‘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.’
‘You MUST get an education.
You MUST go to school,
and you MUST learn to protect
Josephine Baker in Josephine Baker, Catel Muller and
She prefers France, but her world is
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
in 1937, Hughes describes how Paris seems to treat African American
women far better, however. Hughes writers:
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.
Hughes writes about Chez Bricktop, Florence Embry Jones, and Adelaide
Hall, he has little to say about Josephine Baker.
Hall arrives on the scene, and establishes Bricktop in France, the
woman who is “Paris’s perennial favorite,” takes
her routine to the Folies Bergéres. 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
wonder what Hughes would have made of Josephine the Civil Rights
activists back home in the USA?
would never have seen Josephine Baker performing for a segregated
audience in the US! No, No! Not La Baker!
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?
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!
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!
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.”
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...’”
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
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
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!
hesitation, Josephine leaves the entertainment stage and, donning a
military uniform, she enlists her services as a resister of Fascism!
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.
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
knew who she was, knew her place as a human being who saw no borders.
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?
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.
maybe Langston Hughes knows little of this as I knew none of this
about La Baker.
real time, France thanks La Baker.
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.
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.
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.”
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!’”
Davis, Jr. greets her with a “‘Madame Béker,’”
with a French accent, of course.
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.’”
before, the actress, Kelly, found herself “‘amazed by
[Josephine’s] beauty and by the courage that it all
then there’s Fidel…
1966, in Cuba, three continents were represented in a coalition “of
anti-imperialists forces.” Some 86 countries, including Vietnam
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.”
accepts and when she arrives a crowd cheers her she’s on the
Plaza de la Revolutión.
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
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
Josephine receives word of Che Guevara’s assassination, she
sends Fidel a letter to let him know, Josephine in France mourns with
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.
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!