Being myself African and having spent twenty in France, I naturally felt affinities with individuals who had lived such an experience. This is where I realized that many African-American artists, whether in the field of entertainment, literature, music, fashion, had stayed in France, even going so far as to establish there.
Today I would like to introduce you to the first, the most emblematic of all the African-Americans who passed through France, the one who will influence and mark history: Josephine Baker.
It is worth recalling her origins and her career until her arrival in France in Cherbourg in October 1925. She was born in the United States, in Saint Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906 to an orphan mother adopted by a couple former slaves. She is the eldest of a sibling of four and at eight years old, in addition to school, begins to do cleaning in wealthy white families to feed her brothers and sisters. One of her bosses burns her hand with her cigarette to punish her for having put too much soap in the laundry. At twelve she left school and became a street child. She sleeps on boxes in the street and does not disdain the garbage cans for food. She survives by dancing on street corners. At thirteen she married and divorced at fourteen. She remarried at fifteen and joined a street troupe, the “Jones Family Band”. The troupe wins a contract in New York. Joséphine leaves for New York, she is sixteen years old.
Very quickly, not only did she play on Broadway, notably in the first musical with a troupe composed entirely of blacks "Shuffle Along", which was a huge success, but also, what is perhaps even more surprising, joined the group of artists of the "Harlem Renaissance" movement in the company of Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Duke Elington, Zora Neale Hurston, to name but a few, and is part of this Afro-American avant-garde which marks literature, painting, entertainment, music and civil rights at the start of the XNUMXth century.
In New York she meets Caroline Dudley Reagan, the wife of the commercial attaché of the American embassy in Paris, who has the idea of bringing together an all-black troupe to put on a show in Paris. Caroline Dudley sees Josephine's potential and hires her. Caroline Dudley succeeded in convincing twelve black musicians, including Sydney Bechet, and eight singers, including Joséphine Baker, i.e. twenty people, to leave for Paris.
On October 2, 1925, the Revue Nègre premiered at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. The Théâtre des Champs Elysées inaugurated in 1913 with the Ballets Russes and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, a performance that nearly degenerated into a riot on this very select Avenue Montaigne, a theater that claims to be an avant-garde venue. And it is in this spirit that La Revue Nègre is presented. A show that, with jazz and the liberation of the body in a place reserved for contemporary experiences and frequented by the "all of Paris" at the time, allows a popular genre to emerge as an art in its own right. It reveals for the first time in France an authentic black culture far from the clichés conveyed by colonialism. A show that inspires and resonates with writers, painters, poets of the Parisian avant-garde. Let us quote Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Georges Braque, in fact all the cream of the artistic scene of this first half of the XX° century.
Not only was the Revue Nègre a huge success, but it triggered positions and confrontations that had nothing to envy to those that had occurred during the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps in this same place twelve years earlier. La Revue Nègre is sold out in European capitals. The sequel is the most famous part of the rich and amazing life of Josephine Baker, the part of her life that received the most media coverage. The Folies Bergères from 1927, and everything else. But there is a whole part of Josephine Baker's life that is much less publicized but which for me is just as important and which gives another dimension to the character who emerged from the streets and the garbage cans of Saint Louis Missouri.
In the same way that she arrived in New York at 16 in 1922, she immediately knew where it was going and participated in the founding of the "Harlem Renaissance" movement, once in Paris at 19, it was in Montmartre and Montparnasse that she is. She became friends with Jean Cocteau, Picasso made portraits of her, Nadar photographed her, she fascinated Hemingway who declared "The most sensational woman anyone ever saw". She becomes the muse of the Cubists. She hires Georges Simenon as secretary. It's the Art Deco era, and once again Joséphine Baker is present. His staging, his sets, his costumes, his dances and his songs will be one of the sources of inspiration for Parisian artists. I love the poster for the Casino de Paris by Louis Gaudin. For the anecdote Joséphine Baker had a cheetah, Chiquita, which she regularly brought on stage and which scared more than one! She becomes the highest paid artist in Europe, male and female. In 1935 she was the first black heroine of a film production "Princess Tam-tam" which premiered in New York.
In December 1934 she was the diva in Offenbach's opera. You have to realize the amount of work, the hours and hours of rehearsals, that it takes for a voice to go from the register of a revue to that of an opera. Imagine, an African-American diva in 1934 in an opera, the epitome of European culture! This is unheard of ! It is a success. From now on, her career will be as much that of a magazine leader as an opera singer. It was Shirley Basset who called Josephine Baker a great diva and who swore that throughout her career she had never seen and probably never would see such a great singer with such a stage presence.
Josephine Baker thinks it's time to return to the United States. In 1936 she performed in the Ziegfeld Follie on Broadway in New York. But the United States is not ready to be able and to want to appreciate the sophistication of the game of Joséphine Baker and it is a fiasco. In 1937 she decided to return to France. There she meets Jean Lion, a wealthy broker who falls in love with her. He asks her to marry him. She accepts. Here she is French.
When war was declared, she honored her French nationality and immediately enlisted and became a French counterintelligence agent. Following the defeat of France and from November 1940 she joined the secret services of Free France. A choice that says a lot about his lucidity and the strength of his values. She refuses to sing for the German occupiers unlike Maurice Chevallier. During the war, she carried out important, perilous and dangerous missions that put her life in danger. She is known to have crossed borders and used her musical scores to conceal information she had collected such as lists of German officers and spies. From 1941 to 1944 she operated from North Africa and lived in Morocco. Engaged in 1944 in the female forces of the Air Force, she landed in Marseilles in October 1944 and took part in the campaign for the liberation of France with the first French army. His commitment and devotion to the resistance earned him the French Resistance medal with rosette, the 1939-1945 War Cross with palm and the insignia of Knight of the Legion of Honor.
The easiest way to say what her fight as a resistance fighter was is to quote in extenso the decree of December 9, 1957 which summarizes why she was made a knight of the Legion and received the Croix de guerre with palm:
“As early as 1939, gets in touch with the counterintelligence services, providing valuable information, particularly on the possibility of Italy entering the war, on Japanese policy and on certain German agents in Paris. In October 1940, gets in touch with an officer of the 2nd Bureau. Of remarkable courage and composure, carries secret messages and continues to provide very useful intelligence to the Allied Intelligence Service. Mobilized for the Red Cross, spends without counting.
Leaves Paris for the Dordogne, suspected by the Germans of hiding weapons, a search is carried out on his property, showing remarkable courage and composure. In order to facilitate the departure of intelligence agents for England, rises an artistic troop composed only of people eager to join the FFL; passes through Spain, supposedly bound for Brazil. In Lisbon, receives a telegram from London asking him to organize a new intelligence service in France. Joining Marseille, put in touch with an information agent is obliged to resume her artistic activity. Wanting to leave the soil of France went to Morocco in 1941, collaborated with the French resistance movements.
Invited to Embassies and Consulates during a tour in Spain, collects valuable information. As soon as the Allied landings in North Africa, barely recovered from a long illness, enlisted in the Women's Formations of the FAFL – Sent to the Middle East, put her talent and her energy at the service of French and allied combatants. Follows the French Expeditionary Corps in Italy. Beautiful figure of the French woman in the service of the Resistance”.
At the Liberation, she took her place in her own right and with panache among all that Paris and France counted intellectuals, politicians, artists. She befriends Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. She is their inspiration, and both love to dress her. But France and Europe are devastated, the Haute Couture sector is bearing the brunt of this time of misery.
In 1949 Joséphine Baker is again on stage at the Folies Bergères. Strengthened by the heroism that is recognized for her, she frees herself and, whether in her music or the subjects treated, considerably broadens the sources of her inspiration. Her review was a huge success and Josephine Baker regained her place as the biggest Parisian and French star.
As one can imagine, she is not the woman to dwell on the failure of her return to the US in 1936, and believes that this is the time to let people know who she is and to establish herself as an artist in her own right. country. In 1951 she had a proposal to perform in a nightclub in Miami for an extraordinary fee of 10.000 dollars. But now, on principle, she refuses to perform in places forbidden to blacks. In the United States we are in the midst of the “Jim Crow” period, of apartheid. She makes it a condition of her commitment that the nightclub be desegregated and open to blacks and whites alike. After difficult negotiations the club ends up reluctantly accepting.
She tells herself that her return to the US could be an opportunity to help her friends Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain and French haute couture to conquer the North American market which, unlike those of France and Europe, is in full economic expansion. She offers Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain to leave with a whole batch of dresses they have designed for her and wear them on stage during her performances. In Miami the show is sold out. Critics and the public are in awe of her outfits by Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain. She opens the American market to French haute couture, she is its first ambassador.
Encouraged by the success of the review in Miami, she decided to take her show on an American tour to set the record straight in relation to the failure of 1936. Her tour was a triumph. It ends with a parade in Harlem followed by more than 100.000 people. What revenge!
On October 19, 1951 in New York, after her show, she chose to go to the "Stork Club", one of the most select and posh clubs in Manhattan. An incident occurs: she has difficulty getting served. In New York, at the time, the most select places did everything to discourage the presence of blacks in their establishment. As it happens, young Grace Kelly, 22, the future Princess Grace, a rising TV star, is present at a nearby table with a group. Grace Kelly realizes what is happening, she intervenes and takes Josephine Baker's side. By mutual agreement the two tables get up and leave the club. It was the start of a long friendship between the two stars and a story that says a lot about the political situation in the United States at the time.
The very evening of the incident Josephine Baker telephoned Walter White, the man at the head of the NAACP, the most important organization for the defense of the rights of blacks in the United States. The next day a demonstration called at short notice by the NAACP took place in front of the Stork Club. During the demonstration Josephine Baker during an interview on New York radio announces that Walter Winchell was indeed present at the Stork Club at the time of the incident but that he did not deign to intervene. At the time Walter Winchell was the most popular television journalist in the United States. The same day on television Walter Winchell answers him and denies that there was an incident. He even goes so far as to insinuate that Josephine Baker would have communist sympathies and perhaps even that she would be, it is enough to note her relations with notorious European communists and her stay in the USSR in 1936.
This is the era of the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union clash. The communist bloc does not hesitate to describe how African-Americans are deprived of fundamental rights in a country that claims to be the country of freedom and equality. Joséphine Baker says loud and clear what she thinks and lives. It denounces the segregationist system instituted by the legislation of the Black Code and denounces the “Jim Crow” system and the apartheid regime that results from it. And when she speaks she is heard around the world. This is not to please the United States government.
Winchell has a relationship with Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, and Martin Dies, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, head of HUAC, the Senate committee responsible for investigating the behavior of citizens believed to have ties to any activity deemed “un-American,” including any activity that might be associated with communism. A committee where Senator Joseph McCarthy was most active to such an extent that this period between the end of 1940 and the end of 1950 would be known as that of "McCarthism", the witch hunt, Charlie Chaplin would be one of them, going so far as to have to exile. It is certain that for Hoover, Dies and McCarthy, the words of Josephine Baker on the lack of justice and equality in the United States can only be inspired by communism. Result: Josephine Baker's work visa in the United States was suddenly withdrawn. She is forced to cancel all her contracts and return to France. It will be ten years before she sets foot on her native land.
As a result, she performs more on the international scene, whether in South America, the Caribbean, Western or Eastern Europe. The United States government pressures the South American and Caribbean governments, which it considers to be its preserve, to ban Josephine Baker from performing professionally. In November 1950 she still managed to perform for the first time in Havana at the America Theater, the room was always full. The Cuban public adores her and she returns it. This is the time when the American mafia took control of the Cuban economy.
In view of a next visit to Havana in January 1952, she rents a suite at the National Hotel, owned by Lucky Luciano. When the management realizes that Josephine Baker is black, the reservation is canceled and she is informed that an error has been made and that unfortunately there are no more availabilities. During her tours in Latin America she created an association against racism and discrimination on the scale of the South American continent with its headquarters in Buenos Aires where she is close to the presidential couple Juan and Eva Peron.
On February 13, 1953, during his third visit to Havana, a student demonstration took place against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. A student is killed. His remains are placed in the large amphitheater of the university and a wake is organized. Josephine Baker participates. She meets there for the first time Fidel Castro, a student at the University of Havana. The next day the body of the student is taken to the cemetery during a parade followed by thousands of people with Fidel Castro at the head, Josephine Baker is at his side. On February 18, she was arrested by the Batista police. She is interrogated but finally released thanks to outside pressure. She finished her tour the same month at the Campoamor theater and let it be known with sadness that she would not return to Cuba as long as Batista was in power there.
In 1965, Batista on the run and Castro in power, Josephine Baker was invited to the Tricontinental Conference which took place in Havana. She is enthusiastic about multiculturalism, the diversity of origins, the interbreeding represented by the delegates of the Tricontinental and she makes it known. She performs for free on several occasions. His show is broadcast live and in its entirety on national television. She is the personal guest of Fidel Castro who offers her to spend the summer with all his children in a villa by the sea.
Let's do a little flashback and go back to 1963 in Washington. On August 28, the March for Work, Justice and Freedom takes place. The largest demonstration that has ever taken place in favor of civil rights: between 250.000 and 500.000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. The day when Martin Luther King delivers his speech that has become so emblematic: “I Have a Dream”. Among all the speakers a woman spoke! Josephine Baker. She does not speak as an internationally known star but as an activist. And so that we are not mistaken, she came there in her lieutenant's uniform of the Free French Forces wearing decorations and medals, in particular those of the French Resistance with rosette, the Croix de guerre 1939-1945 with palm and the insignia Knight of the Legion of Honor, Joséphine Baker delivers a twenty-minute speech.
She speaks as a black woman who has suffered the full brunt of segregation, as a black woman who has fought this oppression with her weapons and in her own way, as a black woman who knows the place of black women in her community. . She spoke as the heiress of those black women who campaign for both control of their bodies, security and happiness within their community while campaigning for the full citizenship of that community. By speaking of love and happiness as counterparts of those of justice and freedom, she contributes to the full representation of black women within the civil rights movement.
Now she devotes a lot of her time and energy to the cause of African-Americans. Through the NAACP she gives countless lectures and speeches, especially in majority black universities. So much so that after the assassination of Martin Luther King, his widow Coretta Scott King, asked him if she would like to take over from her husband at the head of the Civil Rights Movement. After many days of reflection Josephine Baker declines the offer, arguing that her children were still too young to be able to do without their mother.
A good opportunity to present an episode in the story of Josephine Baker and her "rainbow tribe" at the Château des Milandes.
It was in 1941, while on a spy mission for Free France in Morocco, that she gave birth to a stillborn child. She then contracted a severe postpartum infection and underwent a hysterectomy. She remains breastfed for almost a year. Barely recovered, she returned to combat in the fight against Hitler. But one of the great desires and dreams of her life, to give birth, is definitively denied to her. Never mind, she will be the mother of the twelve children of the "rainbow tribe" of the Château de Milandes: Akio and Janot from Japan, Jari from Finland, Luis from Colombia, Jean-Claude, Moïse and Noël from France, Brahim and Marianne from Algeria, Mara from Venezuela, Kofi from Ivory Coast, Stelina from Morocco. And God knows if she will give them maternal love, her time and her financial resources even to the point of jeopardizing her physical and material well-being.
In 1964 the Château des Milandes went bankrupt. Joséphine Baker uses all her energy to replenish the coffers by performing without interruption. She manages to resist, but in 1968 the financial deficit is such that the castle is sold. However, she obtained the right to stay there until March 1969. While she was on tour, she learned that the new owner had taken over the premises. She returns to Milandes where the electricity and the water are cut off and sequesters herself in the kitchen. She begins a hunger strike, unheard of in France. Coming out of the kitchen to fetch water outside, she finds the kitchen door locked upon her return. She decides not to let go and spends the night outside curled up on the front steps. It's winter and it's raining. Suffering, she is hospitalized. Finally she obtains a judicial authorization allowing her to return to the kitchen.
Completely ruined, her friend Grace Kelly, now Princess of Monaco, offered her accommodation in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and invited her to perform in Monaco. She quickly returned to the stage, first at the Olympia, then at Carngie Hall in New York in 1973 where she finally received a standing ovation, at the Palladium in London and at the Gala du cirque in Paris in 1974. March 24 1975, to celebrate her fifty years of French career and supported by Grace Kelly, she inaugurates the retrospective “Joséphine à Bobino”. All seats are sold out weeks in advance. During the premiere, in the room, in addition to Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, we can see Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Liza Minelli, Alain Delon, Jeanne Moreau, Pierre Balmain and many others. The reviews are rave reviews. Every evening the public is enthusiastic and the room is always full. Once again, against all odds, Josephine Baker takes control of her life as an artist and regains her position as a star. On April 9, after her fourteenth performance at Bobino, Josephine Baker returned home and went to bed. She won't wake up. What better end of life could one imagine for the beast of the stage that she was! And once again with what panache, again the adored star that she knew how to become again each time!
Apart from her exceptional career, what inspires me most Josephne Baker is her determination, her values, her commitments, her resilience, her vital energy, her intelligence, her charisma, her elegance, her humanism.
A few quotes from Josephine Baker that situate the character:
“I was the wild idol that Paris needed. After four years of violence (the 14-18 war), I symbolized rediscovered freedom, the discovery of Negro art, of jazz. I represented the freedom to cut my hair, to walk around naked, to throw all the shackles to hell, including the corset. »
She knows how to use ambient stereotypes to at the same time express and convey ideas and behaviors that are at the forefront of the spirit of the times. While satisfying the taste for exoticism, it is subversive, rebellious and visionary.
His style is transgressive and his tours panic countries that will soon switch to fascism. Thus, the Catholic Church manages to ban its shows in major capitals, such as Vienna or Munich. Racist demonstrations prevent certain performances from taking place. But Joséphine is not one of those who give up. On the contrary, it makes it known loud and clear that it is against racism and anti-Semitism at a time when the vast majority are silent and when such statements can have serious consequences.
In September 1939, as soon as war was declared, Josephine Baker wanted to enlist. She meets Jacques Abtey, head of military counterintelligence in Paris. She turns to him in these terms:
“France made me what I am. The Parisians gave me their hearts. I am ready, captain, to give them my life today. You can dispose of me as you wish. »
There is no detour. The word is worth the deed, the commitment is total.
The French defeat followed and the armistice of June 22, 1940. She was one of the resistance fighters from the start. From November 24, 1940, she joined the secret services of Free France, always via Major Abtey, who remained her dealing officer until the Liberation. Unwavering determination. Her life, she will risk it more than once in the name of France.
Finally, in March 1969, when all is lost, she finds herself spending the night outside, like the street child of Saint Louis Missouri that she was, she has the strength to remember a stage of his breathtaking journey and thanks to him to keep his head above water and overcome the dreadful present. She manifests there her extraordinary vital energy, a vital energy which is all the greater as the situation is desperate and as all the forces are united against it.
“Sitting on this porch where my soul has been defiled, I know that I will carry to my grave the ovation that Paris reserved for me on August 15, 1944, when I returned as a second lieutenant of the girls of the 'air. »
Josephine Baker's life was a staging and this staging became her life. A woman who knew how to take power over images and who, as Lilian Thuram and Pascal Blanchard write in the catalog of the exhibition "L'Invention du Sauvage", knew how to go beyond caricature to make it a weapon of emancipation in all the areas it has touched.