Civil rights and the Black Venus
New York, United States.1951.
Grace Kelly, not yet an international star, witnesses a racist scene in the restaurant where she is eating.
Waiting on the threshold of the pub in Manhattan, there is Josephine Baker well-known singer and dancer already established in Europe, but she is black. Detail that evidently counts in America.
Baker waits in vain for permission to enter to eat, but nothing. The owner is inflexible.
Grace Kelly in the face of Baker‘s grievances, who fights like a lioness, stands up to the black star and leaves the club with her, saying she would never set foot there again.
From that day on, a great friendship was born between two women of different colors, two international stars. Which will culminate in the burial of Josephine Baker in the Principality of Monaco, welcomed by Grace Kelly with Ranieri di Monaco, the rulers of the Principality.
In the days following that episode, in front of the restaurant, African Americans will demonstrate against the owner accused of racism.
Josephine Baker has her rights in mind.
She’s not just the dancer, the singer, the international star.
She participated in 1963 in Washington, D.C. in the march organized by Martin Luther King.
She adopts twelve children of various ethnic groups, calling them “my rainbow tribe“.
She herself is mestizo: African-American Creole and Appalachian Indian.
The first great black star, who for a lifetime will remember the labors of blacks and the injustices reserved for them.
She was the symbol of the struggle against apartheid, and when Martin Luther King was killed, they asked her to take over the movement but she said no, because she wanted to not leave her children orphans.
A strong and nonconformist woman, able to go from ballet to being a spy during the Second World War, always at the forefront of the struggle for equality and freedom.
Why talk about Josephine Baker today?
For several reasons.
First of all, a few days ago her birth was celebrated on June 3, 1906.
A suffered birth, in St. Louis, Missouri, in a very poor neighborhood where she knows the blues and jazz rhythms. And where she knows fatigue, segregation, violence.
Her artistic career began in a makeshift tent. She then worked in a small travelling theatre first in New Orleans, and then at the age of 15 in New York. Here she made herself known and appreciated in her first Broadway show, Shuffle Along: she is 16 years old.
She arrived in Paris at the age of 25, but in France there are no such obvious racist phenomena and here she began her rise as “black Venus“.
In France she helps the Resistance and finances it, makes free shows for the soldiers. She doesn’t spare herself. Where there is a need to fight for a just cause, she is at the forefront, and always openly says how she thinks, thanks to a charisma built over time to the sound of her battles.
Her return to America when she is now an established star is precisely when she meets Grace Kelly and is treated like a black woman without rights.
But she doesn’t lower her head, she uses her notoriety to expose the inequalities.
And here’s the second reason why I think and talk about Josephine Baker in these days of interracial conflict.
Because over the years many people, known or not, have exposed their lives and the lives of their families, to defeat racism. And it seemed that society had understood that equality is important to everyone.
And instead something went wrong and we woke up from a ingenuous sleep.
Forgotten civil rights
No, equality isn’t there yet, a black person is different from a white one, unbelievable.
In 2020, still this situation.
These days the killing of George Floyd has set America on fire again.
We discover with amazement that racism is alive and well, it continues to kill black people, and everything seems to stand still in the years of protest and struggle for civil rights.
Decades have passed and yet at this moment we are once again talking about denied rights and, above all, we are witnessing unexplained murders, almost always of black people.
There are still inequalities, prejudices, and the blood continues to flow.
Civil rights and the world
Yet this time the demonstrations are not only taking place in America, they have arrived in Europe and are riding on injustices of all kinds: lack of democracy, lack of work, unbearable dictatorships, women’s rights, children’s rights, black rights.
The killing of George Floyd by the American police has opened new ways of communicating social unrest. I have never seen so many whites together with blacks, men and women of all colors and social backgrounds.
After all, that’s what Josephine Baker was fighting for: at the center is the person and her/his rights, nothing else.
Her precise signal in adopting twelve children of all colours should make us reflect on how important it is to mix, understand and support ourselves.
Democracy and civil rights
Every Country has to deal with internal democracy.
But internationally, racism is a growing phenomenon.
Why couldn’t Joséphine Baker become a star in America? Of course we can object that America has finally had a black president, Barack Obama, but that is not enough to reverse the trend. After centuries of slavery, a black president is only the beginning of a clearly still long journey.
But are we sure this is a purely American problem?
Because racism may be evident and declared, like the clash between black and white in America, but it touches all the non-Europeans who land on Italian beaches and then go all over Europe, it touches the exodus of women and children from war zones, it touches the dictatorships all over the world for which people flee after unimaginable tortures.
All these people risk their lives or die at sea and if they manage to reach the “democratic” world, they suffer injustice, abuse and racism.
Josephine Baker landed in Europe and became a star, today many women land in Europe and find injustices of all kinds.
The death of George Floyd tells us that it is time for a radical change for both America and Europe and for the whole world.
It would take millions of Joséphine Baker right now, all together, black and white and all colors and men with them. All in the front line to call out loud for freedom, justice, equality.
So that every death is not in vain. Black lives matter.