Born Freda Josephine MacDonald, Josephine Baker (June 3 1906- April 12 1975) was an African American entertainer who is often considered to be the first black superstar. She enjoyed relative success in 1922 as she began her career in the first all black Broadway musical, Shuffle Along. However it was when she left for France that she experienced stardom and success that was unheard of for an African American in the 1920s. Baker spent the majority of her life and stardom in France, and has since become iconic in many ways.

Initially Baker arrived in Paris in 1925 aged 19 to become a dancer in La Revue Nègre. Her comic, unique interpretation and performance made her an overnight sensation and soon she became a major celebrity throughout Europe. Baker was revolutionary in that she brought new comedy and eroticism to dancing, her moves were in direct contrast to the accepted classical lines of western dance. Phyliss Rose described her dancing in this way, “She was a revelation of possibilities in human nature they hadn’t suspected. The animal inside of every human being wasn’t dark, tormented, savage. It was good-natured, lively, sexy rather than sensual, above all funny.” Her most famous dance was Danse Banane, the banana dance, which involved her donning a skirt made of 16 artificial bananas. Such choices of costume and her mimicry of minstrel moves which demonstrated aspects of the stereotypes attached to black people have continued to make Baker a controversial figure in the debate on black agency.

On the one hand, as Richard J. Powell argues, she was a ‘willing subject and participant’, in "the ‘race renewal agenda: one that probed uninhibitedly the more sordid and stereotypical terrains of a black identity.” Powell likens Baker to Claude McKay, Carl Van Vechten and other artists who also engaged in thi

s ‘forbidden exploration’ of cultural primitivism and racist stereotypes. However, as Janet Flanner stated, “Her magnificent dark body, a new model to the French, proved for the first time that black was beautiful.” Arguably, this empowerment and level of acceptance was more important a stage for blacks at this time than attempting to reform whites views entirely.

She also had an extremely successful career as a singer, recording for the first time in 1926 and this became central to her career and fame. Baker was also the first African American to star in a major motion picture, the silent film Siren of the Tropics (1927), she also starred in two movies in the 30s, Zou-Zou (1934) and Princess Tam-Tam (1935). Baker’s celebrity status brought with it legions of fans, who famously sent her lavish gifts and she received around 1,500 marriage proposals. As her official site states, ‘Josephine rivaled Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford as the most photographed woman in the world, and by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe’. Baker was a muse to many artists, including Pablo Picasso, who said of her,  “She is the Nefertiti of now.”, comparing her to the glamorous, symbolic queen of Ancient Egypt.

Baker was central in the introduction of the  and the Jazz Age to Europe which also contributed to the start of the craze known as ‘’ in 1920s Paris. Negrophilia, which literally means ‘love of the negro’, was a term used by avant-garde artists and bohemians and was a period of sudden and intense interest in black culture. It was interest in the Africa, the subject of ‘primitivism’ and black art, music and dance. To enjoy black culture was to be fashionable and modern. Baker’s shows epitomized all Negrophilia meant and she was the most popular entertainer of the period. Furthermore, she also reflected many aspects of the emerging 1920s movement, Exposition des Arts Décoratifs - ‘Art Deco’. The new angles and silhouettes brought by Baker to dance reflect and inspired the style of Art Deco, which is based around mathematical geometric shapes. Furthermore, the designers of this movement were influenced partially by ‘primitive’ African arts and also by modernism, two seemingly contradictory themes which Baker too encompassed.

Whilst she was a superstar in Europe, white America refused to accept Baker as an entertainer.  In 1936 Baker went back to America with the Ziegfeld Follies but the trip was an unmitigated disaster. She was shocked by the way racism was still so central and pervasive in American culture. Her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon said “Josephine left Paris rich, adored, famous throughout Europe. But in New York, in spite of the publicity that preceded her arrival, she was received as an uppity colored girl.” Despite her worldwide stardom she still experienced racial discrimination, the show was heavily criticised and she was referred to in one newspaper as a ‘Negro wench’.

On returning to France in 1937, she became a French citizen. Her view was that,  “It [the Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty?”. Despite her ever-increasing success in Europe, racism prevented her from being fully accepted and appreciated in America until 1973, when she returned to perform at Carnegie Hall and was treated equally and received rave reviews.

Despite not being accepted into the mainstream as an entertainer in the U.S., Baker was an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. She was a member of the and was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington. Baker also launched a very public media-battle with pro-segregation writers after she was refused service at the New York Stock Club. As a personal principle Baker refused to perform to segregated audiences, which helped towards integrating shows. Following the death of Martin Luther King she was even asked to become the new leader of the movement, which after much deliberation she declined.

Another controversial aspect of Baker’s life was her choice to adopt twelve multi-national children whom she affectionately named them the ‘Rainbow Tribe’. Baker had a miscarriage in 1941 and never had any children of her own. From the 1950s she adopted children from different parts of the world to demonstrate that different ‘races’ could be brothers and sisters. As she said, “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”
During World War II Baker was an important contributor to the French Resistance as a morale-booster and as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She sent presents and sang for the troops - as long as they weren’t segregated. She argued,“We’ve got to show that blacks and whites are treated equally in the army. Otherwise, what’s the point of waging war on Hitler?”. She even risked transporting resistance correspondence in her clothing in the hope that her celebrity would prevent her from being searched, using her job as an entertainer as an excuse to travel and deliver information and passports within France, to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Following the war she received the Croix de guerre, the first American born woman to do so, and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

Baker starred in Joséphine aged 69 and died a few days after the 14th performance in 1975. 20,000 people attended her funeral in Paris. The legacy she has left can be traced through history, especially in the entertainment world: African American singers such as Shirley Bassey and Diana Ross have named her an important inspiration to their work. Many artists such as Kara Walker have depicted her as a symbol of African American history: the iconic image of her figure in a banana skirt is instantly recognisable. The sensation she caused in Europe and the effect she had on the black image in white mind makes her a crucial figure when discussing the .  

Contributed by HGF


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