PARIS — France inducted U.S.-born entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist Josephine BakerTuesday’s first Black woman to be awarded the nation’s highest honour was inducted into the Pantheon
Baker’s voice echoed throughout Paris’ famous Left Bank, as recordings of her remarkable career were played. This led to an elaborate ceremony at Pantheon’s famed monument. Baker was joined by other French luminaries, such as philosopher Voltaire and scientist Marie Curie, who were also honored at the spot.
Four blocks of cobblestone streets ran from the Pantheon to the Luxembourg Garden as military officers carried Baker’s cenotaph on a red carpet. Baker’s military medals were placed atop the cenotaph. It was covered in the French tricolor flag, contained soils from Missouri, France and Monaco. At her request, her body will remain in Monaco.
Emmanuel Macron, French President, made a tribute to him in a speech. “a war hero, fighter, dancer, singer, a Black woman defending Black people but first of all, a woman defending humankind. American and French. Josephine Baker fought so many battles with lightness, freedom, joy.”
Nine Baker’s grandchildren attended the ceremony
Baker was also the first American citizen to become a citizen, and the first performer immortalized in the Pantheon.
Her world-renowned art career is widely admired, but so are her civil rights activism, her role in the French Resistance during World War II and her humanist values. She adopted 12 children from around the globe. Nine of them, along with 2,000 others, attended Tuesday’s ceremony.
Baker’s song started the tribute “Me revoilà Paris” (“Paris, I’m Back”). The French army choir sang the French Resistance song to strong applause.
Her signature song “J’ai deux amours” (“Two Loves”) was then played by an orchestra accompanying Baker’s voice on the Pantheon plaza.
Baker could be heard uttering these words during a light display on the monument. “I think I am a person who has been adopted by France. It especially developed my humanist values, and that’s the most important thing in my life.”
Martin Luther King’s famed homage was part of the homage “I have a dream” speech. Baker was the only woman who spoke before him at 1963 March on Washington.
Baker fled from racism and moved to France.
Baker was born in St. Louis in Missouri. She quickly became a celebrity in France in 1930s when she moved there in 1925 to escape racism and segregation at home.
“The simple fact to have a Black woman entering the pantheon is historic,”The Associated Press spoke to Pap Ndiaye a Black French scholar who is an expert in U.S. rights movements for minorities.
“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,” 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.
Baker was one of many prominent Black Americans who, after the second World Wars, sought refuge in France, especially as writers and artists.
They were “aware of the French empire and the brutalities of French colonization, for sure. But they were also having a better life overall than the one they had left behind in the United States,”Ndiaye is also the director of France’s state-run Immigration Museum, said The Associated Press.
Baker’s banana-skirt dance routines were controversial
Baker became well-known for her banana-skirt dance routines, which were admired by Paris theater audiences.
Ndiaye stressed that the shows were controversial as many anti-colonial activists thought she was. “the propaganda for colonization, singing the song that the French wanted her to sing.”
Baker was an expert on this topic “the stereotypes that Black women had to face,”He stated. “She also distanced herself from these stereotypes with her facial expressions … a way for her to laugh in some ways at the people watching her.”
“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,”He stated.
‘The first Black superstar’
After her 1937 marriage to Jean Lion, an industrialist, Baker became French citizen. The same year, she settled in southwestern 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,”Rosemary Phillips, a Barbados-born performer who is also co-owner of Baker’s park in southwestern France, said this.
Phillips claimed that Baker was a friend of a girl who grew-up in the castle. “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?'”
Baker joined LICRA in 1938. This was a prominent antiracist group that has been a long advocate for Baker’s entry into the Pantheon.
She began working for France’s counterintelligence services against Nazis the next year. The French Resistance recruited her, and she used her artistic talents as a cover to spy on World War II.
Baker was second-lieutenant of a female group of the Air Force of France Liberation Army of General Charles De Gaulle in 1944.
After the war, she became involved in anti-racist politics, civil rights struggle in France, and the United States.
She ran into financial difficulties towards the end of her life and was forced to leave her property. The Princess Grace of Monaco, an actress from the United States, offered Baker a place to live with her children.
Contributing: Jamey Keaten and Arno Pedram, Associated Press