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What you don’t know about the amazing Josephine Baker

By Sherry Jones

When I give talks on the great African-American performer Josephine Baker, I always ask what my audience knows of her.

“Singer,” someone will call out. “Dancer.” “Paris.” And, always, “Banana skirt.”

But few seem to know of the most fascinating aspects of this woman’s life.

Yes, she danced topless on the Paris stage (at age 19!) wearing a skirt ringed with rubber bananas, a witty send-up of her own status as a sex symbol and black exotique–emblematic of French colonialism and the national craze for all things African. And her scandalous bootyshaking crosseyed antics made her a superstar.

But Josephine Baker was so much more than a comedic dancer in a silly skirt. She is one of the most remarkable women ever to have lived: a survivor who grew up in poverty, abuse, and neglect; an entertainer who perfected the art of intimacy with her audiences, entrancing them; a beloved singer, opera diva, movie actor, recording artist, and fashionista; a woman of color who became the most highly paid performer in Europe, and more.

Much more.

Fighting for a cause

As is true for so many women, by the time she turned 30, she was just getting started.

In 1936, she turned 30—and, as is true for so many women, began to empower herself. Soon afterward she joined the cause against Nazism, using her skills as a pilot to fly medical supplies weekly for the Red Cross.

While on tour in Berlin, Josephine had experienced racial hatred first-hand from Hitler’s Brownshirts, and she hated the Nazis in turn. By the time they invaded Paris in 1940 she was already working as a spy, seducing generals and diplomats to get information that she sneaked across borders under the guise of touring.

She risked her life every time she passed a customs checkpoint; as a woman of color, if caught, she would be sent to a concentration camp—or worse.

In her castle on France’s Dordogne River, Josephine Baker harbored other members of the French Resistance, who gathered there to plan their next missions, using her remote Medieval fortress as a base. When the Nazis got suspicious and searched the castle and grounds, Josephine took off for Lisbon, the spy capital of Europe, to await orders from Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the French Resistance.

Josephine Baker’s eldest adopted son, Jean-Claude Baker, wrote snidely of Josephine’s later accomplishments, saying she was a thrill-seeker who, unable to safely perform in Paris, chose the excitement and glamour of spying.

Really? She never accepted a dime for her Resistance efforts, and, penniless, often had to sleep in unheated hotels, where she caught pneumonia and nearly died from the complications. With no money for food, she became emaciated. She spent more than a year in a hospital in Morocco, but when U.S. troops flooded the streets, she dragged herself out of bed, got dressed, and went out to greet them. She spent the next several years entertaining the troops, touring throughout Europe, all without pay.

A fully empowered woman

When the war had ended, she emerged a woman aware of her powers. Fighting racism, always a desire, now became her driving force. Unable to bear children, she began adopting babies from cultures around the world. Her vision: a “Rainbow Tribe” of multicolored, multicultural children who loved one another, showing the world that hatred is not innate, but learned. She would eventually adopt 12 children.

The United States would be her next frontier in the fight for equality. Invited to perform in a Miami nightclub, she insisted that its owner include black people in the audience. Because of a city curfew, the nightclub owner had to bus and even fly people in to achieve integration, but the experiment worked: soon other clubs in the city were integrating, too.

Ms. Baker continued her one-woman show for racial justice during her U.S. tour, calling out racism and publicly announcing that she would not appear in any venue that segregated its audiences.

Ultimately, Ms. Baker lost bookings, a film deal, and popularity with U.S. audiences as her fight for equality led the FBI to brand her as a subversive and possible Communist sympathizer. When she left the country, she was told not to come back. She never did until 1963—invited to participate in the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Josephine Baker was the only woman to speak.

About the Author

Author and journalist Sherry Jones is best known for her international bestseller The Jewel of Medina. She is also the author of The Sword of MedinaFour SistersAll QueensThe Sharp Hook of Love, and the novella White Heart.  Sherry lives in Spokane, WA, where, like Josephine Baker, she enjoys dancing, singing, eating, advocating for equality, and drinking champagne.

Her latest novel is Josephine Baker’s Last Dance.

Website: http://authorsherryjones.com
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About the Book:

From the author of The Jewel of Medina, a moving and insightful novel based on the life of legendary performer and activist Josephine Baker, perfect for fans of The Paris Wife and Hidden Figures.

Discover the fascinating and singular life story of Josephine Baker—actress, singer, dancer, Civil Rights activist, member of the French Resistance during WWII, and a woman dedicated to erasing prejudice and creating a more equitable world—in Josephine Baker’s Last Dance.

In this illuminating biographical novel, Sherry Jones brings to life Josephine’s early years in servitude and poverty in America, her rise to fame as a showgirl in her famous banana skirt, her activism against discrimination, and her many loves and losses. From 1920s Paris to 1960s Washington, to her final, triumphant performance, one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century comes to stunning life on the page.

With intimate prose and comprehensive research, Sherry Jones brings this remarkable and compelling public figure into focus for the first time in a joyous celebration of a life lived in technicolor, a powerful woman who continues to inspire today.

Purchase Josephine Baker’s Last Dance in paperback,  ebook,  and  audiobook  formats on  Simon and Schuster’s website (available on Amazon,  Barnes and Noble,  BooksAMillion,  Indiebound,  Kobo,  and  other sites). Learn more about Sherry’s books  at  www.authorsherryjones.com

 

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