We look back on the life of the global superstar and civil rights champion…
Josephine Baker was considered a remarkable woman whose life was filled with both hardship and glory. Baker, born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, overcame poverty and racism to become one of the most recognisable performers of the 20th century. In addition to her extraordinary skill as a singer and dancer, she was an activist for civil rights and a World War II spy.
One of Josephine Baker’s most famous quotes is: “Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birthplaces have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”
This quote represents Baker’s vision of a society in which race, religion, and nationality are no longer used to excuse discrimination and injustice and in which individuals are judged on the basis of the content of their character and the values they advocate. Although she didn’t identify as bisexual – the term wasn’t widely used during her lifetime – Baker was also known to have had relationships with both men and women, and went on to inspire other Black, openly-LGBTQ+ performers such as Janelle Monáe.
Baker’s career began at 15 when she left home to join a touring vaudeville troupe. She quickly gained a reputation as a talented and dynamic performer, known for her signature ‘banana dance’ and her ability to captivate audiences with her charm and charisma. In the 1920s, she moved to Paris, where she became a sensation in the city’s thriving jazz scene. She performed at the famous Folies Bergère and was soon the highest-paid performer in France.
“To realise our dreams, we must decide to wake up”Josephine Baker
Baker’s success in Europe did not shield her from racism, however. She was met with segregation and discrimination when she returned to the United States for a tour in the 1930s. Refusing to perform for segregated audiences, Baker was a vocal advocate for civil rights and became involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She worked to desegregate theatres and fought against racism in the entertainment industry.
During World War II, Baker’s activism took a new turn. She worked as a spy for the French Resistance, smuggling messages and documents across borders and hiding refugees in her home. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her bravery and service to France.
Baker wrote about her romantic and sexual relationships with men and women in her autobiography “Josephine.” She described her attraction to women as a significant part of her life and there are accounts from people who knew her personally who confirms this.
She also adopted 12 children from different parts of the world and called them her ‘rainbow tribe’, believing that people of different races and nationalities could live together in harmony.
Josephine Baker died in 1975, but her legacy lives on. She pioneered the entertainment industry, breaking down barriers and opening doors for future generations of performers. She was a passionate advocate for civil rights and a courageous fighter for justice. Her life and work continue to inspire people around the world.