Black Excellence: The Ever Legendary Josephine Baker

Black Excellence: The Ever Legendary Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker has been referenced in popular culture in every avenue imaginable. From film to art, to music and media, we can never pay her enough homage.

Josephine Baker has been referenced in popular culture in every avenue imaginable. From film to art, to music and media, we can never pay her enough homage.

Text: Dominique Norman

V Magazine is celebrating the legends who gave us fashion, culture, music and more during Black History Month with the series Black Excellence. The fourth installation of the series looks at the icon turned activist, Josephine Baker.

Josephine Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up as a domestic servant, not unheard of for the time for Black women. Her negative experiences with Jim Crow, poverty, and racial segregation drew her to move to New York City in 1919 to pursue a career as a performer. Her big break came when she was casted in the Broadway hit Shuffle Along, a play that was remarkable for being produced, written and performed entirely by African Americans. This was coming off of the wave of the Harlem Renaissance, and many of the reviews noted that it helped to unite the White Broadway and Black jazz communities as well as help improve race relations in America, not to mention launch the careers of many legendary Black performers—Baker being one of them.

She had been casted in the play almost ironically, since she had originally been turned down from the main cast for being “too skinny and too dark”. However, she remained determined and learned the chorus line’s routines while working as a dresser on the side. When one of the dancers left, Baker was the obvious replacement. Her performance included a comedic touch where she purposely acted clumsy, rolling her eyes and pretending to miss steps, an act that would become a staple later on. The audience fell in love with her one-of-a-kind act, and she drew in crowds for Shuffle Along’s more than 500 show run.

At the height of the Roaring Twenties, she was recruited to join an all Black dance troupe in Paris called La Revue Nẻgre. In an article on the 110th anniversary of her birth, Vogue described how her legendary “danse sauvage”, or ‘savage dance’ "radically redefined notions of race and gender through style and performance in a way that continues to echo throughout fashion and music today, from Prada to Beyoncé." Her playful onstage demeanor and approach to race, gender, and sexuality through performance earned her the acclaim of intellectuals and artists such as Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, and Ernest Hemingway, who described her as “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw”. By 1927, she was one of the most photographed women in the world and earned more than any entertainer in Europe.

By the end of the 30’s, with the beginning of World War II, she began turning from performer to activist. She supported her new home of France in the war by performing for troops, opening a refugee center, and refusing to perform in Nazi occupied Paris. Shortly thereafter, she became a spy for the French. In 1944, she was officially inducted into the French Air Force. After the war ended, she was honored with the Medal of the Resistance. She continued to be a luminary for the rest of her life, adopting twelve children and turning down any performance that was for segregated audiences.

She’s been paid tribute by Diana Ross, Angelina Jolie, Laverne Cox, and Keri Hilson, not to mention the numerous plays, movies and art pieces. In 2006, Beyoncé even performed Baker's famous banana skirt dance at the Fashion Rocks concert at Radio City Music Hall to celebrate what would have been the icon’s 100th birthday. She is one of the many legends who have laid the foundation for Black performers and activists, and continues to be remembered for her iconography.

Check out photos of Josephine Baker below.

Credits: images courtesy of getty

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