Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Josephine Baker -- My Inspiration

Josephine Baker was known by many names such as "The Bronze Venus," "Black Pearl," the "Creole Goddess". She is someone who I strongly admire. She was an African-American who moved to France and became a world-renown entertainer. She started out as a dancer at Harlem's "The Cotton Club," but because of her skin color (she was brown-skin but darker than the lighter-skinned chorus girls) she was given comical roles where audiences would laugh at her goofy antics; she ended up leaving the United States and headed to France with Caroline Dudley Reagan's team of singers and dancers to star in "Shuffle Along." Josephine loved France so much because she did not have to face racial discrimination there, and she broke contract with Reagan and stayed in France.

She learned to speak French fluently and starred in the movies "Princess Tam Tam," "Zou Zou," and "Sirene of the Tropics." Her outfits were designed by Christian Dior, and many artists such as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway admired her. Baker went on to show the world that racism is something that is learned and taught to children as they grow up; she took a stand against racism by adopting twelve children from around the world as a way to show that people of different races can live together in peace. She called the children her "Rainbow Tribe." Josephine even spoke out against racism during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s with Martin Luther King, Jr. She even went on to spy for the French against the Nazis during World War II earning her the Croix de Guerre. When she died, she received a full military burial complete with a 21-gun salute.

I admire her because she reminds me of the quote by Rabinadrath Tagore: "I have become my own version of an optimist. If I can't make it through one door, I'll go through another door -- or I'll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present." She made her own door when there was none; instead of letting racism or discrimination stop her, she sought another alternative. In order to make it in life, sometimes you have to leave where you are and go where you will be accepted for who you are. I've bought at least four books on Ms. Baker, and they are the following:

  • Josephine: the Hungry Heart
  • Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time
  • Josephine Baker in Art and Life: the Icon and the Image
  • Josephine

I've also ordered some of her albums such as "Vive la Paris," "En La Habana," and a few others. I've got her movie collection and "The Josephine Baker Story" starring Lynn Whitfield as well. Unfortunately, all good stories of struggle and success can end with a downfall. Josephine eventually ended up with hardly any money to keep her home -- Chateau de Milandes -- and her adopted children. Social services came and took her children away, and she was evicted from her home; her friend, Princess Grace of Monaco -- whom she had met during a fallout with Walter Winchell and the restaurant staff (who refused to serve her because she was Black) -- loaned her money for a villa to stay in. Josephine eventually made her comeback in the 1970s when she returned to the United States; the times had changed, and she received a standing ovation and glowing reviews of her performances. Baker would then die of a heart attack. She was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspaper articles giving positive reviews of her performances; she was buried in Monaco where the streets were flooded with her fans who turned up for the services.

Josephine Baker - "C'est Lui," from the movie "Zou Zou"

"Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one's soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood." -- Josephine Baker

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