Black entertainer Josephine Baker honoured at France’s Pantheon

30 November 2021, 18:24

France Immortalizing Josephine Baker
France Immortalizing Josephine Baker. Picture: PA

Baker’s military medals lay on top of the cenotaph, which was draped in the French tricolour flag.

France is inducting US-born entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist Josephine Baker into the Pantheon – making her the first black woman to receive the nation’s highest honour.

Baker’s voice resonated through streets of Paris’ famed Left Bank as recordings from her extraordinary career kicked off an elaborate ceremony at the domed Pantheon monument.

Baker, who died in 1975 aged 68, is joining other French luminaries honoured at the site, including the philosopher Voltaire, the scientist Marie Curie and the writer Victor Hugo.

Military officers carried her cenotaph along a red carpet that stretched for four blocks of cobblestoned streets from the Luxembourg Garden to the Pantheon.

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker strikes a pose during her Ziegfeld Follies performance of The Conga on the Winter Garden Theatre stage in New York in 1936 (AP)

Baker’s military medals lay on top of the cenotaph, which was draped in the French tricolour flag and contained soils from her birthplace in Missouri, from France, and from her final resting place in Monaco.

Her body will stay in Monaco at the request of her family.

French president Emmanuel Macron made the decision in August to honour the “exceptional figure” who “embodies the French spirit”.

Baker is also the first American-born citizen and the first performer to be immortalised into the Pantheon.

Mr Macron’s office said the move aims to pay tribute to “a woman whose whole life is looking towards the quest of both freedom and justice”.

A coffin carrying soils pertaining to Josephine Baker
A coffin carrying soils from the US, France and Monaco will be deposited inside the Pantheon monument (AP)

Baker is not only praised for her world-renowned artistic career but also for her active role in the French Resistance during the second World War, her actions as a civil rights activist and her humanist values, which she displayed through the adoption of her 12 children from all over the world.

Born in St Louis, Missouri, Baker became a megastar in the 1930s, especially in France, where she moved in 1925 as she was seeking to flee racism and segregation in the United States.

“The simple fact to have a black woman entering the pantheon is historic,” black French scholar Pap Ndiaye, an expert on US minority rights movements, told The Associated Press.

“When she arrived, she was first surprised like so many African Americans who settled in Paris at the same time … at the absence of institutional racism. There was no segregation … no lynching. (There was) the possibility to sit at a cafe and be served by a white waiter, the possibility to talk to white people, to (have a) romance with white people,” Mr Ndiaye said.

“It does not mean that racism did not exist in France, but French racism has often been more subtle, not as brutal as the American forms of racism,” he added.

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron joins other officials at the event (Pool/AP)

Baker was among several prominent black Americans, especially artists and writers, who found refuge in France after the two World Wars, including famed writer and intellectual James Baldwin.

They were “aware of the French empire and the brutalities of French colonisation, for sure. But they were also having a better life overall than the one they had left behind in the United States,” Mr Ndiaye said.

Baker quickly became famous for her banana-skirt dance routines and wowed audiences at Paris theatre halls.

Her shows were controversial, Mr Ndiaye stressed, because many anti-colonial activists believed she was “the propaganda for colonisation, singing the songs that the French wanted her to sing”.

He added: “But let’s not forget that when she arrived in France she was only 19, she was almost illiterate … She had to build her political and racial consciousness.”

A military guard for the coffin
A guard of honour as the symbolic coffin makes its way towards the Pantheon (AP)

Baker became a French citizen after her marriage to industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. The same year, she settled in south-western France, in the castle of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.

“Josephine Baker can be considered to be the first black superstar. She’s like the Rihanna of the 1920s,” said Rosemary Phillips, a Barbados-born performer and co-owner of Baker’s park in south-western France.

Phillips said one of the ladies who grew up in the castle and met with Baker said: “Can you imagine a black woman in the 1930s in a chauffeur-driven car – a white chauffeur – who turns up and says: ‘I’d like to buy the 1,000 acres here?'”

In 1938, Baker joined what is today called Licra, a prominent anti-racist league – and a longtime advocate for her entry in the Pantheon.

The next year, she started to work for France’s counter-intelligence services against the Nazis, notably collecting information from German officials she met at parties.

The cenotaph of Josephine Baker
Six carriers of the Air Force and Space carry the cenotaph of Josephine Baker (Pool/AP)

She then joined the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for spying activities during the Second World War.

In 1944, Baker became second-lieutenant in a female group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army of General Charles De Gaulle.

After the war, she became involved in anti-racist politics. A civil rights activist, she was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington before Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.

Toward the end of her life, she ran into financial trouble, was evicted and lost her properties.

Charlie Chaplin and Josephine Baker
Charlie Chaplin congratulates entertainer Josephine Baker after her performance at a charity gala at the Moulin Rouge in Paris in 1953 (AP)

She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, formerly Grace Kelly, the US-born actress who offered Baker a place for her and her children to live.

Tuesday’s ceremony has closely been prepared with the involvement of Baker’s family, and several relatives will be present, officials said.

Albert II, the prince of Monaco and Grace’s son, honoured Baker as a “great lady” in a ceremony on Monday at the cemetery where she is buried.

Paraphrasing the French poet Louis Aragon, he said Baker was French “not by birth, but by preference”.

By Press Association

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