Born an illegitimate child in a slum district of St. Louis on 3 June 1906, Freda Josephine McDonald, the name given to her at birth, had a deprived childhood. She provided forceful accounts of the 1917 race riots in her home city and derived a mission in life from this: The fight against racial segregation, for freedom and equality. Dancing became her own personal route to freedom.
Every performance was intoxicating
From 1921, Josephine travelled through the USA with a dance troupe called “Dixie Steppers” and appeared in short scenes in so-called Vaudeville theatre shows. In Philadelphia, aged just fifteen, she married Billy Baker, who had already been married once before, under whose surname she was to become famous. Here, she also secured a fixed engagement as a clown at the end of “Chorus Line”. However, she had her sights set on being in the spotlight, on the big stage. So, she tried her luck in New York in the musical “Shuffle Along”. For Josephine, every performance was intoxicating: “The eyes of the audience looking at me electrified me.” Tirelessly on the go, she managed to attract attention. Thus, in 1925, she was engaged as a dancer to perform in Paris.
Support for the resistance
With her marriage to Jewish businessman Jean Lion, the artist was granted French citizenship in 1937. Following the escalation of anti-Semitic violence in Germany in the November pogroms in 1938, in an act of solidarity she became a member of the Ligue internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme (LICRA), an international organisation committed to fighting against racism and anti-Semitism.
In October 1944, a few months after the successful allied invasion of Normandy, she accompanied the allied troops from liberated Paris further eastwards. Until the end of the war Sous-Lieutenant Baker saw it as her honorary, patriotic duty to sing for the soldiers. She was recognised for this in 1946 with the Medaille de la Résistance of Free France. In 1957, Charles de Gaulle named Josephine Baker Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur for her courageous efforts.
Ambassador for peace, freedom and justice
Josephine Baker returned to the stage after 1945 – as an ambassador for peace, freedom and equality of all people, regardless of nationality, skin colour or religion. Together with French conductor Jo Bouillon, whom she had married on 3 June 1947, she went on a tour of the USA in 1951. At her shows there was no racial segregation; as a star she had made this a stipulation.
Baker took an offensive stance against any form of discrimination. In 1963, US civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King got her up to the rostrum in Washington – her biggest role and her greatest triumph: She was more than a superstar, she was a political figure. In her speech on 28 August at the closing rally of the March on Washington organised by the civil rights movement, the 57-year-old encouraged all African Americans to assert their rights in their own country.
„Josephine Baker: Weltstar – Freiheitskämpferin – Ikone“, Mona Horncastle, Wien 2020