The atypical upbringing and unwavering ambition of Josephine Baker would lead her down an unpredictable path of history. While she was primarily known for her eccentric performances during her time, she would become known in history as more than just a black dancer and activist. Josephine Baker is a remarkable role model for girls and people of color.
Born to Entertain
Josephine Baker was born into a family of entertainers in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906 (Norwood). Throughout her childhood, her parents would often let her perform with them in front of segregated audiences. As Baker’s parents had little success in the entertainment industry, Baker had to find work elsewhere and dance on the street for money when she could not find work. At the age of only 15, Baker was offered a spot in an African American theatre troupe and accepted without hesitation.
Her participation and success in traveling with the troupe to perform in various Vaudeville shows led her to move to New York City. The Harlem Renaissance was still in bloom during her time there, so the demand for and celebration of black art and culture quickly rewarded her.
To progress her career in the performing arts, Baker eventually moved to Paris and had the opportunity to act in major motion pictures in Europe. While Baker’s success in entertainment alone is a historic feat, she even used her position as an entertainer to aid French war efforts.
Fighting Against Fascism and Racism
During World War II, the invasion of France by Nazi Germany saw Baker performing in front of Nazi audiences. Baker listened to secrets she heard from the enemy and write them on music sheets with invisible ink (Griffith). At this point, Baker could be considered a full-fledged spy. While black women like Baker were arrested for trying to register to vote in the United States, she served as a sub-lieutenant in the French air force. The irony of this racial injustice was not lost on Josephine Baker when she occasionally returned to the United States to perform.
In her own manner of activism, Baker would refuse to perform at venues that did not permit an integrated audience. Even still, she endured her fair share of racism. During the same tour that saw her desegregate Las Vegas casinos for her performances, she was registered to the FBI wish-list and stripped of her US citizenship. In New York City, Baker had reported racism of a restaurant owner who would not serve her, but she was the one who was punished after already being discriminated against. After more than a decade without her citizenship, Robert F. Kennedy helped Baker return to the United States to speak at the March on Washington in 1963.
Baker was the only woman to speak at the March on Washington, and her speech emphasized the stark contrasts between racial equality in the United States and Europe. A famous excerpt representing the tone of the speech is as follows: “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens … But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee.” This powerful quote demonstrates the differences in the rights of people of color across the Atlantic Ocean. The juxtaposition of her experiences in both places stresses the wrongdoings in the American society.
Baker Is A Symbol of Raw Female Power
As she embraced and flaunted her femininity in her youth, she grew to use the platform that she earned to combat Nazis and then later combat racial inequality. She was never afraid to do what she wanted and is an incredibly important figure regarding racial and gender equality because of her unstoppable can-do attitude. As a new wave of feminism emerges, teaching women to love their femininity and find power in it, Josephine Baker is a prime example of just the kind of power women can have.
Griffith, Joanne. “Josephine Baker: From Exotic Dancer to Activist.” BBC Culture, BBC, 2014, www.bbc.com/culture/article/20141222-from-exotic-dancer-to-activist.
Norwood, Arlisha. “Josephine Baker.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/josephine-baker.