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Est. April 5, 2002
March 21, 2019 - Issue 781

Remembering Josephine Baker

"Josephine Baker is witness to how America’s
cultural narratives, generation after generation,
rejecting the reality of black humanity, sanctions
a campaign of terrorism against Africans Americans."

‘I have walked into the palaces of kings
and queens and into
 the houses of presidents.

And much more.
But I could not walk into a hotel in America
and get a cup of coffee,

and that made me mad.
And when I get mad, you know
that I open my big mouth.

And then look out, ‘cause when Josephine
opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.’

Josephine Baker

‘You MUST get an education. You MUST go to school,

and you MUST learn to protect yourself!’

Josephine Baker in Josephine Baker, Catel Muller and Jose-Luis Bocquet

She prefers France, but her world is without borders.

By the time I heard someone mention her name, I was in high school. She lives away, somewhere in Europe. A dancer, somewhere in France. She’s not really black because Jim Crow does touch her beautiful feathers. She’s never cleaned a white woman’s kitchen or bathroom floor in the north. A wave of the hands. An eyebrow raised and subject changed as quick as the climate most of us are experiencing today.

And so, active already as a teen in Operation Breadbasket’s short-lived Resist movement, I don’t see Rosa Parks or Angela Davis. I can’t see the resister, let alone “the dancer.”

When Josephine Baker dies of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68 on April 12, 1975, I still knew next to nothing about her, except that she dressed scantily. The older generation of black women had even less to say of her.

End of story until 2004 or 2005 when I’m teaching at a small university campus in Platteville and a white colleague informs me, without my solicitation, that Josephine Baker, “as everyone knows,” slept with any and everyone!

I had no information in which to counter this accusation. Ignorance isn’t bliss! And I never forgot how I was speechless, unable to respond to an attack on the character of this black woman. I wasn’t able to speak from a base of knowledge.

When I’m studying the years between 1900-1945 in the US and in Europe, I didn’t come across any reference to Josephine in Paris. I knew James Baldwin lived there. So did Hemingway, T. S. Elliot, Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset, and Richard Wright for a time. It was the era of writers and poets from the US living and working in France.

Langston Hughes, writes scholar T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting in her Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris Between the Two World Wars (SUNY Press, 2015), arrives in Paris while its residents are confronting the devastation between the world wars I and II. In 1923-1924, Hughes, Sharpley-Whiting notes, fails to take into consideration that he’s arrived in France after a devastating war. In letters to Claude McKay, she writes, Hughes writes of filthy streets, shortages of food, and unemployed Frenchmen and women. Even homeless French!

But, in 1937, Hughes describes how Paris seems to treat African American women far better, however. Hughes writers:

In Paris, within the last decades, one after another three colored women have reign for a time as the bright particular stars of the night life of Montmartre. Princes, dukes, great artists, and kings of finance have all paid them homage (plus a very expensive cover charge) in brimming glasses of sparkling champagne lifted high in the wee hours of the morning.

While Hughes writes about Chez Bricktop, Florence Embry Jones, and Adelaide Hall, he has little to say about Josephine Baker.

When Hall arrives on the scene, and establishes Bricktop in France, the woman who is “Paris’s perennial favorite,” takes her routine to the Folies Berg�res. The rival between Hall and Baker is a small price to pay, writes Hughes “when cast side by side with the catch-as-catch-can murderous American racism.” In other words, the ladies fared better right where they were able to be themselves.

I wonder what Hughes would have made of Josephine the Civil Rights activists back home in the USA?

Hughes would never have seen Josephine Baker performing for a segregated audience in the US! No, No! Not La Baker!

Joe Bouillon, Josephine’s fourth husband, reveals in his memoir that Coretta Scott King asked Josephine to take over the leadership of the Civil Rights movement after the assassination of Dr. King. In Josephine, the senior Josephine was mother of twelve adopted children she called the Rainbow Tribe. She couldn’t leave the children. Who would care for them?

For those in the know, the request wasn’t as incredulous as it sounds to someone unfamiliar with Josephine Baker’s history and her connection to the Civil Rights movement. Josephine, determined to pursue the idea of democracy and freedom, exercised her right to be a leader, a risk taker, even as America indulges it’s history of destruction, as James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, “destroying hundreds of thousands of lives,” and not wanting to know it!

Josephine is asked by Dr. Martin L. King to speak at the March on Washington in 1963. And, although Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates are present, seated somewhere behind the men and King, the only woman to speak for eight minutes is Josephine Baker!

This is just a brief note to express my deepest gratitude to you for all of your kind expressions of support.” This is Dr. Martin L. King to Josephine after the historical event. “We were inspired by your presence at the March on Washington. I am deeply moved by the fact that you would fly such a long distance to participate in that momentous event. We were further inspired that you returned to the States to do a benefit for the civil rights organizations.”

Josephine’s unrehearsed display of freedom is a trial run. She has, as we all do, one chance. Mistakes will be made, but she decides to live after witnessing at an early age in the US anything but freedom and equality for African American women. In the Guardian interview, published August 26, 1974, Josephine declares that for her, there are two evils left in the world: America and South Africa. “‘I’ll always remember East St. Louis. It had a terrible effect on me...’”

Born Freda J. McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker is witness to how America’s cultural narratives, generation after generation, rejecting the reality of black humanity, sanctions a campaign of terrorism against Africans Americans. In 1917, she’s a child in the whirlwind of white violence. For two days in early July, whites burn down black homes and terrorize African Americans with impunity. The child Josephine glimpses pregnant women disemboweled and black men lynched, she tells the Guardian interviewer. As her family’s home is set ablaze, she and her father are among the 6,000 blacks fleeing St. Louis on those days that will, for Josephine, remain a memory of horror—at home!

Systemic oppression and torture, Josephine Baker witnesses, begins with the violation of civic and moral borders.

As historian Alfred McCoy writes in The Nation, on February 28, 2019, weeks after Columbus’s first voyage in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issues a decree to the Spanish Crown: You have “perpetual sovereignty” over the lands west of the “mid-Atlantic line” so that the “barbarian nations” can be “overthrown and bought to the [Catholic] faith.” And Portugal—the Papal Bull of 1455—affirmed by me!

Without hesitation, Josephine leaves the entertainment stage and, donning a military uniform, she enlists her services as a resister of Fascism!

The 1986 documentary, Chasing A Rainbow: The Life of Josephine Baker, implies that given Josephine’s limited formal education she was politically naive. While Josephine doesn’t recognize the intent to conquer Ethiopia by an invading Italian army, how many citizens of Europe and the US, confronted with black and white newsreels, would have recognized the confident voice of the conqueror’s narrator? Crossing the borders of an African nation with the proverbial supply of “blankets” or “special advisers” is no less conquest than crossing with guns drawn and firing with impunity. Neither approaches are intended to benefit the Ethiopians.

But what she experienced in the US as a child—the racism and bigotry, the normalization of injustice followed by the practice of cruelty—that she didn’t mistake for anything but heinous crimes against humanity.

It’s not the GUN but the PEN! Protect yourself against the PEN! “Then you can answer them!” 

Josephine knew who she was, knew her place as a human being who saw no borders.

Would Langston Hughes have known if Josephine risked her life to be on the right side of history? Would Hughes have sang of Josephine, laughing, eating well, and growing strong as everything she did was to pave a way for her children and all black children in Africa and the Diaspora to one day be seen as beautiful and brave—just as she saw us?

So yes, Josephine Baker will drive that ambulance during WWII and she’ll relay secret information to allies—information written on her sheet music, in invisible ink! Josephine Baker, the first African American in major motion picture, the 1927 silent film, Siren of the Tropics becomes the first American-born woman to receive the highest French military honor, the Croix de Guerre. And, it’s La Baker receiving the Chevalier of the Legion d’ Honneur from the resistance leader, General Charles de Gaulle.

And maybe Langston Hughes knows little of this as I knew none of this about La Baker.

In real time, France thanks La Baker.

In her lifetime, Josephine Baker matters to the people who acknowledge her not only as a talented entertainer but also as a human being conscience of her responsibility as a citizen of the world.

In Catel Muller and Jose-Luis Bocquet’s Josephine Baker, the writer Ernest Hemingway sat for hours in conversation with Josephine. Sidney Bechet noted how Josephine and Louis Douglas danced in 1925 France. The two “danced the Charleston and nobody in Europe had seen that dance before, and that really started something,” Bechet said.

In 1927, Colette have Josephine a copy of L’Envers du-music-hall (the Underside of the Music Hall), a novel. “She adored Josephine, whom she called her ‘little brown daughter.’” In turn, Josephine weeps until the letter from Colette “‘yellowed.’” And Le Corbusier brings her to tears too when he attends her performances in Sao Paolo and in Rio. “Soon she began singing for him without witnesses.”

One day, Le Corbusier dresses up like Josephine. And she says of him, “‘He’s irresistibly funny. Oh! Monsieur Le Corbusier, what a shame you’re an architect! You’d have made such a good partner!’”

Sammy Davis, Jr. greets her with a “‘Madame Bker,’” with a French accent, of course.

Grace Kelly comes to her rescue when, an older Josephine is looking to secure a home to accompany herself and her 12 adopted children, the Rainbow Tribe. “‘The Prince and I lent her money that she needed for the down payment and I called upon the executive committee to provide the rest.’”

Years before, the actress, Kelly, found herself “‘amazed by [Josephine’s] beauty and by the courage that it all represented.’”

And then there’s Fidel…

In 1966, in Cuba, three continents were represented in a coalition “of anti-imperialists forces.” Some 86 countries, including Vietnam (H Chi Minh), Ahmed Ben Bella (Algeria), Salvador Allende (Chile), and Che Guevara (Cuba) represented the majority populations of the world. The Cuban Embassy in Paris sends Josephine Baker a “very official invitation,” as “a salute to her involvement in the fight against racial segregation.”

Josephine accepts and when she arrives a crowd cheers her she’s on the Plaza de la Revolutin.

And Josephine tells the Cuban press: “‘The Transcontinental is an amazing thing, with all these people of different countries, languages, skin colours. I consider myself extremely lucky to sing in front of such an audience. The whole human race untied as one family.’”

Josephine Baker isn’t unaware of the attempts made against Fidel Castro’s life. In fact, according to writer Roger Faligot in 2013, it’s Josephine who, during the conference in 1966, relays a message from French intelligence: there will be an attempt on Fidel’s life. So when she returns to Cuba six months later with her Rainbow Tribe, the later grown children recall hearing a speech by “‘Uncle Fidel.’”

When Josephine receives word of Che Guevara’s assassination, she sends Fidel a letter to let him know, Josephine in France mourns with Cuba.

But we, in the US, even in black and communities of color, hear only of the white men, the American literati and their exploits in France—the one’s who called on her, invited her to speak, to perform, to sing. La Baker’s life was lived acknowledging life. What better way to resist systemic perpetuation of violence against humanity.

‘You know I have always taken the rocky path.  I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path, and I tried to smooth it out a little.  I wanted to make it easier for you.  I want you to have a chance at what I had.  But I do not want you to have to run away to get it.  And mothers and fathers, if it is too late for you, think of your children.  Make it safe here so they do not have to run away, for I want for you and your children what I had.’ (From Josephine Baker, “Speech at the March on Washington,” 1963)

Josephine lies down, peacefully. Glowing reviews serve as her crown.

Bravo, La Baker! Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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