by Naa Kai Koppoe
Despite her color, Josephine Baker was able to achieve immense success while living in Paris. At the mere mention of her name, minds immediately think of her sensuous and spontaneous dance movements. People also think of her most iconic dance costume, the banana skirt. Josephine was not solely a dancer but also an actress, a singer, a civil rights activist.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born on June 3, 1906, in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her mother Carrie McDonald, grandmother Elvira and grand aunt Caroline raised her intermittently. Josephine never knew who her real father was despite her mother’s insistence that it was a black man named Eddie Carson. Her childhood was rather unstable and turbulent. Her mother’s love was extremely conditional, and because Josephine had lighter skin, she often felt left out and unwanted. She was sent to live with various people to work for money, but the jobs did not work out and she moved back in with her mother, stepfather, Arthur Martin, and her three siblings.
Dance allowed Josephine to escape her hectic and harsh life. She often skipped school and spent her time at the Booker T. Washington Theatre. On occasion Josephine went with her brother, Richard, and sister, Margaret, and they watched movies, musical comedies, and vaudeville acts (Baker 26). At the theater she was able to be close to music and various forms of performance. She spent time imitating the dancers she saw on stage as well as the various street dances. Josephine learned to imitate the various forms of dance she saw and the dancers became both her inspiration and her idols. From time to time she would perform for people outside of the theater and people would throw coins at her feet (Baker 26). She grew to love the attention she received from her dance; it made her feel that she was accepted. Another source of comfort was the Jones family, who were traveling musicians. They taught her how to play the trombone, and she traveled with them to play at various restaurants.
Josephine went on tour with the Jones family on the T.O.B.A. circuit with the Dixie Steppers who were in need of an act. The Jones family band and Josephine performed two spots and Josephine was also given an opportunity to do a short comedic dance (Wood 37). While on tour she heard about the black musical Shuffle Along, and she instantly knew she wanted take part in it. She was accepted and throughout the show she showed her humorous form of dancing, and the audience fell in love with her. Josephine loved to make funny faces, and she was very energetic in her dance. In one show she had a part as a cupid, and the harness got stuck, but she knew how to improvise so she just started acting up and the audience thought it was hilarious. She moved to New York and continued to perform in Shuffle Along afterwards, she spent eight months touring with the Chocolate Dandies. A socialite, Caroline Dudley Regan, approached Josephine about an opportunity to join an all-black dance troupe that she was putting together (Baker 91). Josephine agreed to go because nothing was holding her back
Josephine Baker arrived in Paris on September 25, 1925. On October 2, 1925 Josephine was introduced to Paris in La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Josephine was the “first star to sing and dance and also appear half naked” (Wood 79). At the same time French people were unsure of whether to be in awe or disgust of her savage dancing that involved “unbridled sexuality” (Wood 84). This was rather risqué at the time because only the dancers in the chorus line were bare-chested; Josephine made her mark as the first star of a show to dance naked. This musical launched her into fame due to her unique form of dancing and the humor and life she put into her movements. Ultimately French people embraced Josephine because she fit their “imaginary black ideal”, and she became a success (Wood 85). Josephine left La Revue Nègre to join La Folie Du Jour in 1926. During this show she first wore her soon-to-be iconic banana skirts (Rosette 287). Josephine was a success in the shows she performed in, and she soon branched out into other forms of entertainment.
Under the influence of Giuseppe Pepito Abatino, her manager, she expanded into singing and acting. She released many recordings and toured many European countries and her films include Princess Tam Tam, ZouZou, and French Ways. Although she was praised for her singing and acting, she is most revered for her dance. During World War II, Josephine, eager to help with war efforts, performed for the Allied troops and began to work for Free France. She was also a civil rights activist and refused to perform in front of segregated crowds (Rosette 221). She had the privilege of being the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.
Josephine never achieved the same level of success in the United States as she did in France. This was in part due to the racism that was rampant throughout the nation. In Paris, Josephine enjoyed life without racial discrimination. Although she had been told of the racial equality in France, she was still surprised when she arrived and received a warm welcome from the citizens. Here she was treated equally, and due to the extreme racial inequality she faced in both St. Louis and New York, Paris was a welcome change. She also was in Paris when Parisian interest in blacks was at an all-time high. This was in part due to Parisians interest in black culture. In Paris, people were more willing to give her chances that she was not likely to have received had she been in the U.S. This also explains why she branched out into other forms of entertainment.
Josephine Baker went to Paris with a dream, and she worked hard to achieve the life she wanted for herself. She grew up with dance and music as her escape from her reality. She used the drive and determination she was forced to have as a kid, and worked hard to reach all of the goals she set for herself. Her life in Paris was a stark contrast to the life she had growing up in the United States. Life in Paris inspired her to work for racial equality, and she remained steadfast in her beliefs. Paris is where Josephine Baker was allowed to be free and do what she wanted, and she excelled in all that she did. Josephine Baker was an extremely talented dancer, but she did so much more than simply dance around the stage in a banana skirt.
Baker, Jean-Cluade, and Chris Chase. Josephine: The Hungry Heart. New York: Random House, 1993. Book.
Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. Josephine Baker in art and life: The Icon and the Image. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Book.
Wood, Ean. The Josephine Baker Story. London: Sanctuary Publishing Limited, 2000. Book.