The Famous Dancer Turned Fierce Activist – How Josephine Baker Helped Changed the World for Women of Color

Josephine Baker is one of those women who will always be more than they appeared on the surface. At first glance, she was a show performer, a fantastic and famous one at that. But her agenda fulfilled more than a few numbers and risqué dancing on stage. Josephine Baker was in fact a driving force in the Civil Rights Movement and politics worldwide. She was so fierce she even played a key part in the French resistance of World War 2.

Born in St. Louis, America, Josephine grew up knowing her mother, Carrie, without being too sure of her father. Carrie herself had been adopted by Richard and Elvira McDonald, who were both former slaves of African and Native American decent. Josephine’s estate claimed a drummer by the name of Eddie Carson was her biological father. Yet, there’s contrasting evidence to suggest this isn’t true, so her other pair of grandparents are unknown.

Josephine’s early life had been far from easy. She grew up in the mixed low-income area of St. Louis, and spent most of her time poorly dressed and very hungry. By eight, Josephine was working as a live-in maid for a white family, one of whom abused her by burning her hands when she used too much detergent in the laundry. Four years later, by 12, Josephine dropped out of school. Life was the true definition of hardship for this sweet young woman. Little did she know, she’d change the future forever.

Josephine Baker was known as a fantastic, showstopping dancer before becoming an all-round on-stage sensation. Her early career highlighted her talent for moving to music and she became famous for headlining prestigious Parisian venues. Josephine’s infamously risqué (and now contentious) costume of a short banana skirt, low hung beads, and little else was first debuted in one of these early shows. The look eventually became an iconic image of the 1920s Jazz Age.

Could she go wilder? Well, there was even a time when Josephine would perform with her ‘pet’ leopard. Apparently, the wild cat would sometimes leap into the musician’s pit causing mayhem, laughter, and a constant sense of suspense during her performances. Josephine was also infamous for embracing her acts almost completely naked at times. She knew her worth, knew her body, and pushed the boundaries almost a century ago!

But Josephine wasn’t just a pioneer for women worldwide because of her attitude to performance. She was famous across all of France for her bravery in helping the resistance during World War 2. Then, decades later, Josephine set her sites on the Civil Rights Movement of America. One way she made a stand was by refusing to perform in segregated venues, such as casinos. In the past, casinos weren’t the thrilling metropolitan venues they are today.

As a reflection on the impression she made on the world, among the mark she has left on American and African-Americ culture, her legacy can be found in some less direct places. For example, the casino industry has progressed massively over the last few decades, and still retains that aesthetic of glitz and glamour that Josephine Baker ushered in in the 30’s. Because of this ever-present surge in popularity, innovations continue to be made, including the vast catalogues of online titles, from slots, to classic table games such as poker and blackjack, that continue to expand and excite players across the world. Arguably, we have Josephine to thank in part for the inclusive environment we can enjoy today.

Furthermore, venues like casinos and hotels hosted huge acts from across the globe, just as they do today. However, during the earlier parts of the 20th century, they were often racially segregated and sometimes exclusive only to whites. Some even nicknamed Las Vegas “the Mississippi of the West”. Josephine wasn’t ready to bow down to the oppressive patriarchy, however. She led by example, holding her principle high above any prize or cash cheque flashed by American venue owners.

Today, not as many people know how influential and active Josephine Baker had been during The Civil Rights Movement. When she had first arrived in New York during the 1950s, she’d been refused reservations in over 35 different hotels. So, Josephine took to the pen and wrote numerous articles to educate the world on the discrimination she’d faced in America.

Another time, in 1951, she also made charges of racism against a renowned and famous club. Apparently, the superstar actress Grace Kelly was present during the altercation, and was so disgusted she stormed out of the venue with Josephine on her arm vowing never to return. It’s to no surprise that the pair become close, and these are only two instances of Josephine’s never-ending fight against racial discrimination during the 50s. Later, during 1963, she’d go on to be the only official female speaker to stand aside Martin Luther King Jr at the March on Washington.

Source: Unsplash

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Josephine was even asked to become the unofficial leader by Coretta King Scott. However, fearing for the safety of her children, she felt she had to turn down the opportunity. She’d already helped save her family from the threat of Nazi infantry in Paris and didn’t feel ready to face the risk such a high and exposed position would bring. Yet, she continued to fight for equality until the day she died in 1975.

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