James Baldwin (left) and Josephine Baker (right).

This post was originally published on Afro

By Micha Green

Black American art and artists have historically been lauded as the first of its kind then imitated by or duplicated for White performers and audiences. However, with the realities of American racism and prejudice, African American artists did not always have chances to thrive in their homeland and took to Europe to fulfill artistic dreams.  Two such artists, Josephine Baker and James Baldwin,  or for the purposes of this article- the JBs- fled the cold harshness of United States racism to the warm embrace of France and French culture.  There, the two JBs were able to thrive as artists, speak to American racism and challenges, serve as positive representations of Black culture and become activists on U.S. soil and abroad. 

Known for her flamboyant glitz and glam, Baker was not born into luxury. Born to a washerwoman and vaudeville performer, entertainment may have been in Baker’s blood, but money certainly was not.  She was fatherless, living in poverty and in and out of school in adolescence.  However, Baker was drawn to the luxurious lifestyle.

“Eventually I ran far away.  It was to a place called France.  Many of you have been there, and many have not.  But I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen, in that country I never feared.  It was like a fairyland place.”

JOSEPHINE BAKER

By 16, Baker took to the stage performing with a dance troupe in Philadelphia. In 1923, at 17, she began touring with the chorus of Shuffle Along, before moving to New York City and advancing on Broadway.

In 1925, Baker went to Paris to dance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in La Revue Nègre.  There she introduced her “Danse Sauvage,” for French audiences.

According to the {Australian Ballet}, critic Pierre de Régnier described watching her perform the “Danse Sauvage,” as a contorted dance in continuous motion.

“She is in constant motion, her body writhing like a snake or more precisely like a dipping saxophone. Music seems to pour from her body,” the critic said. “She grimaces, crosses her eyes, wiggles disjointedly, does a split and finally crawls off the stage stiff-legged, her rump higher than her head, like a young giraffe.”

Baker then went on to wow in Folies-Bergère with her famous banana dance, when she entertained in a bikini top and short skimpy skirt made of bananas.

The star later said in a speech in 1963 that she was considered a “devil,” in her younger days of performing.

“Now I know that all you children don’t know who Josephine Baker is, but you ask Grandma and Grandpa and they will tell you.  You know what they will say.  ‘Why, she was a devil.’  And you know something…why, they are right.  I was too.  I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America too,” Baker said.

As a young celebrated celebrity, Baker continued to rock the Paris scene starring onstage and in film until World War II, which put her career on hold.

Baker worked with the Red Cross and Résistance during the German occupation of France and entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East as a member of the French Free Troops.  For this work, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Résistance.

Post war, the diva began to nest, focusing on Les Milandes, her estate in southwestern France.  There she began to adopt children of all nationalities, beginning in 1950.  Baker adopted 12 children, calling it her “rainbow tribe,” and defined it as “an experiment in brotherhood,” many sources reported.

Though she tried to retire in 1956, she began performing again in Paris in 1959, in order to maintain her estate and children.

Having been a French citizen since the 1930s, Baker still remained active in African American agendas and politics.  Baker, like the other JB we’ll discuss in a moment, was a major leader in the American Civil Rights Movement.  She was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.  In fact, she spoke right before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech.”

Baker addressed her move to Paris as a result of American racism in her speech at the March on Washington.

“And you must know now that what I did, I did originally for myself.  Then later, as these things began happening to me, I wondered if they were happening to you, and then I knew they must be.  And I knew that you had no way to defend yourselves, as I had,” Baker told the crowd, estimated to be upwards of 250,000 people.

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