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I was today years old when I found out that after years of spying for France, Josephine Baker went to Germany to perform for sick and dying former inmates at Buchenwald concentration camp after the camp was liberated. She apparently never spoke about it publicly.
I knew some things about her, like that she spoke at the March on Washington, but I did not know THAT.
Josephine Baker OPENED FOR MLK at the March on Washington.…
She wore her French Air Force uniform from the French Resistance (she was given an honorary title/uniform). She got her pilot's license after her French Jewish boyfriend and future ex-husband #3 taught her to fly. She flew Red Cross supplies to Belgium for awhile. Also, SPYING.
One of my favorite random things about Josephine Baker is that she sent an assistant to successfully retrieve her pets from her chateau before the Nazis rolled in and said that her animals would not give up on her, so she wasn't going to give up on them.
Showing up at the most important & widely covered antiracist protest march in the history of the racist nation you left for a better but still racist one while wearing your adopted country's uniform that you were awarded for spying for them? ICONIQUE chaotic bisexual energy.
"...I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents...but I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee and that made me mad...And then look out, ‘cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world."
Then she tells the young people that they must get an education. She literally goes, "I don’t want to sound corny—but friends, the pen really is mightier than the sword." I mean. A WOMAN.
Read the whole speech, it's great.…
"I wanted to make it easier for you...But I do not want you to have to run away to get it. And mothers and fathers, if it is too late for you, think of your children. Make it safe here so they do not have to run away, for I want for you and your children what I had."
In July 1951 in Los Angeles at the Biltmore Hotel, she heard a man refer to her by the N word and she called the LAPD! She made a citizen's arrest and the judge sentenced him to ten days in jail or a $100 fine for disturbing the peace.
On tour in Argentina in the early '50s, she said the U.S. was racist and had a "Nazi-style democracy." The U.S. immigration bureau declared that she couldn't come back until she apologized. She said it would be an honor to be barred from the U.S. (She visited again, eventually.)
Now to put in context Josephine's heroic later life, she was born to two performers in St.Louis, and her father left after her younger brother was born. Her mom, Carrie, was abusive to her and blamed her for her father leaving. And she was married at 13 to a man in his twenties.
BEFORE Josephine goes off to her 1st marriage (at age 13, and to my understanding this was legal), when she's 11 she lives through the heinous KKK and police (same diff)-created three days of violence and murder ending in the deaths of dozens - and as many as 100 - Black people.
So she has a mother who despises her and mocks her for being too light-skinned, she has to work for abusive employers who torment her & make her sleep outside, and she's growing up in the context of horrific anti-Black violence in St. Louis. And this is all by the time she's 13.
Now I can't tell you if this part is true, especially since Josephine sometimes switched up a few details for effect (like any storyteller), but apparently husband number 1, aka a child abuser named Willie, fought with her and she smashed a beer bottle over his head and left.
At 15, she married a different Willie. Willie Deux was Willie Baker, and that's how Freda Josephine McDonald became Josephine Baker. She became a local/touring pro performer, then a Broadway chorus girl. She left Willie II & went to France at 19, but didn't get legally divorced.
Josephine debuted in La Revue Nègre on 2 October 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Eventually she adopted 12 kids, opened restaurants, had a bunch of diamond collars for her pets, married 4 dudes, had men and women as lovers, and made and lost a lot of money.
ALSO she was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture (La Sirène des tropiques, 1927) AND we didn't even GET to the banana dance AND American critics were consistently racist shitheads to her for decades of her career. I mean, there's just a lot.
ALSO a member of the French intelligence service who became a member of the French resistance traveled undercover with her on tour during WWII so they could fuck shit up on behalf of her adopted country, ANYWAY, she was the best.
Josephine Baker was given the Medal of the Resistance for fucking spying for fucking France because, as she said, France had given her everything and she was willing to give her life for France. She was consistently outspoken against racism everywhere she went, no matter what.
And the FBI treated her like shit, put her on a watch list, spread rumors that she was a spying Communist, all the shit they pulled with Black activists. If she had lived full-time in the USA, I suspect her life would've been endangered (which it was anyway throughout her life).
Josephine Baker's life is too full and great for one Twitter thread, one book, or the one biopic I think she's gotten ever (which was and is critically acclaimed). She was human, and she was real, and she was a goddamn star.
P.S. I've been reading a lot about Josephine Baker and listening to more as well as seeking out documentaries, and a GREAT start is this episode of the podcast "You're Dead To Me" with @greg_jenner @destheray (HI DESIREE!!!!) and @MChresfield…
P.P.S. I apologize if I've made any errors in the preceding thread. I'm not a trained historian (YET), just a wild Josephine Baker fangirl apparently. Also I am SCREAMING imagining what it was like for her to be asked to open for MLK. At the March. On Washington. A;LKSDJFAaflakjf
P.P.P.S. It is WILD to me that as far as I know we have ONE (1) beautiful, critically acclaimed biopic of Josephine Baker and that's it. Yet another egregious example of how the white-dominated industry often neglects, ignores, erases Black women in history. Come ON.
P.P.P.P.S. HOW IS THE LIFE OF MISS JOSEPHINE BAKER NOT A CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED SERIES ON YOUR HBO OR YOUR SHOWTIME OR YOUR NETFLIX HOW HOW (racism is the answer, also possibly a life rights issue, not sure who holds her life rights if anybody does, but she DID adopt 12 kids, so.)
The great news is there are Black women writers in TV and film who could tackle this story from a variety of perspectives. I can't wait to see it. This will be a huge TV event, as the HBO '91 biopic was, but even bigger.…
I will stop ranting about Josephine Baker, but if the '91 HBO biopic won all those Emmys, I can only imagine what a multi-season TV series could do in terms of critical acclaim, viewership, etc. The writers would almost never run out of story, a la The Crown. She was a queen!
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