Highlighting Black + LGBT Pioneers: Josephine Baker

by Victoria Clarice Anderson

Josephine Baker’s life story was unbelievably queer, boundary-defying and transgressive. The first indication of this is found in the St. Louis city records. Baker’s mother, Carrie McDonald, became pregnant while working for a German family, and was admitted to the exclusively white Female Hospital. This was 1906: America was segregated and patriarchal, and typically Black women would have their babies at home with a midwife. The only way Ms. McDonald could have been admitted to a white hospital was with the help of a white man. This could possibly Josephine’s actual father, who is listed on her birth certificate only as “Edw.” The secret of his identity died with Carrie, who refused to discuss it. She let people think Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer, was Josephine’s father. He was willing to play along, influencing the young artist by immersing her in music.

Forced to work as a domestic home of white families at an early age, Josephine’s childhood was cut short. This work left her vulnerable to sexual predatory advances; while we will never know the full consequences, it is clear is that this put her in touch “with sexuality…in an adult way,’ helping Josephine discover one means of escaping poverty. At the age of thirteen she was the subject of a neighborhood scandal which involved “playing house” with a fifty-year-old steel foundry worker known as ‘Mr. Dad.’”  Her mother soon put an end to this arrangement, and an underage Josephine was married to Willie Wells with the blessings of her family, friends and minister. Yet the marriage soon ended.

Josephine first danced in public on the city streets of St. Louis for nickels and dimes. She was later recruited by Bob Russell and the Russell Owens Company to tour the black for vaudeville circuit, a job she received through the influence of Clara Smith, a blues singer. Josephine became her protégée and “lady lover.”

Baker arrived in New York City at the age of 15, during the Harlem Renaissance. Soon after, she married William Baker, the son of a prominent Philadelphia restauranteur, but her relationships with women continued. In the words of Maude Russell, a dancer who worked with Russell at Philadelphia’s Standard Theatre, as quoted in The Gay and Lesbian Review:

“Often … we girls would share a [boardinghouse] room because of the cost. … Well, many of us had been kind of abused by producers, directors, leading men—if they liked girls. … And the girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers, but lesbians weren’t well accepted in show business, they were called bull dykers. I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call us today.”

The article continues: “These comments make lady lovers sound like little more than some kind of healing program for sexually abused women performers—one way of deflecting attention from the facts of what was going on. But they point to a subset of black performers, both male and female, whose sexual orientation was directed toward their own sex…Just how many lesbian affairs Josephine engaged in, and with whom, will probably never be known with any certainty. Jean-Claude’s (one of her unofficially adopted son’s) biography mentions six of her women lovers by name: Clara Smith, Evelyn Sheppard, Bessie Allison, and Mildred Smallwood, all of whom she met on the black performing circuit during her early years onstage in the United States; along with fellow American black expatriate Bricktop and the French novelist Colette after she relocated to Paris. Bricktop in particular served as an early mentor who showed her the ropes around Paris for the first few months after her move to Europe.”[2]

Josephine left and divorced William Baker, keeping the surname. Disgusted by the treatment fo blacks in America, she renounced her citizenship. She became a French citizen in 1937 after her marriage to Jean Lion.

In Paris, France, her first job was “La revue Negre.” Her next noteworthy performance was at the Folies Bergère, where her “banana dance” became legendary. Artists and philosophers dubbed her the “Black Venus,” Bronze Venus,” “Black Pearl” and “Creole Goddess.”

Pablo Picasso is quoted with describing her thusly: “Tall, coffee skin, ebony eyes, legs of paradise, a smile to end all smiles.”

Josephine Baker immediately became a French favorite. Her home country was less charmed: during the Red Scare era of the 1950’s, she was falsely accused of being a communist and barred from the US. She used her platform to combat racism by refusing to perform in clubs that practiced racial segregation. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King offered her unofficial leadership in the United States Civil Rights movement; Baker declined out of concern for her family’s safety.

With her last husband, Jo Bouillion, Josephine adopted 12 children – her “rainbow tribe,” of all different nationalities and races.

Decades before the gay rights movement, Baker was an iconoclast who connected with queer audiences by confronting the norms of “acceptability” in terms of public displays of eroticism. Her influence is seen throughout the 20th century history of dance of performance. “Nobody else performing in Europe during the 1930’s moved like she did,” said her adopted son Jean-Claude in an interview. “Later, here in the U.S., it would be called ‘vogueing.’” [3]

In 1961, she received the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award. Yet by the late 1960’s she was having financial difficulties was no longer performing. Things began to turn around when Grace Kelly offered Josephine her home in Monaco. She performed at Monoco’s summer ball in 1974 and went onto stage a week of performance in NYC called “An Evening With Josephine.” After celebrating her half-century on the stage in a Paris revue, Josephine was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and did not regain consciousness. She died on April 10, 1975.

She was a featured actress in the following films, among countless other soundtracks:


Princesse Tam-Tam

Moulin Rouge

The French Way

Graphic from @queerportraits – IG