"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."--Josephine Baker
Before there was such a thing as a "carefree Black girl", there was Josephine Baker. She didn't give a damn before not giving damns was fashionable and after all of these years, we are still here for it. I write this piece a day after Beyonce dropped her Formation video, a new empowerment anthem that has inspired so many in the Black community and pissed off many others. At this point, Beyonce has reached the point in her career where she can do as she pleases without giving a care what others think and to me, that is so Josephine Baker.
I was introduced to Miss Baker through the wonderful biopic film The Josephine Baker Story and I was entranced by her story. How tough and strong willed for a Black woman to be to survive the horrific race riots of St. Louis, take care of herself on the streets and then decide to pursue her love of dance and freedom by moving to Paris! And what freedom she experienced; she marveled at being called ma'am and not having to enter buildings through segregated entrances, of being to exude sensuality, be brash and still be herself and be Black. I'm under no illusion that Paris was a post-racial utopia, but compared to the United States I'm sure it came pretty damn close. It's also easy to imagine that she experienced a massive reality check when she decided to America in the 1936 to perform in the Ziefield Follies and received a hideous racial backlash. She was called a "Negro wench" and criticized for having little talent, which was false. They just weren't ready. It's amazing how this tired trope of diminishing Black women for being different and powerful never ceases to end. Did we not see and hear similar comments being hurled at Beyonce for her Super Bowl performance?
Never mind the haters, Josephine continued to persevere. She became a freedom fighter, an agent in the Resistance during World War II. She returned to the United States to speak out against the oppression of Black people. She refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, she worked with the NAACP and was the only female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, just to name a few accomplishments. A little known fact that I didn't know of until recently: after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, Coretta Scott King approached Josephine to take her husband's place as the leader of the Civil Rights movement. She declined the offer out of fear of her children losing her to assassination as well. In spite of all she did, she was still never fully embraced by the American Black community, let alone the rest of America. She eventually returned to her beloved France.
But after all this, I'm leaving out one of the most amazing things about Josephine to me; how captivating she was as a performer. She was magnetic! She sparkled, she absolutely did. Thank god for Youtube, which allows me to view incredible performances where she commands the stage. When I look at Josephine, I see original Black Girl Magic and I wanted to make her look magical with my Inkscape portrait of her. I centered a glowing star in her center; she bares her glowing soul and forever shines. I clothed her in a golden Inkscape like it was an off-shoulder dress in a gown that I like to think she would find befitting of her. The stars that illuminate her face make me think of her as a constellation, which what she was; a free Black woman that lights up life.