What Would Josephine Do? by Patricia Hruby Powell

Josephine Baker might not have been perfect, but who is? Wild wacky Josephine was bold, glamorous, compassionate, even heroic. Once upon a time people asked: ‘What Would Jane (Austen) Do?’ Now they ask: What Would Jackie O/Audrey Hepburn/Grace Kelly Do? It’s time we asked: What Would Josephine Do? That is, WWJD?

Josephine cover

What if somebody says, You can’t do that? You’re not smart enough to go to college. Or you can’t become a dancer. Or a writer. You can’t attain those heights. WWJD?

Josephine dreamed. She read fairy tales when she was little and she wanted a fairy tale life. So she went after it. When she finally got to NYC and auditioned for Shuffle Along, she was told, no. But Josephine didn’t accept no. She hung around and worked back stage, learned all the dances. When one dancer didn’t show up, there was Josephine ready to step in.


What if you’re afraid? Afraid to play the piano for an audience. Afraid to take a chance. Afraid to stand up for what you believe. WWJD?

Growing up in America from 1906-1925, Josephine was restrained by racism. In France, she found freedom. She was so grateful that she risked her life and worked as a spy for the French Resistance. She overcame her fear with passion. She loved the ecstasy of adventure and doing good. It made her a hero to the French.


What if you fail? What if you didn’t receive that award you deserved? Would you blame it on an unjust world? Get over that pronto. WWJD?

When Josephine flopped in the all-white Ziegfield Follies in NYC—1936—Josephine blamed it on racism. True. But, without missing a beat, she returned to France, learned how to fly, became a stunt pilot and met a millionaire husband up there in the air.


What if people call you names—like the Viennese called Josephine a devil and a savage and said she couldn’t stay and perform in Vienna. What would you do? Call them names? Slink away? WWJD?

She dressed in a white angelic gown, sang a Negro spiritual from the time of black enslavement, showing her detractors that the roles could easily be switched. Who was the devil now? The Austrians called her an angel.


What if you’re not the prettiest? WWJD?

Josephine, at the end of the chorus line, darker than the other girls, laughed at herself. She rolled her eyes, jutted out her hip, flirted. She was goofy. She was fabulous. She was original.


What if you fall out of favor—or just aren’t the most popular? You might even be bored with yourself or with what you do. WWJD?

Like a cat with nine lives, Josephine kept re-inventing herself. She’d always danced. Now she sang. She took ballet classes after she was famous so she’d be a stronger, surer, more capable dancer. She became a pilot, a civil rights pioneer in the USA, a spy for the French and their allies. And she became a mother.

Can’t have kids? WWJD?

Adopt. Compassionate Josephine adopted 12 children of different races and religions and brought them up in their own religion.


What if you’re too tall? WWJD?

Josephine would never slouch. She stood straight. And it helped her be confident. Boy, was she confident.


What else Would Josephine Do?