‘“Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”
I have always admired Josephine Baker. She was an American-born, French dancer and singer who symbolized the beauty and vitality of black American culture. She took Paris by storm in 1925 and became one of the most successful African American performers in French history. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II, and during the 1950s and ’60s devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States. Chateau des Milandes, in the Dordogne, is a 2-hour drive from my house in the Gers.
Josephine was born into poverty on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the most racially divided cities in the United States. Her family struggled financially. She began working as a live-in domestic for white families at age 8. She gained an early love for dance and the theater, perhaps because they were an escape from the difficulties of her young life. Racism shaped her early memories, particularly the 1917 race riots in St. Louis. By age 13, she had dropped out of school and was working as a waitress while living on the streets. A few years later she found work with a street performance group and discovered her calling.
Josephine went to New York City and pursued her career with passion during the Harlem Renaissance. Within a few years, she was “the highest-paid chorus girl in Vaudeville.” In 1925 her success took her to Paris. In France there was great interest in African art and jazz during the twenties, and, to French audiences, Josephine embodied primitive sexual energy. In a number called “Danse Sauvage,” set in an African jungle, she gamboled across the stage half naked. In her opening performance at the Folies Bergère the following year, she danced the Charleston dressed only in a skirt made of cotton bananas, a costume that became her trademark. In Paris Josephine lived free from racial bias, and chose to become a French citizen in 1937.
When Adolf Hitler and the German army invaded France during World War II, Josephine joined the Resistance and the fight against the Nazi regime. She aided French military officials by passing on secrets written in invisible ink on blank music sheets and worked for the Red Cross. After the war she devoted her energy to renovating Chateau des Milandes, the 300‐acre,15th century estate she purchased in 1939. Her dream was to create a “Village of the World”, a model community to demonstrate that children of different nationalities and religions could live together in peace. Never having children of her own, she subsequently adopted 12 ethnically and religiously diverse children – Korean, Japanese, Finnish, Colombian, African, French, Venezuelan, and Moroccan. She called her family “the rainbow tribe” and took them on the road with her in an effort to show that racial and cultural harmony could co-exist. Her personal life became a testament to her political agenda.
Traveling to the United States in the 1960s, Josephine refused to perform for segregated audiences. She was one of the few women allowed to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Her speech detailed her life as a black woman in the United States and abroad: “You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a room or a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.” After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King asked Josephine to consider taking her late husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but Josephine declined.
Four failed marriages and financial difficulties wore her down. In 1964, Josephine’s beloved Chateau Milandes was rescued from bankruptcy proceedings by the intervention of Brigitte Bardot, who launched an appeal to the people of France. Despite her efforts, the situation worsened and Milandes was sold. At the age of 62, with the help of Princess Grace of Monaco, she settled in Roquebrune on the Côte d’Azur. To pay off her debts, Josephine went back on stage in 1974. She passed away on April 12th, 1975, the morning after a sold out performance in Paris. From her adopted country she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the French Resistance. Charles de Gaulle named her a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, the country’s highest honor. She was buried in Monaco, the first American-born woman to receive full military honors at her funeral.
Many people, myself included, share Josephine Baker’s belief that, “…Not everyone has the same color, the same language, or the same customs, but they have the same heart, the same blood, and the same need for love.”