Though she was mentioned briefly during film history lectures and textbooks as a historical footnote, the first woman of color to star in a major motion picture, I most recently came across Josephine Baker, La Baker, the Bronze Venus, as a footnote while researching for my post about Frida Kahlo for my Let’s Dance Pride 2011 series. Mentioned in passing as a reported lover of Kahlo, Josephine Baker’s status as an absurdly semi-forgotten belt-notch-esque footnote is an unexpected and undeserved fate for a woman who lived her life in the glare of an international spotlight for most of her life, using her charisma and her talent to change the world.
La Baker seems to have lived life by her own rules — though it wasn’t always easy, the number of ‘firsts’ her life is remembered by is a testament to her will to persevere: she is the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture; she’s the first American-born woman to receive the Croix de guerre, a very high French military honor, for her daring work spying for Allied forces in occupied Europe during WWII; she was also one of the major forces forcing music halls to desegregate audiences.
La Baker’s legacy is still apparent in entertainment today, though you’ve got to look harder to find it. Many iconic images in pop culture — a sexy woman splashing around in a giant martini glass on stage, for example, or skirts made out of bananas, are images that originate from Baker’s performances. According to Wikipedia, she also spent time acting as a muse, whatever that means, for the likes of Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior.
Baker started her entertainment career as a chorus girl and danced in well-known musical revues during the Harlem Renaissance. Baker began performing in Paris in 1925 and became an instant sensation, gaining attention and huge audiences for her erotic dances and revealing costumes. Here you can see a clip of Baker dancing in 1927
Here’s another version of the same video clip with more, um, modern music.
Here is Josephine singing J’ai Deux Amours on a TV programme from the 1950’s:
And here is a video from one of her last performances in 1974 — her costume is magnificent and she looks like she’s having so much fun.
I’m profiling Josephine Baker in this series because she feels like yet another astonishingly talented people who would be remembered prominently in history books for her extraordinary achievements and life if she had played by the rules and become someone else, someone less herself, or if our culture was capable of embracing radical queer women of color. She is also someone whose life is a testament to the difference that art & performance can make in the world. Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart, a biography written by one of her adopted sons, is now on my must-read list.
So! The image at the top of this post is the free embroidery pattern for you, the hypothetical internet, to use in a non-commercial fashion.
To get to the pattern, click on the image below to get to the image on Tumblr; once you’re viewing the image on Tumblr, click it again to enlarge and get to the biggest resolution file of the Josephine Baker free embroidery pattern (or any of the others in this series). Hopefully I’ll have figured out a better way to deliver the free patterns, ideally as .PDF files; please be patient with me! Also: any suggestions for free delivery options of the download would be awesome.