Legends: Josephine Baker

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Editor’s note: Our very own Hella Goode has her very first book out (under her legal name, of course)! We couldn’t be more proud of her! You’ll check it out, won’t you? 101 Mexico City Travel Tips

Legends: Josephine Baker
Story: Hella Goode

When Frida Kahlo painted her double self-portrait, the Two Fridas, she couldn’t possibly have been imagining that she would meet another Frida one day that would enchant her so.

The other ‘Frida’ in the rumored love affair, was actually born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri to Carrie McDonald and drummer Eddie Carson, who hesitated very little in abandoning the new mother and child. She would later choose to go by her middle name, Josephine. After a series of family changes and a few short-lived marriages, she would become the legend known today as Josephine Baker, sometimes called ‘Black Venus,’ ‘Black Pearl,’ or ‘Creole Goddess.’ Josephine was renown worldwide for many of her passions, dancing, singing, mothering a menagerie of unusual pets, rallying for Civil Rights and setting the example for such adoption-happy celebs as Mia Farrow and Angelina Jolie, with her dozen adopted multicultural children which she lovingly referred to as the “Rainbow Tribe.”

One might ask, how did a black woman shoot to such fame and success at a time when racial restraints would not let her so much as sit in the front of the bus in the United States? Josephine mentions, “One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States…A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore…I felt liberated in Paris.”

Before departing for Paris, she had performed in the first all-black Broadway musical, Shuffle Along in 1922 at the age of 16 in New York. In 1925, she joined La Revue Nègre in Paris. Her performance with her partner, Joe Alex in the Danse Sauvage made her a star. She then took on La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater. Meanwhile in 1926 she recorded music for the first time ever. She briefly returned to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall, where she never before would have been accepted, but after her success in Europe and social growth in the Civil Rights movement, she was given a standing ovation.

In France, she starred in movies and on stage. Off stage she lead her life the way she saw fit. She became iconic, known for her exotic beauty, although she mocked it, saying her good feature was her legs, and the rest of her body was simply ‘amusing.’ She had presence that few other stars had.

Her films included:
La Sirène des Tropiques (1927)
Josephine plays a tropical beauty who aspires to dance in Paris. She was used to overacting for the live stage and thus gave an exaggerated performance which later haunted her.

Zouzou (1934)
Josephine portrays Zouzou, a circus performer in love with the man who plays her twin brother, but leaves her for another woman.

Princess Tam Tam (1935)
Josephine takes on the role of a primitive woman again, introduced to the French culture by a man.

The French Way (1945)
Josephine plays a cabaret performer named Zazu.

One can speculate as to why, despite being such a proponent of equal rights, she would accept roles as a ‘savage,’ however, she made sure that she was not pigeonholed as such. She was civilized in all other aspects of her life, after, her favorite food was spaghetti.

Josephine never left the United States behind completely. She kept vigilant watch over the events going on in the Civil Rights movement while enjoying her success in France. By the time she had amped her popularity in film and on stage in Europe, becoming one of the best if not, the highest paid performer of her time and ranking amongst the most photographed women in the world, she knew she had a new mission, to aid in the fight for Civil Rights in the United States. She was invited to speak at the 1963 march on Washington DC, where Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech still runs shivers down the spines of those who hear it. “Until the March on Washington,” Josephine stated, “I always had this little feeling in my stomach. I was always afraid. I couldn’t meet white American people. I didn’t want to be around them. But now that little gnawing feeling is gone. For the first time in my life I feel free. I know that everything is right now.” Josephine continued to help the cause by refusing to perform or appear in places that did not allow blacks to enter or refused them seating. She was very public about her stance on equality, even when it meant open and public media battles.

How ironic for the spirit of political activism to come from the woman most known for the image of the costume she wore for the Danse Banane. It was nothing more than about a dozen bananas strewn together to make a less than skimpy skirt. Josephine gave new meaning to many things, but she topped the sweet cake by showing us what Chiquita Bananas really meant with this one. She wasn’t recognized for being very modest in her costumes, but often wore revealing and sensual digs, performing and posing topless as well, which was not nearly as scandalous in France in the 1920’s and 1930’s as it was in the United States. It took until the 1950’s in Las Vegas for American girls and venues to accept the daring challenge of having topless showgirls. She lit up the venue no matter what she did, taken over by the thrill of the stage. … “I improvised, crazed by the music… Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever. Each time I leaped I seemed to touch the sky and when I regained earth it seemed to be mine alone,” she said.

She died at the age of 69 on April 12, 1975 in Paris, France of cerebral hemorrhage, a recognized contributor to the victory of World War II on the French side, earning her a 21-gun salute, an American Civil Rights activist, the cause of the contagious jazz bug in Europe, amongst other achievements including giving hope to those who had none. She was honored with the presence of over 20,000 people in her funeral procession and status as a stage legend, inspiring women of her time and future generations to not let beautiful and bold be determined by the opinion of the masses, but to simply bleed it from the inside out.

For more: http://www.cmgww.com/stars/baker/

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