"I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad." - Josephine Baker
"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." - Josephine Baker
From a young girl growing up in the slums of Missouri who hired herself out as a maid at 12 to provide for her younger siblings to the lead dancer in the Folies Bergere idolized by Parisians, Josephine Baker danced to the beat of her own drum. Undeniably she possessed an innate charisma, but she also went out of her way to make an audience notice her. As a chorus girl in Harlem, she might have remained a bit player, but Josephine would break out of the line, crossing her eyes and mugging funny faces, all the while ignoring the other girls' synced steps, to dance in her own wild and unique style.
She faced injustice and discrimination at many junctures of her life, but Josephine Baker, rather than succumbing to these setbacks, determinedly fought against them. During World War II, she enlisted as a member of the Resistance, mysteriously turning up in Morocco when many thought she had died. She also joined the fight for Civil Rights in the US, becoming such an instrumental figure that soon after Martin Luther King's assassination, his widow asked her to return to the US and serve as the new leader of the movement.
Josephine fought oppression, but she never lost her gaiety or joie de vivre. She was devoted to her career, but she was equally devoted to the 12 children of various ethnicities she adopted, dubbed the "Rainbow Tribe". In the 1960s, Josephine suffered illnesses and setbacks that left in dire financial straits, and in 1968, the woman who had once been at the top of Parisian society was evicted from her home by the Parisian government. For a moment, she thought her career was washed up, but in 1974, she played Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation, as well as the London Palladium and the Monaco Red Cross Gala that celebrated her 50 years in French show business. When Josephine died in 1975, over 20,000 people attended her funeral in Paris, which was viewed by countless others as it was broadcast on French television.
Josephine Baker was ahead of her time in many ways, which is probably why she still resonates so strongly with many people today. As a multi-dimensional woman who lived a life with hardly a dull moment, Josephine Baker steps out of the pages of history, much as she did as a chorus girl, and continues to capture people's interest.
©2016 Charles River Editors (P)2017 Charles River Editors