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josephine baker: queer, radical, artist & activist

June 3, 2019
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Not even Shonda Rhimes could have written the story of Josephine Baker. What kind of woman manages to leave a legacy as one of the greatest performers to ever do it, a civil rights activist and a World War II spy? A Black one. 

113 years ago in St. Louis, Missouri, Freda Josephine McDonald was born. To some she was known as Black Pearl, Jazz Cleopatra and Bronze Venus. To most we know her as Josephine Baker, a dancer, singer, actress, entertainer, anti-fascist heroine, bisexual icon, spy for the French Resistance in WWII, civil rights activist, and overall dreamboat. Today, she is remembered as radical.

We could start at the beginning but I’d rather start at Paris, a place that Baker is synonymous with. She was not from France, but it was home — the place that accepted and adored her. It was the place that fell in love with a young Josephine Baker making her the biggest, richest Black female star in the world. Before Josephine arrived in Paris in 1926, at 20 years old, life was not easy. She was poor and began work at 8 years old as a live-in domestic where she was treated badly. At just 13 she was married for a brief amount of time. 

Life changed when Baker was 15. With Vaudeville in her blood (her mother and absent father are rumored to have had a song and dance act), she was recruited to the St. Louis Chorus Vaudeville Show. Perfectly placed, Baker was at the end of the chorus line, a challenging position that required more than vocals and rhythm but comedy too. The last person on the chorus line is one that dances as if they do not know any of the steps only to perform the entire routine perfectly during the encore. She was so good at this that people took notice eventually making her the “highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville”.  

Josephine Baker, cross-eyed and wearing hoop earrings with chin resting on angled shelf. (Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene/Condé Nast via Getty Images)


Ms. Baker’s success in France had to do with the country’s ever-growing fascination with Black jazz culture and African art. This fascination mixed in with the unexpectedness of Baker, her talent and what I’m sure they didn’t recognize back then as her joie de vivre made her into a sensation. 

I even wonder if the word “coveted” existed before Baker. Her ability to live her life like she wanted was addictive. Her 1000+ marriage proposals would agree with me. Baker remarried to a man called Will Baker at 15 keeping his name after her marriage to Willie Wells at 13. Her next marriage was to a French man Jean Lion. This made her a devoted French citizen, which she showed by participating in the French resistance during World War II. She “became a sublieutenant in the Women’s auxiliary of the French Force earning a medal for her work on behalf of the allies”.

Baker loved women as well, possibly her most famous relationship was with Frida Kahlo. They were lovers with a lot in common, both bisexual women of color who were artists and activists. The women were radical, never dependent on men. Baker was unafraid to leave sour relationships.

Like much of her life, Baker’s family was unconventional and made from scratch. She adopted 12 children called the “rainbow tribe”, a family of many races. Baker shocked the world with this, “No one had seen a black woman adopt a white child before. No one had seen a black woman adopt 12 children. Or raise them in a castle. Or house them in a theme park. Or use them in advertisements. Or portray them as soldiers in a struggle for justice.”

I wonder if there is a word in another language that translates to the feeling of finding out a lot of what you love about an artist has been sampled from a legend of the past. If the word does not exist I suggest the phrase “to be Josephine Baked”. Used in a sentence:

Person A: “Did ya’ll see Angelina Jolie adopted all these kids from around the world?”

Person B: ” That happened before. You’ve been Josephine Baked.”

Baker was the blueprint in art, in activism, in being self made. She was an independent woman before it seemed possible, leading with love and refusing to be constrained by societal limits due to her identity. She created a life of liberation for herself and sought it for all, joining in the fight for Civil Rights  in America. As poetry would have it, the radical woman I chose to honor today also happens to be celebrating 113 years.

Singer Josephine Baker with her husband and adopted children, 1959. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)