Celebrating Josephine Baker, a disrupter of ‘conventions and boundaries’

| Senior Scene Editor
A woman with short hair smiles directly at the camera.

Josephine Baker, a prolific entertainer and civil rights activist, was inducted into the French Panthéon on Nov. 30. (Photo by Studio Harcourt/Creative Commons)

“We can only aspire to live such a thrilling life,” Mayor Tishaura Jones said on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in Graham Chapel.

Jones was referring to the life of Josephine Baker, who was born in 1906 in St. Louis but later moved to Paris to pursue a career in a country that granted more opportunities for Black individuals at the time. Her career stretched from dancing and acting in motion pictures to serving as a spy for the Allied forces in World War II.  

Around 100 attendants walked into Graham Chapel Nov. 30 to take part in a celebration of Baker’s life. Forty years after her death, the event marked the day that Baker became the first Black woman to be inducted into France’s Panthéon for her work in the French Resistance in World War II and for her status as a cultural icon in the country.  

The celebration of her life included speeches from Mayor Jones and Chancellor Andrew Martin, a dance performance by fifth grade students from the St. Louis Language Immersion School, two student singing performances, a rendition of Baker’s “March on Washington” speech and a panel of scholars and artists. 

The entire ceremony took place in front of a larger-than-life image of a smiling Baker, hands clasped together, sitting backwards in an ornately-designed chair.

This was a woman who “disrupted conventions and boundaries,” as Yannick Tagand, the General Consul of France in Chicago, said at the event. Baker was shattering expectations at a time when it was not only challenging to do so, but downright dangerous.

Senior Grace Gore recited Baker’s full speech from the March on Washington, a lasting testament to Baker’s revolutionary spirit: “You know what they will say. ‘Why, she was a devil.’  And you know something… why, they are right. I was too. I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America too.” 

The hunger for justice that came across in Baker’s speech was remarkable. It was a hunger that she spread in her day and that will hopefully continue to proliferate for years to come. Baker addressed her contagious passion: “There is not too much fire burning inside me,” she said further on in her speech. “And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you. So that you can carry on, and so that you can do those things that I have done. Then, when my fires have burned out, and I go where we all go someday, I can be happy.” 

Her fire certainly spread. It spread to Mayor Jones, who declared Nov. 30 Josephine Baker Day in St. Louis. Jones spoke glowingly of Baker’s legacy in St. Louis and how Baker helped put St. Louis on the map as a leading city in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Tuesday’s program emphasized that St. Louis is a part of not only America’s history but global history, and that learning about that history necessitates learning about the Black individuals who fought, and continue to fight, against systems of radical injustice. 

“I think you have to tell her story, not just her story, but the story of all Black people who have been contributing members of their society,” said panelist Lois Conley, president of the Griot Museum of Black History. “Those stories are rich, they’re inspirational, they give us a reason to do, they give us a reason to think about other people and other human beings. And when those stories don’t get told, our whole society suffers.”

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