Joséphine Baker: dancer, WWII spy and civil rights activist honored at the French Pantheon | World news


Joséphine Baker will be the first black woman to be honored by the French government with a place in the Pantheon.

President Emmanuel Macron has decided that she will be buried in the building in Paris – a monument to France’s national heroes and where some of its most revered historical figures are buried – in response to a major petition.

The body of the Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French WWII spy and civil rights activist will remain in Monaco at her family’s request.

But a coffin carrying land from the United States, France and Monaco – places where Baker made his mark – will be deposited inside the Pantheon monument on Tuesday.

In addition to honoring an exceptional figure in French history, this decision aims to send a message against racism and to celebrate American-French ties.

But critics in France say that by focusing on a figure born in the United States, France is continuing a long tradition of speaking out against racism abroad without facing it at home.

Laurent Kupferman, the author of the petition said: “Above all, she embodies the freedom of women.”

Baker was born in 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri and at age 19, having already divorced twice, she began a career as a performer and moved to France following a job opportunity.

“She arrived in France in 1925, she is an emancipated woman, taking her life in hand, in a country where she does not even speak the language,” said Mr. Kupferman.

She met immediate success on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, where she appeared topless and wearing a famous banana belt.

Baker performed at Madame-Ball, the first big event at the start of the ball season in 1963. Photo: AP

Her show, embodying colonial-era racist stereotypes about African women, sparked both condemnation and celebration.

“She was that kind of fantasy: not the black body of an American but of an African,” said Ophélie Lachaux, spokesperson for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

“And that’s why they asked Josephine to dance something ‘tribal’, ‘wild’, ‘African’.”

Baker’s career took a more serious turn after this, as she learned to speak five languages ​​and toured internationally.

She became a French citizen after her marriage in 1937 to industrialist Jean Lion, a Jewish man who subsequently suffered under the anti-Semitic laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

In September 1939, as France and Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Baker contacted the head of the French counterintelligence services.

She began working as an informant, traveling, connecting with officials and sharing hidden information about her scores, according to French military records.

After the defeat of France in June 1940, she refused to play for the Nazis who occupied Paris and settled in the southwest of France.

She continued to work for the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as cover for her espionage activities.

After the defeat of the Nazis, she went to Germany to sing for the former prisoners and deportees released from the camps.

General view of the Pantheon in Paris
The Pantheon in Paris, France, built at the end of the 18th century, honors 72 men and five women, including Baker

“Baker’s involvement in politics was individual and atypical,” said Benetta Jules-Rosette, a leading scholar on Baker’s life and professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

After the war, Baker became involved in anti-racist politics. She fought against American segregation during a performance tour of the United States in 1951, which led to her being targeted by the FBI, labeled a communist, and banished from her homeland for a decade.

Back in France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating a “rainbow tribe” to embody her ideal of “universal brotherhood”.

“My mother saw the success of the Rainbow Tribe, because when we were causing trouble as children, she would never know who did it because we never criticized ourselves, risking collective punishment,” he said. said one of Baker’s sons, Brian Bouillon Baker. .

“I heard her say to friends, ‘I’m crazy that I never know who causes problems, but I’m happy and proud that my children are together.'”

While Baker is widely regarded in France, some critics of Macron wonder why he chose a figure of American descent as the first black woman in the Pantheon, instead of someone who spoke out against racism and colonialism in France itself.

The Pantheon, built at the end of the 18th century, honors 72 men and five women, including Baker. She joins two other black figures in the mausoleum: the first black colonial governor of French Africa, Félix Eboué, and the famous writer Alexandre Dumas, author of the Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask.

“These are people who are committed, especially to others,” said Pantheon administrator David Medec.

“It’s not just about excellence in one area of ​​skill, it’s really about commitment, about commitment to others.”