Monday, February 21, 2005

Lucy Highlights Josephine Baker for Black History Month

Lucy: Josephine Baker lived from 1906 to 1975. At eight, she became a maid to a white woman and learned early on what was available for her in this country. She had a gift and that was her natural grace. She took up dancing in the chorus line and was a part of many shows and night club acts. All the while she felt there had to be something, somewhere better.
And for the pre-civil rights United States of America, somewhere better led her to France where she became celebrated and known as an international figure. In France, she could be "exotic" and stylish. And she counted as her peers people like Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and e.e. cummings.

She reached new heights dancing and singing at the the Folies-Bergère. She opened her own nightclub in 1926, Chez Josephine. Now an international celebrity, she went on a world tour, one that would last two years.

At the start of WWII, she was a nurse for the Red Cross. When France was under occupation, Baker became part of the French Resistance. For her work with the Resistance (including smuggling messages out), she was awarded the Legion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.

After the war, she began adopting orphans (the war had resulted in large numbers of them and Josephine would end up with twelve children) and she adopted from different races and religions. Any thoughts of a simpler life with her new family vanished when debts meant that she had to return to performing.

They tried to blacklist her in this country by calling her a communist. Baker's response was that "The U.S. is not a free country. They treat Negroes as though they are dogs."

In 1963, she would be one of the people at the March on Washington.

In 1973, in New York City, she'd receive her warmest welcome from U.S. audiences in her career. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, in 1975, helped stage her last production.

That was in 1975, and that year, at the age of 69, she died. She became the first American woman (of any race) to receive French military honors at her funeral.

There are numerous books on Josephine Baker and my two favorites are Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker (one of her children) and Chris Chase and Naked at the Feast: The Josephine Baker Story by Lynn Haney.

My favorite quote from Baker is: "I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed."