Today we honor and celebrate a bisexual pioneer in racial justice and entertainment, the marvelous Josephine Baker. She was born on this date in 1906 in St. Louis. Freda Josephine McDonald was the daughter of Carrie McDonald and drummer Eddie Carson. She worked in white homes starting at the age of 8. At 12, she quit school and ran away, living in cardboard shelters and dancing on street corners for change.
Her dancing got the attention of the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show, which she joined at age 15. She parlayed this experience into a position in Broadway revues at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. She was a brilliant dancer and was selected for a tour of Europe, opening in Paris in 1925. She broke her New York contract and remained in France after the tour, becoming fluent in French and celebrated as one of the finest performers in Europe.
Baker’s fame grew as she developed more exotic performances and took on film roles. She returned to the U.S. in 1935 for a run with the Ziegfeld Follies but experience limited acceptance and blatant racism. She returned to France and took up permanent residence, marrying Jean Lion and becoming a French citizen. She spied for the French resistance during World War II, using her presence at gala events to collect information. Baker adopted 12 multi-ethnic orphans whom she dubbed the “Rainbow Tribe.” Despite her successful marriage, she had many affairs with men and women (including painter Freda Kahlo).
After the war she became a civil rights activist, supporting the black rights movement growing in the U.S.On occasions when she performed in the U.S., she refused to perform at segregated clubs. She supported the NAACP and returned to America for a number of major events. In 1963, she spoke at the March on Washington at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Baker was the only official female speaker and while wearing her Free French uniform emblazoned with her medal of the Légion d’honneur she introduced the “Negro Women for Civil Rights.”
After King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Baker in Holland to ask if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over, Baker declined, saying her children were “too young to lose their mother”.
On April 8, 1975, Baker starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, Joséphine à Bobino 1975, celebrating her 50 years in show business. Demand for seating was such that fold-out chairs had to be added to accommodate spectators. The opening-night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli.Four days later, Baker was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her performance. She was in a coma after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. She was taken to Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, where she died, aged 68, on April 12, 1975. The first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral, Baker locked up the streets of Paris one last time.
Also born on June 3 (1926) was iconic gay poet Allen Ginsberg, whom TSM celebrated during Gay History Month last year.