For whatever inexplicable reason, I started watching Gossip Girl a few weeks ago. Tonight’s episode featured Tyra Banks as an actress playing Josephine Baker in a movie. At some point during the episode, it was brought up that Baker was part of the underground Nazi resistance movement during WWII in France, which I did not know about (you can learn something from Gossip Girl, who knew?). Ergo, I give you this week’s Adventures In Feministory: Josephine Baker.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Baker rose to fame in the US and France with her music. She was apparently more popular in France, attributed by some to the racism in America. It is said that by the late ’20s she was the wealthiest performer in Europe. In the ’30s she starred in two French films, Zou-Zou and Princess Tam-Tam. She returned to the US to star in the Ziefield Follies and was called a “Negro wench” by the New York Times, so understandably, she went back to France.
By then, the Nazis were trapsing their hate across France and Baker joined the Women’s Auxillary Air Force. Additionally, she worked for the Resistance movement by spreading news via secret messages hidden in her sheet music and driving ambulances. She was awarded the Medal of Resistance and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her work in the movement.
I love a woman in uniform.
In the 1950s she toured the US and refused to play to segregated crowds or in segregated clubs. She was deemed the NAACP’s Most Outstanding Woman of The Year in 1951. That same year, she was refused service at the Stork Club in New York City, putting her up against anti-Civil Rights journalist Walter Winchell who was at the club that night and called her a communist. She threw an NAACP benefit concert at Carnegie Hall and spoke at the March On Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King Jr. May 20 is now Josephine Baker Day, honoring her work for the Civil Rights Movement.
After outsmarting the racists of the world, and fighting the good fight literally on the front lines, Baker began adopting children into her family which would become known as “The Rainbow Tribe”. With twelve children of different ethnicities, Baker scoffed once more at the Nazis and segregationists of the world with a family who proved skin color really did not matter.
Baker passed away in 1975 from a stroke. She was the first American woman buried in France with a 21 gun salute. She was clearly a remarkable woman, and though her music was perhaps not the grandest of her gifts (I’ll take anti-racist activism over that any day), here is a video of her performing “Cha Cha Cha”.