By Kelly McDonnell
This article was first published February 3, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.
Actress and activist Josephine Baker found the stage when she was barely a teenager, struggling with homelessness and poverty in St. Louis, but her enchanting presence on stages across the world would make her a memorable queer and Black icon.
In 1922, Baker performed in Shuffle Along, one of the first popular American Broadway musicals written and composed and performed by Black artists and Black actors. After this debut, she quickly became a star on stages both in the theatrical and political worlds.
Baker was celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, a time of artistic and personal growth that championed Black identity and creativity in America. She eventually moved to Paris and performed on iconic stages and became one of the first popular Black silver screen stars in 1930.
During World War II, she assisted French operations to resist Nazi’s occupation of France. She reported Nazi secrets she overheard when performing for French rebels.
Baker returned to the United States in 1951, as the Civil Rights Movement began taking hold of politics and society. In 1963, she was one of the only women who spoke during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She toured with the NAACP and raised funds for France’s International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.
Baker was forthright about her sensuality and beauty as a Black woman. She did many photoshoots dressed in revealing clothing as well as in men’s tuxedos. Baker had four marriages throughout her lifetime and intimate relationships with women like Maude Russell, Clara Smith and Colette.
Baker died in 1975 in Paris, a few days after her final, sold-out performance.
When she spoke at the March on Washington, she expressed her power and resilience as a Black woman: “When I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”