Black Venus and Human Rights
Josephine Baker was an American-born French woman of color, who was a singer, dancer, activist, and French Résistance fighter during World War II. One of the most influential people of the 19th century, she was a trailblazer and icon who has forever impacted the culture and society of the western world. But to understand her importance and connection to the modern-day and the history of human rights in France and beyond, it is critical to begin by understanding her life before examining her legacy.
Josephine Baker’s Life
Born as Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine was raised fatherless and in deep poverty. Neglected by her family and society, she learned how to be independent and self-sufficient in order to survive. Rebellious and refusing to be put in a box, at the young age of 8 she did not attend school and instead worked as a housekeeper for wealthy white families. Once she became 13, she began work as a waitress in the Old Chauffeur’s Club, where jazz musicians from all of Missouri performed. While working there, she acquired a calling to the stage and used her connections in order to work her way into becoming a performer. She began in vaudeville, eventually joining the hugely successful Broadway revue Shuffle Along in 1923, during the Harlem Renaissance. Through this work ethic and tireless performance, she eventually made a name for herself and was able to become the lead for an all-black vaudeville show to take place in Paris. Her departure from the United States would mark the biggest shift in her life.
Josephine first arrived in Paris in the fall of 1925 as a member of La Revue Nègre. She was surprised by the freedom she felt in France. Free from the racism of the United States, she felt at home in Paris and was able to truly blossom. This escape to Paris would be seen by other artists of color in the future, such as James Baldwin. La Revue Nègre was a massive hit and Josephine became an overnight sensation. Her style of dancing and performance was seen as exotic and “savage,” which thrilled French audiences. Most famously, her performance while only wearing a skirt made of bananas made waves in the newspapers. She maintained her relevancy and fame until the beginning of World War II. Using her fame and connections, she became a spy for the French Résistance against the Nazi powers. Outside of espionage, during the war effort, she also performed shows for the Red Cross and was made a member of the Ladies Air Auxiliary. For her work, she was awarded the Legion of Honor and the Medal of the Resistance. However, this only marked the beginning of her fight for the freedom of others.
After the war, Josephine began her campaign and crusade for human rights. She adopted 12 children of different ethnicities from around the world, naming it her “Rainbow Tribe.” She did this in order to show proof that racial harmony was possible, and that children that did not share a country of origin could live happily together. She later joined Martin Luther King Jr. in the historic March on Washington, giving a speech to a crowd of thousands. Throughout her life onwards, she continued to be an advocate for racial equality and human rights.
Josephine Baker eventually suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in a coma on April 14, 1975 while on tour for a revue based on her life. Her funeral had over 20,000 attendees and she was the only American-born woman to receive full French military honors. In her life, she was the first of many feats and achievements and had risen from segregated poverty to the castles of European royalty.
Now that we have an understanding of Josephine Baker’s life as an icon of the liberating jazz age, we can begin to connect her legacy to the world beyond the stage.
Connection to Human Rights
Josephine Baker’s connection to human rights was nothing subtle or hidden. In Europe, she was a Résistance fighter and opponent of the fascist powers invading France. In the United States, she was an activist and advocate for the Civil Rights Movement and racial equality. In interviews and speeches, she would use the platform to promote ideas of unity, criticizing the unfair treatment of people of color in the United States. In her historic speech during the March on Washington, she stated:
“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. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ‘cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”
This statement on her “big mouth” exemplified her presence as an outspoken and brazen speaker for justice in the United States. She continued by stating:
“Friends and brothers and sisters, that is how it went. And when I screamed loud enough, they started to open that door just a little bit, and we all started to be able to squeeze through it. Not just the colored people, but the others as well, the other minorities too, the Orientals, and the Mexicans, and the Indians, both those here in the United States and those from India.”
This cry for justice extended outside of the United States and her race. She fought and spoke for all oppressed groups from around the globe. Her work on and off the stage showed that she was a true champion of the cause of human rights, as she put her reputation and life on the line for the rights of others.
Her work as an entertainer of color gave her leverage and a voice in the upper echelons of society. By having a spotlight, both literally and metaphorically, she was able to cast her message with volume and urgency, invading the ears of those in power in an attempt to make them listen, or at least to disrupt their line of thinking. With fame came an audience and her global fame meant her words reached to farthest reaches of the world. This made Josephine Baker unique as a human rights activist with one of the largest platforms available.
Connection to Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was the foundation of human rights fought for in the French Revolution. Inspired by thinkers of the Enlightenment, it was the first most comprehensive human rights document, as it protected citizens of all kinds, both men and women, of different races, and of different sexualities. In the Declaration, it states:
“The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man.”
Relating this to Josephine Baker, she never was quiet and used her fame as a way to freely express her opinions to a wide audience. She truly believed in this right as she believed the silencing of oppressed voices was unjust and unfair. The Declaration also states that:
“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”
Josephine Baker believed in true equality and freedom. As a woman of color, she became famous in the white and male-dominated entertainment industry. She became equal in a field where it was heavily disadvantageous to those of her race and gender. She prevailed in a world that wanted to keep her quiet, a true icon of freedom and expression. The Declaration also stated that:
“The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”
Josephine Baker resisted oppression like no other and throughout her life, she fought to preserve the rights of others. In her own words, she was “hounded by the government agencies in America” during the Civil Rights Movement and during World War II put herself in dangerous and life-threatening situations in order to gain an upper hand against the Nazi forces that were threatening Europe.
Therefore, Josephine Baker is connected to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen because she exemplified the rights prescribed and protected in the document. France was a safe haven for her, as a bisexual woman of color, unlike the United States, because of the Declaration. When originally written, the United States Constitution did not offer any rights or protection to different gender, sexual, or racial identities. White men were considered citizens first, therefore leading to the injustices and unfair societal structures suffered by minorities throughout the history of the United States. When she left the United States, the protections offered by the much more expansive Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen allowed her to grow as an artist and influential figure, as the Declaration was the birth of modern feminism and racial equality in the western world. Without this document, she would not have found refuge in France, nor have been able to champion these rights for those around the world.
Connection to Modern Life
Josephine Baker’s legacy and influence affect our world to this day. Without her, superstars of color such as Beyonce would not have had the foundation or history to follow. Artists pass torches through generations, and Josephine Baker created the torch for future independent women artists of color to carry. In her words:
“I took that rocky path, and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had.”
Josephine used stereotypes and tropes of her time to captivate her audience. At the time and to this day, derogatory words like “exotic” and “savage” were used to describe women of color, and she used and embraced these sexual and racial tropes. She had her finger on the pulse of society and by doing so became a superstar. With her platform, she was then able to have a stage to promote her beliefs on social issues. This progression is seen with modern artists of color such as Megan Thee Stallion, as she is similarly an outspoken advocate and activist, while first becoming famous as a sexual and musical icon. Therefore, Josephine Baker laid the blueprint of the activist artist in the mainstream entertainment industry today.
In summary, Josephine Baker’s legacy will be felt for the rest of history. She laid the groundwork for all of those that preceded her, as she was the original international superstar of color. I am personally inspired by her as she was an artist that never stopped evolving while staying true to her beliefs as an outspoken activist. She was a tireless worker with an incomparable work ethic that forever changed the art and entertainment world. I see her as an inspiration and as an icon, and we should all strive to be like Josephine Baker. Hungry, loud, and true to others.
“(1963) Josephine Baker, ‘Speech at the March on Washington” BlackPast, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/speeches-african-american-history/1963-josephine-baker-speech-march-washington/.
“Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789.” Avalon Project – Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp.
“Josephine Baker.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Josephine-Baker.
“Josephine Baker.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 7 June 2021, https://www.biography.com/performer/josephine-baker.
Meares, Hadley Hall. “Paris When It Sizzles: The Loves and Lives of Josephine Baker.” Vanity Fair, 2 Sept. 2020, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/09/josephine-baker-biography-paris.
“Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia.” Encyclopedia.com, 28 Mar 2022, https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baker-josephine-1906-1975#:~:text=Uncertainty%20about%20her%20career%20and,had%20wed%20in%20June%201927.