Saturday, September 20, 2008

Josephine Baker - Various Types of Rebellion

Born Freda Josephine McDonald on 3 June 1906 in St Louis Missouri ...

... Josephine Baker was a dancer and street performer at 13, on the Vaudeville circuit and Broadway as a chorus girl in her mid-teens, and dancing semi-nude in Paris at 19 ...

... famously in her banana dance on the stage of the Folies Bergeres in Paris ...

... as seen in this footage recently discovered in the USA ...

... becoming 'the most sensational woman anyone ever saw' (Ernest Hemingway).

Defying the sexual mores of the time in this way however has its price - being constructed as a kind of wild primitive and magnetic animal. Not that she cared at the time.

But all this trivializes Josephine Baker's other and to my mind larger and more important achievements.

Principally in the French Resistance during the Second World War, where among other things she smuggled intelligence into Portugal in music sheets - to gain the Croix de Guerre and Legion d'Honneur.

And then as a champion of racial freedom, supporting the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 50's. By, for example, refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences. Making charges against the Stork Club in New York in 1951 for refusing to serve her - with Grace Kelly defiantly leading her from the nightclub. And by speaking at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King Jr in 1963. This stance was also worked out at a personal level in raising her 'rainbow tribe' of 12 adopted children from a range of ethnic backgrounds.

Obviously this has resonances for gays, in demanding equal rights and fighting discrimination.


  1. Obviously.
    Did you happen to follow the lives of her rainbow tribe (to whom she bequested a huge portion of her by then much mismanaged thus diminished inheritance). I think she was not ahead of her time, she lived in a world of her own and maybe some gays can relate to that on account of personal experience of extreme intolerance - in JB's case never more hurtful than in France as she had given up on most of the US as gays have these days but was confronted with racism in all things petty to the very end - and&or slurring by "sources".

    kudos to her for having the means to escape to a fantasy world. Isn't that also in the sterotypical LGBT tradition?

    I happen to think the time of life to cater to "tradition"(even if it's a traditional tale of persecution) is never...

  2. hey pete.

    josephine participated in and promoted the racism directed at her as much as she opposed it. in her 'shows' she presented herself as the primitive sexual savage - and then she spoke out against racism, for example in the march against washington. contradictory, yes - as we all can be - so it's hard to know how to finally see her!

    and there is the refuge of fantasy - and whose and of what kind seems to be another and next question.

    france has a strange attitude to gay (and other forms of difference) - it's more openly accepted and in the mainstream than in a lot of other countries - if it accepts itself in a certain way - and there's the rub!

    with the feathers and sequins thing, it's a hard one. coming from a background of sexual politics, i have a certain predictable view of their meanings and (so) their dangers. but i'm also aware of alienating and disparaging the delectations of a certain part of our community. mmm