Josephine Baker

BURLESQUE PERFORMER AND FRENCH SPY

800px-Baker_BananaJosephine Baker was born in 1906 in Missouri, she had a terrible childhood, I mean terrible. Little formal education, no indoor plumbing, poor, always hungry, abused, and homeless for a time. She made some money dancing on street corners at the age of 13. Her dancing led her to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, where she became a breakout and landed an opportunity to go to Paris. She would say later, “One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States…. A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore…. I felt liberated in Paris.”

Liberated in Paris she was. Gal performed in a skirt of bananas and nothing else. Sometimes she had with her a pet cheetah that wore a diamond collar…and nothing else.

Josephine-Baker-97825454-56aa1d183df78cf772ac75a7She did movies, had successful records, Ernest Hemingway called her, “The most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She was huge.

Then World War II happened.

Josephine was now a French citizen and France declared war on Germany. However Germans were still smitten by Josephine – her all-nude parties were very popular there. So she was recruited by French military intelligence and became a spy. It’s amazing how non-secretive people are when they are nude. ProTip? She’d relay information back on sheet music using invisible ink. She’d also pin secret information inside her underwear because no one was going to search her there.

After the war things got weird. Josephine toured Paris and the United States. In the U.S. she was not putting up with segregation – it first got her acclaim, then criticism. The criticism in the United States including labeling her as a communist. She was not allowed back into the country for a decade.  But the rest of the world didn’t mind and she continued to captivate audiences.

In the 1950’s she supported the Civil Rights Movement. She was refused reservations at 36 American hotels because she was black, so she toured the south giving talks and performances. She demanded were that none of the audiences were segregated. When the KKK threatened her she publicly, said she was not afraid of them.  She worked with the NAACP and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s reported that when MLK was assassinated, Coretta asked Josephine to take her husband’s place as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But after thinking it over she declined saying, “(her children were) too young to lose their mother.” She had 2 daughters and 10 sons, many of them adopted. She called her family “The Rainbow Tribe” as her children’s nationalities were broad and proved that, “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.”

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