She was too sexy for Americans.
In fact, Josephine Baker was so amazing, so sexy and so ahead of her time, she was too much for American audiences.
Being black meant that she was not allowed to perform in many places throughout the country. Jim Crow laws barred her from performing throughout the South. Her use of sexuality and her amazing dancing made her shocking to the audiences of even the Roaring Twenties.
So, she went to where her artistry could be appreciated.
She went to Paris, of course.
During World War II she used her fame to advantage as she was able to travel Europe performing and passed on vital news to the French Resistance in invisible ink on her sheet music.
In addition to being a celebrity superstar, Josephine Baker was also a spy!
When Adolf Hitler and the German army invaded France during World War II, Baker joined the fight against the Nazi regime. She aided French military officials by passing on secrets she heard while performing in front of the enemy.
When Baker would travel Europe while touring, she obviously had to carry large quantities of sheet music with her. What customs officials never realized, though, was that a lot of this music actually had secret messages written on it in invisible ink.
Fawning immigration officials never thought to take too close a look at the diva’s luggage, so she could sneak all sorts of things in and out of countries. On some occasions, Baker would smuggle secret photos of German military installations out of enemy territory by pinning them to her underwear.
This invaluable intelligence work eventually helped Baker rise to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force, and when the war was over she received both the Croix de Guerre (a first for an American woman) and the Medal of the Resistance in 1946.
After many years of performing in Paris, Baker returned to the United States.
Her return home forced Baker to confront segregation and discrimination that she had not experienced since she was a child in St. Louis. She often refused to perform to segregated audiences, which usually forced club owners to integrate for her shows.
Her opposition against segregation and discrimination was recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In 1963, she was one of the few women allowed to speak at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Her speech detailed her life as a black woman in the United States and abroad:
“You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
Baker continued to fight racial injustices into the 1970s. Her personal life was a testament to her political agenda.
Throughout her career, she adopted 13 children from various countries.
She called her family “the rainbow tribe” and took her children on the road in an effort to show that racial and cultural harmony could exist. In this way Baker shows that she is not merely a patriot in the service to her country in war, but a patriot to her country in promoting tolerance and equality.
Baker remained on stage late into her life and in 1975 she performed for the last time. The show was sold out and she received a standing ovation. Baker passed away on April 12, 1975.
Lastly, she was LGBTQ+.
Baker was known to have had relationships with men and with women, embracing who she was privately as well as publicly.
Baker shows us that it is best and bravest to always be yourself, even if the times have yet to catch up with who you are. In time, society and the world will see that Baker was an icon of patriotism, talent, beauty and love that we can all appreciate and celebrate.
Norwood, Arlisha. “Josephine Baker.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/josphine-baker.