Josephine Baker

by Sophia Gerling

Josephine Baker Biography

Josephine Baker, birth name Freda Josephine McDonald, was born on June 3, 1906. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, was difficult for her family. In Josephine’s early teenage years, she held jobs such as cleaning houses and babysitting. She met a man named Willie Wells at age thirteen while working as a waitress, and married him shortly after. Josephine's marriage turned sour, so she obtained a divorce and remarried three more times, keeping her second husband’s name. Later, in 1919, Josephine toured the United States with the Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers. She auditioned for Sissle and Blake’s production of Shuffle Along, but was rejected because they saw her as “too skinny and too dark”, so she worked backstage. After a dancer fell ill, the directors turned to the crew for a replacement, and Josephine was chosen. Her performances on stage began her comedic career. Josephine’s rolling eyes and intentional clumsiness drew the audience to the shows. She then traveled to Paris to star in La Revue Negre, which was the turning point of her career. Although she was already a success, her famous, and sensual,“banana dance” in La Folie du Jour made her into an overnight celebrity. During her time in the show, she earned nicknames such as “Black Venus” and “Black Pearl”, and received an estimated 1,250 marriage proposals. Coming back to America as a French celebrity proved to be a disaster. The public loathed the idea of a black woman having sophistication and fame. So, she ended up returning to the country who treated her as one of its own; France.

During World War II, Josephine became a member of the French Resistance. She did things such as smuggle hidden messages in her sheet music, and even her underwear. She was also a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Awarded for her efforts, she was given the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Also during this time, Josephine began adoptions of her twelve children, which she nicknamed the “Rainbow Tribe”. All of the twelve children were of different ethnicities. Josephine wanted to prove that different races could live in harmony together. On April 12, 1975, Josephine Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was buried in France with military honors and a farewell, 21-gun salute.

Impact on the 1920's

Josephine supported the American Civil Rights Movement and was the only woman to speak at the parade led by Martin Luther King, Jr. She also protested against racism by adopting multi-ethnic orphans and proving that they can live side by side. Refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences, Josephine helped integrate shows in Las Vegas. During World War II, she worked with the French Resistance and was awarded for her contributions. Finally, just by being a dancer, she empowered women and proved that it was okay to break out of shells and embrace the new 20's "woman".

Josephine Baker's Famous Banana Dance

Josephine Baker's Banana Dance

Movie Questions

1. What was Josephine's skirt made out of?

2. How do you think American audiences reacted to Josephine?

Significant Images