“Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone”
– Josephine Baker
You’ve surely heard about it on the news. Josephine Baker was the first black woman to be honoured in the Pantheon in Paris, France, on the 30th November 2021. But you must be asking yourself, “Why?”. Well, hold your horses. All in good time! Let’s start from the very beginning.
Josephine Baker was born on the 3rd of June 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her family was poor and she was black. She died aged 68 on 12th April 1975 in Paris. Throughout her very hectic and eventful life, she was a singer, dancer, actress, civil rights activist, member of the French Resistance, but above all a very honourable person.
Josephine was 8 years old when she started to work as a live-in maid for white families in St. Louis. At 11, she witnessed her first scene of racial violence (and she would witness many more in the years to come). She married William Howard Baker in 1921 when she was only 15 years old, but got a divorce in 1925.
Her career started to encounter success in 1925 when the bad relationship she had with her mother, and the daily racism she suffered pushed her to go to France. In an interview with The Guardian, she said that, “I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first coloured Americans to move to Paris”. Her most famous dance was called the “Danse Sauvage” in the musical named “La Revue Nègre”, where she only wore a skirt made out of artificial bananas. She even performed in the well-known cabaret named “Les Folies Bergères”. Ernest Hemingway even said that Josephine Baker was, “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”.
Although Baker was popular in France, she wasn’t in America (an extremely racist country at that time).
“I wanted to get far away from those who believed in cruelty, so then I went to France, a land of true freedom, democracy, equality, and fraternity.”
Indeed, Time Magazine spoke of her as a “Negro (sic) wench… whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside Paris”. This is partly what made her give up her American citizenship.
World war II
Josephine Baker was recruited by the French Intelligence Military Agency. Her job was basically to spy on Germany. She socialised with Germans, charming them whilst gathering information. After that, she went to live in her house in Dordogne. That’s when she started working for the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle. She housed people working for the Resistance as well as providing them with visas. But she didn’t stop at that. She travelled to the French colonies in Africa, Morocco, and Spain, spreading ideas of resisting the enemy. After the war, she was greatly rewarded by the Resistance Medal, Croix de Guerre, AND named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
In her private life, Josephine Baker had many disappointments. She had so many miscarriages that she had to have a hysterectomy. Seeing as she couldn’t have children anymore, she adopted twelve infants of different ethnicities and from different countries.
During the part of her career which took place in the U.S. Josephine had to face extreme racism coming from her audience. She was so determined to stop this, that she refused to perform in front of segregated audiences. This led to her receiving threatening calls from the Ku Klux Klan.
“I ran away from St. Louis, and then I ran away from the United States, because of that terror of discrimination.”
But publicly she declared that she wasn’t afraid of them. Once, she and her husband had to ask 36 different hotels before finding one which didn’t refuse them because of the colour of their skin! It would be understandable if Josephine hadn’t wanted to go back to the U.S. But she did, wanting to fight racism. Indeed, she joined the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. She even worked with the W.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). In 1963, she spoke during the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. On that day she wore her Free French uniform.
A brave and determined woman
Josephine Baker was an astonishingly brave, intelligent, and wonderful woman who earned her place in Pantheon in Paris. We should never forget what she has done to fight racism in France and the U.S.A.