Josephine Baker was an international celebrity and a pioneer in Black film history.
Born in St. Louis, MO in 1906, Josephine Baker was an American-born Parisian entertainer who symbolized vitality and freedom in her performance. Baker performed in segregated black vaudeville throughout the early 1920s. The Chicago Defender and other black press hailed her as “The Lightning of Jazz.” Parisian critics and audiences embraced her too in the context of their own fascination with the “colonial other.”
Although Baker was American, she was received as a “Venus Noire” and “Creole Goddess” in France. For Black Americans at home, Baker represented the possibilities of life abroad and success in the arts. For the French, she was a revelation of rhythm and style. After her Parisian debut in 1925 with La revue nègre, she took center stage at the Folies Bergère in 1926 where she performed her famous banana dance. Baker later toured internationally and starred in three feature films before becoming an agent of resistance in World War II.
10 Astounding Facts
1) Josephine Baker owned a plane, a cheetah, a nightclub, and a Renaissance castle called Château des Milandes, in the Dordogne department of France.
2) In 1922, she performed in the traveling troupe of Broadway hit, “Shuffle Along”, which introduced Paul Robeson and other luminaries to the world.
3) Baker opened her nightclub Chez Josephine in Paris in 1926.
4) With Siren of the Tropiques (1927), Baker became the first Black woman to star in major French film production.
5) Baker transported secret messages about the location of Nazi troops via her music sheets.
6) Josephine Baker inspired part of the “Eye Spy” eyeshadow collection from Espionage Cosmetics.
7) In 1951 she took a swing at Jim Crow when she publicly refused to perform to segregated audiences at the Copa City Club on Miami Beach. Her opening night was the first integrated audience on the Beach!
8) She spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 alongside Congressman John Lewis and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
9) In honor of her contributions to expanding democracy in the United States, the NAACP declared May 20th as Josephine Baker Day.
10) At her death in 1975, Baker became the first American woman to be buried with full military honors in France, with a 21-gun salute.
Submission: Terri Francis is the author of “Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism”. She is an Associate Professor and Director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University. Her essays appear in “Transition” and “Another Gaze.“