Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
was born Freda McDonald and raised in poverty in an East St. Louis slum. She began working as a maid at age 8, left school at age 12, was married at 14, and began her performing career as an entertainer at 16.
As a teenager she performed in the touring troupe for Shuffle Along and in the Chocolate Dandies at the Cotton Club in Harlem. At this time she specialized in clowning's physical comedy.
In 1925 she moved to Paris -- where she found the attitude toward African Americans to be more tolerant. In Paris she matured as a dancer -- performing at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and in La Revue Nègre. She joined the Folies-Bergère in 1926. She was an immediate sensation. She was in the Ziegfeld Follies during the 1930s.
She is best known for two of her exotic dances: her "jungle" dance where she wore nothing but a string of bananas around her waist and another where she wore only a skirt of feathers entitled 'La Danse de Sauvage' but was actually the Charleston.
She performed in floor shows, revues, operettas, and films as a singer as a comedienne, actress, and, especially, as a dancer. It is in her dancing where her skill and talent and artistic innovation came to the fore.
The French were enthralled with American jazz, Africa and exoticism. Baker captured their imagination like no other performer and she became an international sensation. She was called the "Black Venus" and to the audiences of the time she represented the exotic sexuality of the black woman. Today we understand her performances as more nuanced and examine the ways that Baker did not just inhabit certain stereotypes but manipulated and mocked them as well.
Although she performed in the US she could not tolerate its persistant racism and always returned to Paris. She was active in the French Resistance during the war. She was also active in the American Civil Rights movement. After a number of marriages (5 total in her life) and miscarriages, she bought a chateau in France where she lived with her 12 adopted children of various nationalities and races (and a menagerie of animals) that she called her "rainbow tribe."
She worked throughout her life -- in part because she was plagued by financial problems -- inevitably stealing the show at every performance.
One reason for the interest in Josephine Baker this year is that it is the centenary of her birth. On the other hand people have always been fascinated by her.
For more general information on Joseophine Baker check these sites:
Women in History
CMG Worldwide Official Site of Josephine Baker