Black HERstory: Freda Josephine McDonald

Josephine Baker (b. June 3, 1906 – d. April 12, 1975)

Today’s feature highlights entertainer and actress Freda Josephine McDonald, better known as Josephine Baker. Baker was a celebrated dancer and an active member of the Civil Rights movement. She was given the nicknames the “Bronze Venus” or the “Black Pearl”, as well as the “Créole Goddess” in anglophone nations. In France, she has always been known as “La Baker”.

Baker was the first African American to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-famous entertainer. She is also noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (she was offered the leadership of the movement by Coretta Scott King in 1968 following Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s assassination, but turned it down), for assisting the French Resistance during World War II and for being the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor, the Croix de Guerre.

Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri. When Baker was eight she was sent to work for a white woman who abused her, burning Baker’s hands when she put too much soap in the laundry.

Baker dropped out of school at the age of 12 and lived as a street child in the slums of St. Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show at 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the popular Broadway revues.

On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas.

After a short while she was the most successful American entertainer working in France. Ernest Hemingway called her:

“… the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

At this time she also scored her most successful song, “J’ai deux amours” (1931) and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior.

She’s even rumored to have had an affair with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Although based in France, Baker supported the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s. She protested in her own way against racism, adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans, who she called the “Rainbow Tribe.” They were: Janot (Korean son), Akio (Japanese son), Luis (Colombian son), Jari (Finnish son), Jean-Claude (Canadian son), Moïse (French Jewish son), Brahim (Algerian son), Marianne (French daughter), Koffi (Ivorian son), Mara (Venezuela son), Noël (French son), and Stellina (Moroccan daughter).

She refused to perform for segregated audiences in the United States. Her insistence on mixed audiences helped to integrate shows in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In 1951, Baker made charges of racism against Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club in New York, where she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly, who was at the club at the time, rushed over to Baker, took her by the arm and stormed out with her entire party, vowing to never return (and she never did). The two women became close friends after the incident.

Baker also worked with the NAACP. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d’honneur, she was the only woman to speak at the rally.

On April 8th, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris — Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business.  The revue, financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, opened to rave reviews. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening-night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.

Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She died at age 68 on April 12th, 1975 and was the first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral.

Here she is doing her famous “Banana Dance” at the Folies Bergère in Paris, France in 1927:

i.

Advertisements