fast…. There has been concern about the sit-ins, about some of the incidents that have happened in connection with them. Do you find any substantial reaction among white people to this effect, or does it affect you in any way in the conduct of your movement ?”

I always found this notion that fairness coming “too fast” laughable, given, as Dr. King noted that black people at the time had “waited for well-now 345 years for our basic constitutional and God-given rights.” I remember that national polls into at least the 1980s suggested that white people thought the black people were moving too quickly towards equality, a view not shared by black people.

Less than a month after the “I Have a Dream” speech, four black girls were killed in their Birmingham church, as Arthur noted. I was pleased that President Obama signed legislation posthumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. But I was saddened to discover that the body of Addie Mae Collins had gone missing, probably in the first five years after her death.

I found it ironic that the panelists on that 1963 segment of MTP talked about violence BY blacks when violence TO blacks was so often the reality in the day.

Fortunately, we live in post-racial America in 2013, where the selection of a Miss America of Asian Indian descent was universally cheered. OK, NOT so universally cheered. At least we can be comforted (?) by the fact that if she had eligible to be competing for Miss India, she probably wouldn’t have even made it to the finals.

March on Washington, a half century later

When Jackie Robinson joined major league baseball in 1947, that did not mark the end of racism and segregation.

It’s likely you’ll see a LOT of stories about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Every single one will marvel at how much progress has been made in America in the area of race, since 1963. Almost all will point to a black President, the current Attorney General, and two recent Secretaries of State as examples. The divergence in opinions come on this point: some will claim that we have “reached the promised land,” making sure to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. from that day a half-century ago – as though he were the only speaker there – while others will suggest that we haven’t quite gotten there yet.

When President Obama suggested that we look at race again in light of the Trayvon Martin case, that Obama could have been Trayvon 35 years ago, some, such as Touré at TIME, thought it was a brave personal observation. He wrote: “The assertion that blacks are hallucinating or excuse-making or lying when we talk about the many very real ways white privilege and racial bias and the lingering impact of history impact our lives is painful. It adds insult to injury to attack all assertions of racism and deny its continued impact or existence.”

Others labeled Obama “racist-in-chief”, playing the “race card” and worse. When Former Florida GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough lit into Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity last month for suggesting that Martin was a messed up teenager who “had it coming” when he was killed by George Zimmerman in their February 2012 confrontation, the bile cast on the Morning Joe host, Martin, his parents, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, among others, by a website I follow was toxic. The always dreadful Ted Nugent said that Martin had been ‘Emboldened’ By Obama, “the first black president as a ‘Black Panther’ running a ‘gangster’ government.”

Here are four charts suggesting Obama’s right about being black in America. Being profiled is, more than anything, disheartening, I can tell you. After George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon, Lavar Burton, the original Kunte Kinte of Roots fame, noted how he had taught his sons to keep their hands open and out of the car. Meanwhile, a white guy on the same show noted that he had once locked his keys in the car, so he tried to break in; a New Orleans police officer stopped him, saying, “No, you’re not doing it right.”

There’s this show on ABC called What Would You Do? It’s a hidden camera show that looks at human psychology. I don’t watch it, but I find it interesting that several of their experiments involve race. A most powerful one involved actors pretending to be bicycle thieves. From this story: When a white young man appeared to be taking a bike, most people didn’t question it. Yet when the African-American actor took his place, “the reactions were more pronounced. At one point, a crowd assembled around the purported thief and confronted him directly. One man pulled out a cellphone and said he was calling the police, which he was about to do until the cameramen filming the event stepped forward.”

When Jackie Robinson joined major league baseball in 1947, that did not mark the end of racism and segregation. It took over a decade before every team had at least one black player. It was 1987, when Al Campanis, general manager of the DODGERS, which was Jackie’s team, rationalized on national TV why there weren’t more blacks in baseball management; I watched it live, stunned. As a direct result, the sport was far more aggressive in making sure minority candidates at least got interviewed for a management position. They took an AFFIRMATIVE ACTION to rectify a system, not of overt racism, but merely cronyism, hiring the guys one already knows.

And speaking of which, the US Supreme Court seems destined to gut the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, under the mistaken belief that everything is all better now. The economic inequities would otherwise. Almost 400 years have passed since blacks came to America, and that there is still work to be done does not negate the progress. Nor does the progress suggest that Martin, if he were still alive, and his colleagues, some of whom still alive, and their successors, would be resting on their laurels, satisfied that the work is done.
***
Leonard Pitts: Living in a time of moral cowardice.

If you could somehow magically bring [Martin Luther King, Jr.] here, that tomorrow would likely seem miraculous to him, faced as he was with a time when segregation, police brutality, employment discrimination, and voter suppression were widely and openly practiced.

Here is tomorrow, after all, the president is black. The business mogul is black. The movie star is black. The sports icon is black. The reporter, the scholar, the lawyer, the teacher, the doctor, all of them are black. And King might think for a moment that he was wrong about tomorrow and its troubles.

It would not take long for him to see the grimy truth beneath the shiny surface, to learn that the perpetual suspect is also black. As are the indigent woman, the dropout, the fatherless child, the suppressed voter, and the boy lying dead in the grass with candy and iced tea in his pocket.

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