Saturday, 20 May 2017

Josephine Baker Day

In 1963 the NAACP (The oldest and boldest civil rights movement in the USA)
 designated May 20
Josephine Baker Day

Very soon after I started writing this post I ran into a problem I often have - how do I do justice to the subject without boring everyone.  So much has been written by so many people and so much better than I could achieve that I  have decided to direct you to some of that material rather than trying to distill it for your consumption.

I first became aware of Josephine Baker and the place she has in the hearts of the French when I worked in Paris. Our office was in Neuilly and we often (too often by British standards) repaired to the local cafĂ©  which was named after one of her most famous songs - J'ai Deux Amours
See her perform it here  - J'ai deux amours

Baker is most widely known for her erotic and humourous dancing and singing and, in particular, for her Banana Dance where she wore nothing but a skirt comprising sixteen (artificial) bananas. The film clips of this all come from performances in USA where she wore more garments for local taste.

But this clip will give you an idea of her humour - Don't Touch Me Tomatoes
La Baker, as the French called her, was more than  just a singer and dancer.
This article entitled Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy    goes a long way to explaining this.

But Josephine Baker was more than  just a Dancer, Singer, Activist & Spy
Growing up in USA she encountered ingrained racial prejudice which contrasted to her reception in France. Here the public took her into their hearts - granted her citizenship and awarded her gallantry medals for her resistance work. When she died in 1975 she was buried with full military honours - 21 gun salute included - by her adopted homeland, France.
Throughout her life she fought against prejudice which came from her belief that all people should, and could, live in harmony . She did not agree with the Melting Pot philosophy of racial integration. She believed all cultures must be celebrated for their diversity and by living by this doctrine the world would be a more peaceful and happier place. 
Her approach to demonstrating this was revolutionary : initially lauded but later considered an unfortunate mistake. 
In 1953 she embarked on a programme which resulted in her adopting, sometimes under dubious circumstances, twelve children from diverse cultures and raising them as cultural stereotypes. She is quoted as saying:
I will make every effort so that each shows the utmost respect for the opinion and beliefs of the other. I want to show people of colour  that not all whites are cruel and mean. I will prove that human beings can respect each other if given the chance.
Her adoptees included Akio (Korean), Teruya (Japanese), Jarry (Norwegian) and Luis (Colombian). Unable to obtain a child from Israel she adopted a French boy and brought him us as a Jew. Marianne and Brahim from Algeria she decided were Catholic and Muslim respectively. Others were brought from Ivory Coast, Venezuela and Morrocco. All were brought to her Chateau des Milandes in Perigord which was developed as a theme park featuring the children as hosts. 

Chateau des Milandes during restoration
Inevitably, the dream of a Rainbow Tribe became untenable and, penniless, Josephine moved to Monaco where she was provided with accommodation by her friend Princess Grace.

Chateau des Milandes as restored in 2016

Chateau des Milandes restored
Josephine Baker may have been misguided in the exercise of her quest for mutual respect across all cultures but I respect her for the strength of her belief and the commitment to try to achieve it.
And I enjoy her singing


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