Josephine Baker grew up in a deprived childhood in St. Louis and rose up to the pinnacle of the Harlem Renaissance to perform as a chorus girl before going to Paris. Here her skin colour was celebrated instead of maligned and her legend was given birth.
Baker also pushed boundaries in fashion. Baker’s signature style consisted of feathers, sparkling jewelry, headdresses and scantily-clad outfits. She wore not much more than a couple of strings of pearls, huge and fabulous chandelier earrings and a “skirt” of bananas around her hips for her dances at the Follies Bergère. Her talent and dances were much celebrated.
Baker helped the French resistance movement during World War II. She worked as an American Red Cross nurse and also as an underground courier. She used her skills to entertain the troops as a sublieutenant in the women’s auxiliary of the Free French forces. She performed for U.S. troops in Algeria with the USO. Baker also showed her caring, maternal side by adopting her self-proclaimed “rainbow tribe,” which was a dozen children of different races. She wished to show that children of different colours and nationalities could live and do well together. She adopted 12 children from all across the world. Kind-hearted Josephine also helped to advance the civil rights movement in America. She refused to perform in theaters that discriminated and wouldn’t go on stage until black people were able to sit in the same areas as white people. She spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, telling the crowd in true inspirational fashion that they looked like “Salt and pepper. Just what it should be.”