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Yann
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« on: January 09, 2004, 12:46:44 PM »

Josephine Baker

b. Freda Josephine McDonald
(1906--75)

   
Performer and civil rights activist. Born and raised in poverty in the black ghetto of St. Louis, Missouri, Baker left home at 13 to tour on the southern vaudeville circuit. By 15 she had joined the company of Shuffle Along, a musical comedy by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, which was the most successful black theatrical enterprise of the 1920s. She played the comic chorus girl, the one at the end of the line too dumb to remember the words and too uncoordinated to keep up with the others, with great skill. When Shuffle Along closed, Baker appeared in Sissle and Blake's next Broadway production, Chocolate Dandies. She was noted in New York as a comedienne, often wearing blackface makeup in the minstrel show tradition.

This seemed likely to be her destiny, but in 1925, she joined the cast of La revue nègre in Paris. Baker danced bare-breasted and became an immediate star. Next, at the Folies Bergère, she danced the Charleston and the shimmy in skimpy outfits, including a skirt of bananas that became her signature costume. Repeatedly cast as the local girl with whom the French colonist falls in love, she seemed the perfect object for colonialist fantasies, sexy yet good-natured. Although she was introducing American jazz dancing to Europe, many saw her not as an American but as a representative of French colonial Africa--so much so that she was made queen of France's Colonial Exposition of 1931 until it was pointed out to the organizers that America was not a French colony.

Gradually, Baker transformed herself into a glamorous European star. Her act, comparable to that of other French music hall performers, did not present her as stereotypically black. But when she tried to project this persona in New York's Ziegfeld Follies in 1935, she was a flop--America was not ready for a glamorous black star. She returned to France and became a citizen when she married a Frenchman in 1937.

During World War II, Baker worked for Charles de Gaulle's Free French, providing cover for a military intelligence officer and later serving as a spokesperson for the cause in North Africa. For her work, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance.

In her later years, she developed into a masterful nightclub performer, singing as well as dancing. Increasingly, she used her celebrity as a platform for civil rights activities in the United States. On a 1951 American tour she insisted on a nondiscrimination clause in her contracts, effectively integrating nightclubs across the country. Through a much-publicized incident at New York's Stork Club, she focused attention on discrimination against blacks in restaurants and nightclubs. And by taking up the cause of Willie McGee, a black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman, she helped increase the public's awareness of race-based inequalities of punishment.

Baker adopted 12 children of different races and nationalities, seeking thereby to demonstrate the possibility of interracial harmony. She made the children the centerpiece of a large entertainment complex built around her country home in the Dordogne, though in the process, she went bankrupt.

Baker was the first black woman to achieve international stardom. Her success in Europe was a source of joy and inspiration to many African Americans, and her example encouraged some to look to France for life beyond the color bar. When Baker, who continued to perform all her life, died at age 69, she was given a state funeral as a war hero.

http://www.historychannel.com/exhibits/blackhist/0212.html
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Yann
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« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2004, 02:36:20 PM »

Excerpt from the article:

The Construction of an Image and the Deconstruction of a Star - Josephine Baker Racialized, Sexualized, and Politicized in the African-American Press, the Mainstream Press, and FBI Files.

by Charlene Regester, Popular Music and Society, Spring, 2000


...Baker's stage career was often interrupted by films. She landed her first screen role in La Sirene des Tropiques (1927). Later films include the previously mentioned Zou Zou (1934), Princess Tam Tam (1935), and The French Way (1940).(2) It is of note that although she is exoticized in these films, rarely is she racialized in the manner that she would have been in American films, where she would have been reduced to a subordinate or parodic construction.

Baker's growing reputation resulted in her launching an international tour throughout Europe; she performed in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden, and South America (Rose 138). Her international reputation landed her an invitation to return to the United States to appear in the previously mentioned stage production of Ziegfeld Follies (1936). This performance ended with Baker's receiving a cool reception as she endured the racial politics that prevailed in America (Haney 202).

Baker renounced her American citizenship in 1937 to become a French citizen. When World War II erupted, Baker aligned herself with the Free French forces and entertained soldiers affiliated with Allied troops. For her efforts, Baker received the Legion of Honor with Palm, the Croix de Guerre, and the Rosetta of the Resistance ("Meet the Artists"). In the aftermath of the war, she returned to the Parisian stage.

In the 1950s Baker revisited America. However, this time the aging performer, who had always taken a personal stand against the discriminatory practices that many African Americans endured, became much more politicized. Her political activities included: speaking at a defense rally in 1951 for Willie McGee, an African American who was executed for allegedly raping a white female; confronting executives of the Oakland Key System Transit Co. in California regarding their discriminatory practices; refusing to appear in Atlanta (even for a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] benefit), because she was denied hotel accommodations; integrating a segregated hotel in Las Vegas; forcing the management of the Illinois Central Railroad in Chicago to review their segregated practices; and staging a citizen's arrest of a Dallas salesman who publicly verbalized his refusal to patronize a hotel that availed itself to African Americans in Los Angeles (Rose 214). This was a volatile period for Baker, and she became labeled a threat to American democracy.

Baker also challenged the discriminatory treatment she received at New York's Stork Club in 1951, an act that resulted in a public battle between her and news columnist Walter Winchell and that resulted in the NAACP's boycotting this establishment. One year later, in 1952, when Baker toured Buenos Aires, reports circulated that the U.S. Department of Justice had "started an inquiry, on the same lines as the Charlie Chaplin inquiry, to consider whether she would be allowed [back] into the States" ("Josephine Baker Hits Back"). In fact, she was allowed to return, but she was openly accused of Communist association, a charge that may have contributed to the cancellation of her television appearance in Havana, Cuba ("Josephine Baker Cancelled").

Acting on her belief that all races and nationalities could live in harmony, by the mid-1950s Baker had adopted some twelve children representing a variety of nationalities. Although ambitious, this venture exacerbated Baker's financial woes, as she struggled to maintain her 300-acre Parisian estate, Les Milandes (Murray). Yet, Baker ignored her own personal tribulations to attend the March on Washington in 1963 and to perform at a benefit at Carnegie Hall on behalf of the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) (Wilkins). In the late 1960s, Baker, forced to sell her estate, returned to the stage despite declining health.

The decade of the 1970s witnessed her return to Carnegie Hall as her U.S. performances were now regarded as "triumphs" ("Josephine Baker Dies"). Never abandoning her fight for civil rights, in 1974 Baker publicly denounced apartheid in South Africa, likening that nation's segregated practices to those she had witnessed in the U.S. ("Josephine Baker vs Apartheid"). Unfortunately, the accolades and triumphs as well as the protests were to be her last, as Baker suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in a Paris hospital in April of 1975, a hospital, ironically, for the treatment of "prostitutes, beggars and criminal women" (Haney 324).

The American-born star who had won acclaim on European shores and even in the United States, albeit too late for her enjoyment, was newsworthy throughout her life. In the American press, and also in the African-American press, she was regarded as eccentric and risque and as a troublemaker who often articulated threatening political views...


check this link for the entire article:

http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m2822/1_24/73712454/p1/article.jhtml?term=


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