Ever since I discovered Josephine Baker, I’ve had a really strong interest and attachment to her art and her life. My obsession with old, French music and film made loving Baker inevitable, but the more I studied her, the more interested I became. Baker started out in St. Louis as scrawny little girl, forced to play up stereotypes to make a living. And by the time she was 19 she was in Paris, was the highest paid chorus girl on the planet, and was combating racism, misogyny, heteronormativity through her body and a sense of agency that is unmatched to this day. Corny as this sounds, when I get really anxious and stressed out, I think of Baker. I think of what she was doing at my age and how she did it against all odds, on her own, with her chin up. She’s my biggest source of motivation.
Baker’s dancing was revolutionary. She turned European ballet on its head and surprised the French with her crossed eyes, jelly-bones, and overt sexuality. She had people reconsidering what it meant to be beautiful and sexy–when she was younger, she was criticized for being too dark (or too light, depending on who she was speaking to. Huh.), too thin, too exotic, etc., and later she had men drooling and women paying money to look like her. And sure, it may seem as though she was exploiting her body or fetishizing her ethnicity, but in a way she was really just mimicking and deconstructing stereotypes and expectations. She did what she wanted. She prayed naked, walked her pet cheetah in the streets of Paris, sang when people told her her voice was bad, danced the way she wanted to, loved who she wanted to, and didn’t let anyone tell her otherwise. Strangely enough, however, she also seems so loving. She’s always smiling in photos, she was eccentric, loved animals and children, and was accepting of all people. Her work in WWII and the Civil Rights Movement show how dedicated she was to equality and giving back. I can only imagine what would have happened to the Civil Rights Movement had Baker accepted Coretta Scott King’s request for Baker to take over after Martin Luther King’s assassination.
A controversial review of “The Ziegfeld Follies” from 1936 from Time Magazine. The critic is harsh and seems a little unaware of just how much of a groundbreaker she really was. Then again, you have to consider the fact that racial attitudes in Europe were more progressive than they were in America, and the authors choice to call her a “bucktoothed negro” as opposed to the French’s “ebony goddess,” could just be a sign of the society they were writing in and for. Josephine Baker was different in an incredibly beautiful way, and I don’t think America really realized that until it was too late. In a few words, I admire Josephine Baker because she never strayed from being herself. She is beautiful, funny, controversial, daring, smart, headstrong, determined, honest, caring, talented, and one of my biggest sources of inspiration.
Read the Time article here.