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Josephine Baker

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Ah, Josephine Baker, icon of the 1920’s. Her name brings to mind her famous banana dance, singing, the breaking down of segregation, and covert WWII missions.

Wait…no? Just the dancing? Hold onto your butts, things are about to get awesome.

Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald, an illegitimate black child in St. Louis. Her childhood was rough to say the least. Her parents did the best they did as singers and actors, often bringing her onstage for the finale as an infant. However, her parent’s weren’t successful enough to keep the young Josephine from digging through the trash for food. She worked as a maid, being abused several times, even having her hands burned for putting too much soap in the wash.

As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, Josephine then witnessed the St. Louis racial riots. See, a black man was accused of raping a white girl and, in keeping the the times, white people rallied against black men everywhere. Within a few hours of the beginning of the riot, over 50 black men lay dead. The experience would forever haunt Josephine and mark her morals from then on.

She began performing in vaudeville as the comedic clumsy chorus girl; the girl on the end of the line who, throughout the performance, can’t quite get the steps. Yet in the encore she would reappear dancing better than everyone else. At thirteen she was married for the first time to a Pullman Porter but, as you can imagine, the marriage was unhappy and short-lived. She married again, this time to Willie Baker. Though the marriage was equally unhappy and short lived, she decided to keep his last name, becoming forever known as Josephine Baker.

Though she had many fans in the USA including Earnest Hemingway, Josephine felt she’d achieved all she could in America as a young black woman at that time. In 1925 she left for France which would grow to be the country she loved most. There, she was ‘exotic’, not ‘trashy’. She was celebrated for her risqué dance numbers, appearing on one occasion entirely nude, clad in just a pink flamingo feather. It was also here that she rose to stardom, cultivating not only her dance, but also her lovely soprano voice. She married a frenchman and renounced her American citizenship. When WWII broke out Josephine initially retreated to her chateau. There she met Jaque A., a member of the French resistance. He admired her patriotism and invited her to work in counter espionage. She accepted and wowed all with her courage. She attended parties all over Europe, gathering information on German activities without raising suspicion. In addition to donating her home, vehicles, and money she offered members of the resistance shelter in her band. She smuggled them across boarders, using her fame to her advantage. Secret messages were hidden in her sheet music.

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During the occupation of France, Josephine left for Morocco, stating that she was in poor health. In fact, it was to further aid the French Resistance by running missions to Spain. She pinned notes containing the information inside her underwear, knowing that her fame would likely prevent a strip search. It was at this time she suffered several miscarriages and her internal damage was so severe she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy, which became infected. Many thought she would die.

Throughout her career with the military, she performed for troops. That is, she performed on one condition; her audiences must not be segregated. She had so much pull as a star, that her condition was honored. She was responsible for one of the first integrations of the French military. She also allowed civilians to attend her performances free of charge. Her fan base spanned the races and classes because of this; Josephine’s deeply ingrained sense of equality.

For her efforts in the war, she received the  Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was even given the honorary title of Lieutenant by General Charles de Gaulle.

After the war she returned to her Chateau, and to the stage. Now predominately a singer, she impressed audiences with her daring performances. Once she appeared as Queen Mary, singing Ave Maria behind a stained glass window. Having pushed the boundaries of society in one way, she figured she could push them in the other. Soon, she was offered a gig at a swanky night club in Miami. She refused, stating she would not perform for a segregated audience. Such was her star power, the nightclub agreed, and the show was a sell out. She went on to tour the United States, always to un segregated audiences.

But it was not to last. One night she and her friends went to have dinner at the Stork Club. She ordered food and a bottle of wine, but when neither came in an hour, she left in a fury. She ran into a reporter, and later filed a complaint on the Stork Club, dropping the reporter’s name as he was a fan of hers, but did nothing to aid her. The reporter turned against her, claiming she was a communist at the hight of the communist witch hunt in the USA. She deported from the country broken hearted.

It was then that Josephine set out to prove once and for all that anyone of any race could get along. She adopted 12 children of various races and embarked on a mission to raise them together, calling them The Rainbow Tribe. But there was a problem. Though Josephine still earned top dollar in her performances, the expenses of this experiments were enormous. She did what she could by performing, but she had no head for money and the debts mounted up. Some of the wealthy donated, which helped to keep her head above water. It was around this time she suffered several strokes and a heart attack. After all of this, she was subjected to another blow. She lost ownership of her chateau. She collapsed on the steps as she said goodbye, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Finally she moved to Monaco, and the Rainbow Tribe grew up, but with a price. To pay for her efforts, Josephine would perform until the day she died. She ended her career with four sell out shows at Carnegie Hall before finally singing of her life on stage in Paris. Her performance was universally praised, but she would lot live to enjoy it. That night, she suffered a stroke and sunk into a coma. She died, and was given a 21 gun salute state funeral.

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Fanny Cochrane Smith

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When the Europeans landed in Tasmania in 1772 they flowed like a river of Clorox through the island, bleaching out much of Tasmanian culture. By the time Fanny Cochrane Smith was born in 1834, aboriginal culture suppressed to the point of shame and secrecy, with much of it forgotten. She was born at Settlement Point, run by the self titled Reverend George Augustus Robinson, who ‘relocated’ aboriginal people to his facilities. By ‘relocated’, I mean he essentially  kidnapped aboriginal people from their own homes using false pretenses. Though Fanny’s mother and father were named Tanganutura and Nicermenic, respectively, Fanny, like all children born at the site, was given a European name. At the age of five she was made to live with the facility preacher, and at age eight she was sent to a boarding school to learn how to be a maid. Upon completing this education, she was shipped back to Settlement Point and was made to work for the same preacher she’d lived with. Thankfully, when Fanny was thirteen, the facility was shut down.

Seven years later, Fanny would find and marry William Smith, an ex-convict who had been shipped to the Southern Hemisphere like so many criminals. The couple lived a frugal life, partly because they did not come from wealth, and partly because they would have a total of eleven children.

Fanny’s culture was dying all around her, and when she was forty-two, another piece of her heritage, literally, died. Truganini, a woman worthy of her own article in this series, was one of the last full blooded aborigine people, and when she died in 1876, Fanny became the last Tasmanian aborigine. Wanting to preserve what was left of her culture, Fanny made a groundbreaking contribution to both anthropology and linguistics. She made the first and only recording of Tasmanian aborigine language. In 1903, five wax cylinder recorders were made of her singing and speaking her language, though once of these cylinders would later break and be lost forever. Upon hearing these recordings, she became emotional, hearing the similarity between her own voice and her mother’s. Fanny would die of pneumonia two years later.

She was remembered as being fiercely proud of her culture, spending much of her time in nature, diving for shellfish, gathering food, and engaging in aboriginal religious practices. Were in not for her confidence and pride, this vital piece of aboriginal culture would be lost to us forever.

Here is one piece of the recordings

Artist of the Week, Edmonia Wildfire Lewis

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Edmonia Wildfire Lewis

Edmonia Wildfire Lewis was an african american / native american sculptor who rose to fame during the height of the american civil war. She was born to an afro-haitain father, and a mother who was of african and ojibwe decent. Though her parents would die early in her life, they and their heritage would forever influence Lewis’s works. She entered Oberlin College aged just 15, as it was one of the few places of higher educated to admit women of color. After college she traveled to Boston, and it was here she began her career as a sculptor specializing in portrait busts. Her favorite subjects were abolitionists, most notably the commander of a African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts, Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. She eventually became successful enough to send herself to Rome where she honed her neoclassical technique. Her work was met with acclaim, and upon returning to the US, she was commissioned to sculpt the portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant, who marveled at her finished work.

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Ching Shih

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Ching Shih, Captain Ching Shih, was possibly the most feared and successful pirate of all time. During her nine year reign of terror she amassed over 80,000 pirates under her command and had empires bowing to her will. So who was this woman? Details on her early life have been swallowed up by the times, but they probably weren’t very pleasant since she first shows up in the historical record as a prostitute marrying pirate Captain Cheng I in 1801. Now, Cheng was already one hell of a pirate, and he and his crew were largely successful. However, business took off as soon as he married the young Ching Shih, and it soon became pretty obvious that he valued and respected her intellect and cunning when it came to how a pirate fleet should be run.

Too crafty to be poisoned and too badass to be skewered by another pirate, Cheng died in 1807 in a tsunami. Ching Shih promptly married his first mate and took over Cheng’s fleet. It’s unknown if Ching Shih was in love with this first mate, or if their marriage was more of a business contract to help her secure her role as captain. What is certain, however, is that Ching Shih turned that pirate fleet into the most feared and successful on the seven seas. She ruled with an iron fist, and passed out the death penalty like candy. Caught pillaging a town that had made friendly with Ching Shih’s fleet? You were beheaded. Caught raping a captured female or fellow female pirate? Instand death. If you were caught having consensual sex on duty, surely the penalty would be less severe, right? Nope. You both got to sleep with the fish.
Ching Shih spent that first year in command traveling the Chinese coast, attacking seaside towns and even sneaking up rivers to pounce on unsuspecting inland villages. She became a real pain in everyone’s collective ass. In 1808 the Chinese government decided it was time for an ass-kicking and the Imperial fleet was sent in search of her. I’m not sure what the Imperial fleet was expecting. Having to track her down? Almost definitely. A fight? Probably. For her to turn around and meet them head on for battle? I doubt it. The Chinese government had decided it was time for an ass-kicking and Ching Shih wholeheartedly agreed. She captured sixty-three of their ships, and offered the captured crew with two options: join her or die. Upon hearing this, the Admiral Kwo Lang of the Chinese Navy killed himself rather than face death at her hands.
With the hope and determination of a child who thinks that maybe if he stands up to the bully just one more time, the Chinese Government enlisted the help of the Dutch and British Navy. Ching Shih ripped through them like tissue paper. Finally, the Chinese government admitted defeat and gave her an unprecedented offer of amnesty. She accepted on the condition that her eight-thousand pirates be able to keep their money and retire as well. The deal was struck and Ching Shih invested some of her money into a brothel/casino, dying a millionaire at the impressive age of sixty-seven.
Jack Sparrow has nothing on her. In fact, she managed to rib the famous fictional pirate from beyond the grave. A cameo of her can be seen in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

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