Black History Month: Josephine Baker First Black Broadway Entertainer


June 3rd 1906- April 12 1975 (age 68)

Her most successful song was j’ai deluxe amours released in 1931

I had only heard of Josephine Baker from references used to her in popular culture, I did not know what she had accomplished in her lifetime. Until the beginning of my black history research this month I thought barely dressed costumes and dance. Her face is not used nearly half as much as her costumers yet she is still a memorable figure in black entertainment and Broadway.

Born in St Louis, Missouri music was always in her blood watching her mother’s dreams of becoming a dancer fall apart. She experienced racial tensions early down in the south of America working for wealthy white families. She was responsible for house cleaning and babysitting once was scolding for using too much soap in the laundry. School was not for Josephine and she left fending for herself living on the streets.

The South was full of soul and Josephine made a name for herself becoming a street dancer, discovered at the tender age of 15 Josephine was recruited for the St Louis Chorus vaudeville show and on the road to New York she performed in Broadway musical Chocolate Dandies quickly becoming a crowd favourite. Billed as the highest paid chorus girl in Vaudeville.

Josephine talents did not solely lie in her dancing it was her ability to captivate an audience; she made them laugh whilst making sophisticated dance moves like the Charleston look effortless. At the peak of the French obsession with Jazz and all things exotic she was embraced warmly by the French nation. She was the first black female to star in a major motion picture Zouzou in 1934.

Josephine had a number of on stage props she used as entertainment, her costumes where one, In Paris she performed the Danse sausage wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made from artificial bananas. She arose a new interest in fashion popularizing African cultured clothing. She would also take to the stage with her pet cheetah. The audience found it comical due to the cheetah often escaping and terrifying the orchestra pit. She became a muse for contemporary authors, painters Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior.

Despite popularity in France it was not replicated in America 1935 America rejected the idea that a black woman could be so sophisticated or that one should be staring in the Ziegfeld follies and was replaced by gypsy rose lee, time magazine referred to  her as a negro wench.

In September 1939 when France declared war on Germany, as an entertainer Baker had an excuse for moving around Europe, collecting what information she could about German troupe locations from officials she met at parties. Information about airfields, harbours and German troops camps in the west of France were written in invisible ink on Josephine’s sheet music. This led her to become even more of a bigger icon in France.

During her rise to stardom racial tensions had yet to die down in the Southern states of America. Racial segregation ran the states and the blacks suffered harshly from the ill treatment of the white supreme states. Josephine stood for the cause of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement and refused to perform for segregated audiences in America. During the 1950’s she arrived in New York with her husband they were refused reservations at 36 hotels because she was black. Her insistences on mixed audiences helped to integrate shows in Las Vegas at the time one of the most segregated states in America. She often received threatening calls from the Ku Klux Klan but was not afraid of them because they knew they could not touch her due her French status. She spoke at the march in Washington at the side of Martin Luther king.

Despite rumours of bankruptcy Josephine Baker lived in a castle in France with her 12 adopted children. She referred to her children as the rainbow tribe, due to each child representing 12 different races. Her aim was to show that no matter what colour a family are they all can live in harmony.

Rainbow tribe 1 French daughter 1 Moroccan daughter 10 sons Korean Japanese Colombian Finnish French Israeli Algerian Ivorian and Venezuelan.

She died age 68 on April 12th 1975. They say she was found peacefully in her bed surrounded by clippings of reviews of her last performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage to me it sounds a tad bit dramatic but hey who ever said history couldn’t be wrong?

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