I first heard of Josephine Baker in the 1980s, when my sister wrote a story about her in the New Haven Courier Register. Debby was a feature writer there, and her story mostly focused on the 12 children Baker had adopted from countries around the world.
As part of her feature beat, Debby was also a music journalist. When she happened on a particularly interesting person, band or artist, she didn’t settle for mere sharing in the pages of her newspaper. She called all her long-distance relatives to talk about it, too. We were both fascinated by Josephine, and felt cheated to not have learned earlier about the American-born singer and dancer who’d become an icon in France.
My music journalism/feature writer decade was the 1990s. A compilation CD in the review pile included Baker’s recording of “Don’t Touch My Tomatoes.” The seven-year-old I was living with at the time fell in love with the tune. Which meant heavy rotation on the family setlist (along with other favorites that included “I Wish I Was a Lesbian” by Loudon Wainwright III, “Shotgun Wedding” by Timbuk 3 and “Rubberband Girl” by Kate Bush).
Fast forward to last week. Reporter-on-deadline superpowers intersected with adult reference librarian job duties because it was our branch’s turn to submit between eight and 10 short book reviews for the bimonthly newsletter. Books needed to be new, or published in the past few months. Two colleagues produced three. I had fun selecting and writing the other six.
I’ve written previously in this space about reviewing criteria. Liking a book should never be a factor in whether it merits a positive review. That said, as a reviewer and as a reader, I loved Sherry Jones’ historical novel “Josephine Baker’s Last Dance.”
The writing sparkles. Jones shows us Baker the human being, and incidents, accidents and deliberate decisions that led her to become an icon. Baker’s childhood experiences, as detailed in the novel, provide context for her less conventional decisions (no spoilers here – read the book).
It’s when Josephine landed in Paris that she found a level of fame and respect denied colored performers in the United States. Hired as a dancer and comedienne, Josephine’s dream was to sing. Promoters told her she didn’t have the talent. She refused to settle for no. The work she put into turning herself into a singer paid off. Along with her nightclub and cabaret success, she was the first person of color to sing in a French opera.
During World War II, as a member of the French Resistance, she smuggled messages written in invisible ink on her music charts. She was awarded the Medal of the Resistance and the Legion of Honor for her service.
After the war, she adopted orphans of different races from different countries, raising them in different religious traditions. It was her way of poking racism and religious prejudice in the eye. Raising “The Rainbow Tribe” in the Château des Milandes, her castle in the Périgord region, she readily welcomed visitors there to see herself and the children perform.
She was the only female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. Her 20-minute speech preceded Dr. Martin Luther King’s. When she died in 1975 in Paris, she was buried with full military honors.
I’d like to think that if Josephine Baker were alive today, she wouldn’t have had to move to France to get the acclamation and respect her talent and hard work merited.
I think of Josephine on the podium, and how far we remain from the ideals she espoused in 1963.
“When I was a child and they burned me out of my home, I was frightened and I ran away. 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….
“I could go into any restaurant I wanted to, and I could drink water anyplace I wanted to, and I didn’t have to go to a colored toilet either, and I have to tell you it was nice, and I got used to it, and I liked it, and I wasn’t afraid anymore that someone would shout at me and say, ‘Nigger, go to the end of the line.’ But you know, I rarely ever used that word. You also know that it has been shouted at me many times….
“I want you to have a chance at what I had. But I do not want you to have to run away to get it. And mothers and fathers, if it is too late for you, think of your children. Make it safe here so they do not have to run away, for I want for you and your children what I had.”Josephine Baker, March on Washington 1963