Remembering Josephine Baker
By Ashley Wright
Black and beautiful; wearing nothing but bananas around her waist, she danced across the stage. The people watched in awe as the lights flashed to the rhythm of her body moving to the music. Her name is Josephine Baker and she caused quite a sensation. With each sway of her hips her feet glided as if she was a goddess in mid air.
In France they called her “La Baker.” In other places, she was known as the “Black Pearl” or the “Black Venus.” Chiefly, Josephine is known as being the first woman of African descent to become a famous entertainer. Not only did Josephine Baker sing, dance, and star in major motion pictures, she contributed to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and inspired female entertainers worldwide.
Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald on June 3, 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the daughter of Carrie McDonald, and although the vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson is the man on her birth certificate, Josephine and her family believe her father was white; a German man of the family that her mother worked for during the time of her pregnancy.
At age 12, Josephine dropped out of school to begin her career as a dancer. A year later she was a street performer. After joining the St. Louis Chorus at age 15, Josephine Baker moved to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. To avoid being discriminated against because of the color of her skin, Baker left the United States and moved to Paris, France.
On October 2, 1925 she opened at the Théatres des Champs-Élysées and became an instant success. Baker was known for her erotic dancing and her practically nude costumes on stage. The uniform that she wore during the Danse Sauvage performance is her most famous; a skirt consisting of a string of artificial bananas which greatly influenced the fashion industry.
It is evident that Josephine Baker has influenced the entertainment industry in many ways. She was the first American-born woman to receive the highest French military honor, the Croix de Guerre. Baker has also been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Her style was a great influence on many of her successors. Diana Ross performed in Bob Mackie-designed outfits similar to those of Baker’s and she reenacted poses made popular by Josephine Baker in various photo sessions. Josephine Baker’s banana skirt costume was worn by Beyonce during her performance of her single Dèjá Vu. As the autobiographical movie of Josephine Baker’s life played by actress Lynn Whitfield states in the opening, “Before there was Marilyn Monroe, there was Josephine Baker.”