Sad Tales of Josephine and Billie

February is Black History Month. I couldn’t let this month go by without telling some tales.

Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday were some talented women. They talked the talk and walked the walk. Josephine left St. Louis when she was very young and headed to Paris. Billie stayed the course in the United States while speaking out on racism. She was born in Philadelphia but spent a lot of time in New York. I started reading more on both of these women in recent years. I was horrified to learn their backstories. These are their sad tales.

Josephine Baker was physically and sexually abused as a child. She was forced to marry at 13 because it was considered better than having to deal with the sexual abuse of older men. It was thought she would be left alone if men knew she had a husband. A wife at only 13.

Billie made money by scrubbing the floors of a brothel. Her mother worked there and that was the only way she knew how to make money. This was not a good place for a child to be raised and Billie was raped at 10. Her mother felt no sympathy for the child (very likely the mother was sexually abused as a child as well) and a few years later she was advised to become a prostitute. She became a prostitute by the time she was 13.

Josephine was never really sure who her biological father was. One story is that he was a black vaudeville drummer. The other story is that he was a white man who employed her mother. Her mother had always worked as a domestic for rich white families. If she knew the truth…Josephine never really said for sure. What we do know is that her mother had been a dancer but her career never went anywhere.

Billie’s father left her mother soon after her birth. He was a jazz musician. Billie only knew poverty as a kid. Josephine only knew poverty as a kid. Both had mothers who forced them into unhealthy situations with older men at a young age because it was probably done to them. It’s all they knew. Black women didn’t have any value. They had no protection. It’s a sad tale.

What hurt me the most after learning their stories is that the abuse continued in so many different ways. These women were abused their whole lives. Once they became famous they were cheated out of money by music executives. They both suffered physical, financial, and mental abuse in most of their relationships. When a man wasn’t putting their hands on them…they were stealing their money or finding ways to manipulate them. This is what they dealt with their whole lives. They both had major trust issues.

Financial abuse is something that doesn’t get discussed enough. Financial abuse is when you take (or steal) someone’s money and misuse it or when you try to control someone’s access to their own money. Unfortunately, almost every woman regardless of race had to face that back in the day. Women couldn’t even open up checking accounts until the 1970s. This is why so many women back in the day had to marry. Women had no control over their own money. Their husbands or managers (always men) controlled everything. They had to just hope they married a decent man who wasn’t going to take advantage of them.

Billie married men who were abusers. They abused her body and her soul. They took her money, kept her on drugs, and beat her when they didn’t get their way. She had no protection. No one around her cared about her drug problem. All they cared about is she could sing well enough to get through her shows. No one cared about her wellbeing. It hurts me to think about it. Her voice suffered greatly in the later years from the drug abuse.

Josephine’s situation when it came to children was so sad. I don’t think a lot of people really understand that Josephine always wanted her own children. Yet, she couldn’t have children of her own because of health reasons. Josephine later adopted her 12 kids from different countries and named them The Rainbow Tribe.

A film came out over a year ago called “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday”. Audra Day played the titular character and won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama Motion Picture. The movie explores why the FBI were constantly tracking her down. She was arrested at one time because of drug possession. The movie claims the real issue of the government’s obsession with following her around was over the song “Strange Fruit”. Abel Meeropol wrote a poem called Bitter Fruit. The poem was later adapted into a song and the title changed to match the song. It was presented to Billie to sing and she was glad to do it. The song was about the lynchings of black people. Billie was horrified when she went across the South and saw how badly black people were treated at the time. She was from the North East and they had their own issues but it still wasn’t quite like it was in the South.

I’m not sure if the Feds/government were only after Billie because of her song. I’m sure it may have played a part of her situation. They didn’t like how she was exposing them. What hurts the most is that either way…her drug issues didn’t help the cause. It was too easy for them to just say she was a drug addict and didn’t deserve any attention. Her cause was worthy of attention…but the government placed the focus on her drug addiction. It made her less credible in the eyes of the country. She was fighting racism and was ignored because of her drug issues. It’s so sad. This still happens today.

Josephine may not have dealt with the same type of racism in Paris, but she still dealt with sexism. It upsets me because I’m not sure if Josephine understood Fetishization back then.

What is important is the imprint they left on us. Both women challenged the racism and sexism of their time. Josephine spoke out against racism as much as she could when she would occasionally make her visits back to the US. Black women in entertainment have come so far, but there is still a lot of work to do.

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