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Josephine Baker and the Parisian Jazz Age

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the dancer Josephine Baker in the annals of European Black History in this century. She quite literally changed everything for black artists in Paris, and as a consequence, the world over. Paris was the centre of the artistic and music world at the time Baker exploded onto the scene, and the astonishing impact she made saw both the whole of Paris open-mouthed in admiration and rapturously welcoming. Yet Baker was not just a spectacularly talented dancer. She was the first African American woman to appear in a motion picture. And her political activities saw her awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work during World War II in aiding the French Resistance. She was a strong advocate in the American Civil Rights Movement, and spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jr in 1963 at the March on Washington rally.

So who was Josephine Baker, and how did it all begin? She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Carrie had been adopted by Richard and Elvira McDonald, both of whom had worked as slaves and were of African and Native American descent. There were no 0% overdraft options in those days, and so they lived in poverty. Josephine had a particularly difficult and traumatic early life, working domestically from the age of eight and suffering abuse at the hands of her employers. She finally dropped out of school altogether by the age of 12 and lived on the streets in St Louis, scavenging for food and sleeping in the open. To make money, she began dancing on street corners, and was so gifted she was spotted by a talent scout. This extraordinary turn of fate saw the ragged little girl join the St Louis Chorus vaudeville show at the age of 15. From that point onwards her upward trajectory began. Soon she was performing at the Plantation Club and on Broadway. She was a hugely popular performer, not just for her dancing ability, but for her comedy skills. She clowned around, pulling faces to add to the comedy of her dances. The audiences loved her irreverence and character.

Paris

In 1925 Josephine arrived in Paris and caused a sensation immediately, for her risqué dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage – not entirely unusual for that time, but seldom achieved with such aplomb. She stormed the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and ended up as a performer at the famous The Folies Bergère, with a wildly risqué dance routine, called La Folie du Jour which brought elements of African tribal dance to the West, and was seized upon by the tolerant and open-minded French. Although to a modern audience her act may seem simply to pander to stereotypes of African ‘native’ dancers, dressed in leaves and made ‘exotic’ and ‘other’, we must remember the cultural context in which she was performing. Audiences had never seen dancing like this before. Josephine’s physical beauty was overwhelming for many of the audience, who had seldom seen African bodies moving and dancing, especially not as exuberantly and freely as Josephine’s did. She was a natural and irresistible performer, witty and lithe, she kept her audience entranced.

Her act coincided with an increasing interest in African culture, which was partly due to the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, and partly by Picasso’s preoccupation with African tribal art at around the same time. Black jazz musicians were welcomed in Paris between the wars, and many escaped the poverty and racism of America to find their way there; there was simply nowhere better for a black artist to be at that time. Soon Josephine Baker became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Christian Dior, and Picasso himself. She starred in two films in the early 1930s, called Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. But despite her huge fame in Europe she was unsuccessful on a return trip to the United States in 1936. Audiences were simply not ready for a black female performer of such distinction, and newspaper reviews of her work were cutting. America still had a long way to go to catch up with the rest of Europe in terms of racial equality. Baker returned to France.

Spy

When WWII began, Josephine Baker was well placed to help the French Resistance. As a touring artist she could move around the country without attracting suspicion, and her success also meant she could mix with high society and pick up bits of intelligence while she did so. She smuggled hidden messages for the Resistance on her sheet music. When the Germans invaded, she escaped to the South of France, where she helped protect Belgian refugees and continued to work towards a free France. For her work in the War she was awarded the Croix de guerre, Rosette de la Résistance, and given the extraordinary honour of being made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. At her funeral she was given a ‘21 gun salute’, making her the first American woman ever to be buried in France with military honours.

Civil Rights Activist

Baker was always a vocal supporter of the American Civil Rights Movement, and refused to play to segregated audiences when she performed there. She spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jnr and after his assassination was approached by his widow to ask if she would take over as leader of the movement. Baker declined, thinking the risk of her own assassination would be an unfair burden on her adopted children.

Return To America

In 1973 Josephine finally overcame her disappointment about the negative response she received in the States. She nervously accepted an invitation to New York’s Carnegie Hall. She walked on stage to a standing ovation, and was so overcome that she wept openly. America had finally moved on culturally and politically, and welcomed their wonderful star back with open arms.

Death

When Josephine Baker died in 1975, it was just days after a triumphant show to celebrate her 50 years in show business, Joséphine à Bobino, garnered rapturous reviews, and mass celebrity attendance. She was 68. Over 20,000 people gathered in Paris to watch her funeral procession. From a barefoot child on the streets, she died loved and honoured by the whole world. Her quiet charm and moral courage remain an inspiration to this day.

2 thoughts on “Josephine Baker and the Parisian Jazz Age

  • 14th May 2012 at 6:57 pm
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    Another great article as I am a Josephine baker collector. Well done I didn’t know about her early life!

    Reply
  • 28th April 2013 at 5:45 pm
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    Valuable information. Fortunate me I discovered your site accidentally, and I’m surprised why this accident did not came about in advance! I bookmarked it.

    Reply

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