the iconic jazz star who challenged the Nazis

In 1963, Josephine Baker found herself standing in front of 250,000 people, dressed in a French military uniform encrusted with medals, about to deliver a speech in front of no less than Martin Luther King. Throughout his life, Baker has grown from a housekeeper forced to sleep in the basement to toast in Paris, to a decorated war hero and a leading voice in the fight against racial inequality. So where did it all start?

Even as a child, Josephine Baker defied borders. She was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. However, she grew up in East St. Louis, which is actually within the neighboring state of Illinois. Her mother was an incredibly ambitious woman who dreamed of becoming a successful music hall dancer. Indeed, it was while traveling in the isolated Midwest as a dancer that she met the man Josephine would have come to think of as her father. Much of her youth was reportedly spent watching at the edge of a stage, surrounded by spectators, all of whom had paid to watch her mother dance. But it was not. None of her parents’ careers took off, and by the age of eight, Josephine was working in local homes to keep her family afloat. Eventually, she became a maid for one of the wealthy white families in her neighborhood, who forced her to sleep in the basement with the dogs. For Josephine, this uneasiness was only mitigated by her love of animals. In addition to the dogs, she took care of the family’s chickens, continuing to keep one particular hen as a pet. For months she loved it, until one day she was handed a rusty wooden ax and told to kill the chicken and pluck its feathers for roasting.

Leaving this special family, Josephine and was forced to make do with the money she earned dancing in the streets. She always had a passion for dancing and put on shows for her parents growing up. But as Josephine grew older, her mother made it clear her opinion about this seemingly uncontrollable passion. Having spent a life in the cabaret circuit herself, she tried to dissuade Josephine from continuing to dance professionally. However, at the age of 15, one of Josephine’s street routines caught the attention of a traveling theater company, The Jones Family Band, whom she decided to join on the road to New York. . She didn’t hesitate, not even once. What she left behind – her family, her home – had already been destroyed, along with the rest of her neighborhood after days of riots.

Upon arriving in New York City, Baker was forced to lie about her age in order to join the choir line for the traveling show. Mix along after that, The Black Dandies, which were some of the earliest black shows on Broadway. Around this time, Baker was praised for her unique routines, which saw her fake an awkward routine to embark on very syncopated stages that drove the crowd crazy. She has become a remarkable performer, showing off the other girls in the choir, much to their chagrin. Theater audiences had never seen someone like Baker before. To many at the time, she was both terrifying and lovely, a woman with intense sexual appeal who seemed like she could eat you whole at any moment.

(Credit: Alamy)

Then, in 1925, Baker crossed the Atlantic to Paris, where she danced with The Negro Review, a review produced by a wealthy American socialite whose goal was to introduce the Parisian public to jazz, a new form of dance music that had emerged during the Harlem Renaissance. At that time in Paris, there was an obsession with black art and culture, born out of a European colonial mindset. While this may seem deeply problematic from a modern perspective, for Baker this exoticism was at least preferable to the rampant and often violent racism she had faced in the United States.

Baker quickly became a sensation across France, having created the “Danse Sauvage”, a half-tone routine in which she wore a thong adorned with a banana dress. Then, in 1930, she turned away from a singing career, releasing several incredibly successful movies and songs, including her biggest hit “J’ai Deux Amours” in 1931. It’s hard to say how good Baker is. was famous at that time. Not only was she the highest-paid artist in Paris (spending most of her money on a menagerie of diamond-collared animals around the world), but she was also considered such a powerful figure of beauty as Parisians white people started buying almond oil to darken their skin.

However, in 1939 everything changed. The German occupation of France ended her flourishing career in film and music, prompting her to join the French resistance in the early 1940s. Some say she was trained to shoot in the sewers under Paris, which were surely far from the lavish lodges she had once called home. Using her diva status to infiltrate the Nazi Party, she traveled to Europe to target diplomats and military officials, briefing her confidants in Paris by writing messages in invisible ink on sheet music. After the liberation of France, Baker received the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor, the highest national honor.

After the war, Baker decided to return to the United States, where she used her fame to draw attention to the racial inequality that forced her to leave all those years ago. Upon her return, she refused to play separate shows. Indeed, these laws meant that Baker herself – who was nothing short of a war hero – had been denied entry to several locations. While dining with a group of friends at the Stalk Club in 1951, for example, Baker noticed that while the establishment’s white diners were still being served, service at his table had completely stopped. Baker made two important phone calls: one to his lawyer and the other to the police chief. As you might expect, service quickly resumed, but it was a bit too late. Baker picketed the Stalk Club, leading a boycott that caught the attention of the newspapers, which led to her being accused of communism and prompted the FBI to put her on her watch list. For more than a decade, Baker was the victim of censorship, which meant that she couldn’t make a living in the United States and was forced to return to France.

Throughout the 1950s, Baker lived on her property in southwestern France, where she spent much of her time adopting babies from all over the world in what she described as “an experience of fraternity”. The “Rainbow Tribe” consisted of 12 adopted children who, to them, heralded a sort of post-racial utopia. Then, in the 1960s, Josephine Baker was invited to return to the United States for another key moment in world history, the March on Washington. She was one of only two women invited to lead the march and was the only woman invited to speak. And so Baker, whom white American society had continually avoided, now stood in front of thousands of people, dressed in his French military uniform, on the verge of changing the world once again.

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