Few figures have a cultural importance as great as Josephine Baker. Born in Missouri 1906, she later started out her career as a background dancer in Broadway. She received her big break in Paris and moved to France during the 1920s. She was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture when Siren of the Tropics was released in 1927. She was a renowned dancer, with her form of exotic dancing building her iconic image, becoming a symbol of the 1920s Jazz Age. She was the most successful American entertainer working in France – having the admiration of Parisian audiences as well as cultural figures like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. Picasso drew paintings depicting her alluring beauty and was nicknamed ‘Black Venus’ by her adoring fans. She was rumoured to have had thousands of marriage proposals during her time in France.
With all this success in Europe, she tried to make a return to the United States in the 1930s. However, her return was met with general hostility and racist reactions in large parts of America. Shocked at the treatment she received in her own country, she returned to France and intended to stay there. She married her husband Jean Lion in 1937 and renounced her US Citizenship, becoming a French national. During this time, she also contributed to the war effort and become an effective spy for the allies. With her fame, she visited neutral nations and received information that would later be transmitted to England. These transmissions included information about airfields, harbours and German troops that were disguised with invisible ink on her sheet music.
After having children and living a family lifestyle, she returned once more to America in the 1950s at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. She toured across the United States but refused to perform anywhere that had segregated audiences. She helped integrate the first entertainment shows in Las Vegas and didn’t bow down to bribes she received from hotels (with one in Miami offering $10,000 to perform to a segregated audience.) Her political stance gained attention from the Ku Klux Klan and J. Edgar Hoover; she received threatening phone calls and had files on her being labelled as a ‘communist.’ She was not afraid of either of them, and still spoke of injustice in her country of birth.
It wasn’t until the March at Washington alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. where she felt proud of the progress her country had made. She was one of few to speak, and summarised her points about the United States by saying, “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, because when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”
Her legacy ran across the world and highlighted the hostility and lack of progress that the US had with the likes of Europe. In 1975, she was going to make a comeback with a 50th year anniversary of her Parisian debut but died in her sleep due to a cerebral haemorrhage. On the day of her funeral, more than 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris. She also received a 21-gun salute for her war efforts. She was an icon of Black history and was one of many figures to help kick-start progress in the Western world.
Header Image Courtesy of Variety.