“One day I realized I was living in a country where I was afraid to be black. It was only a country for white people. Not black. So I left. I had been suffocating in the United States… A lot of us left, not because we wanted to leave, but because we couldn’t stand it anymore… I felt liberated in Paris.”
Josephine Baker’s style and beauty garnered names such as the Black Venus, Black Pearl and Creole Goddess. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, at a time when racial segregation prevented her talents from reaching a wider audience in the United States, Josephine (quoted above) found artistic and social freedoms within the integrated Parisian society.
Achieving instant fame after her performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in 1925, she became a celebrated artist, cultural icon, and eventually, French national hero for gathering information during World War II. She adopted 12 orphans from around the world, who she called the “Rainbow Tribe,” starred in films and theatrical productions, and was one of the most photographed women in the world. Her success would not have been possible in her home country.
Honoring the accomplishments of Josephine and other African American contemporaries, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Henry Ossawa Tanner, the African American Museum in Philadelphia presents “Free to Be: The Artistry and Impact of African Americans in Paris, 1900-1940.” Exhibiting from April 7, as part of the Paris-inspired Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA), “Free to Be” explores the unique experiences of African Americans who created art in Paris throughout the early twentieth century.
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