PARIS (AP) – Josephine Baker’s voice, speaking and singing, will sound in front of the Pantheon Monument in Paris on Tuesday, where she is to be symbolically ordained as the first black woman to be honored with France’s highest honor.
In August, French President Emmanuel Macron made the decision to pay tribute to the “exceptional personality” who “epitomizes the French spirit” by making Baker also the first American citizen and the first performer to be immortalized in the Pantheon. She will join the scientist Marie Curie, the philosopher Voltaire, the writer Victor Hugo and other French luminaries.
The move aims to pay tribute to “a woman whose whole life strives for freedom and justice,” said the Macron office.
Baker is praised not only for her internationally renowned artistic career, but also for her active role in the French Resistance during World War II, her actions as a civil rights activist and her humanistic values, which she demonstrated through the adoption of her 12 children from all over the world.
Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri and became a megastar in the 1930s, especially in France, where she moved in 1925, trying to escape racism and segregation in the United States.
“The simple fact that a black woman is included in the pantheon is historical,” Pap Ndiaye, a black French scholar, an expert on minority rights movements in the United States, told The Associated Press.
“When she arrived, she was at first surprised, as were many African Americans who settled in Paris at the same time … by the lack of institutional racism. There was no segregation … no lynching. (There was) the opportunity to sit in a cafe and be served by a white waiter, the opportunity to talk to white people, (to have) romantic relationships with white people, ”Ndiaye said.
“This is not to say that racism did not exist in France, but French racism was often more sophisticated and not as violent as American forms of racism,” he added.
Baker was among several prominent black Americans, especially artists and writers, who took refuge in France after the two world wars, including famed writer and intellectual James Baldwin.
They “probably knew about the French Empire and the atrocities of French colonization. But overall, they also had a better life than the one they left behind in the United States, ”Ndiay, who also runs the French State Immigration Museum, told The Associated Press.
Baker quickly rose to fame for her banana skirt dance routines and wowed audiences in Parisian theater halls.
Her speeches were controversial, Ndiay emphasized, because many anti-colonial activists believed she was “propaganda for colonization, singing a song that the French wanted her to sing.”
Baker was well aware of the “stereotypes that black women have to face,” he said. “She also distanced herself from these stereotypes with her facial expressions … a way to make fun of the people watching her.”
“But let’s not forget that when she came to France, she was only 19 years old, she was almost illiterate … She needed to strengthen her political and racial consciousness,” he said.
Baker became a French citizen after she married industrialist Jean Lyon in 1937. In the same year, she settled in the south-west of France, in the castle of Castelnau-la-Chapelle.
“Josephine Baker can be considered the first black superstar. She’s like 1920s Rihanna, ”said Rosemary Phillips, an artist from Barbados and co-owner of Bakers Park in southwestern France.
Phillips said that one of the women who grew up in the castle and met Baker said, “Can you imagine a black woman in the 1930s in a chauffeured car — a white chauffeur — who pulls up and says,“ I’d like to buy 1000 acres here? “
In 1938, Baker joined what is today called the LICRA, a well-known anti-racist league and a longtime supporter of its membership in the Pantheon.
The following year, she began working for France’s counterintelligence service against the Nazis, in particular collecting information from German officials with whom she met at parties. She then joined the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for espionage activities during World War II.
In 1944, Baker became second lieutenant in the women’s group of the French Liberation Army Air Force under General Charles de Gaulle.
After the war, she took up anti-racist politics. A civil rights activist, she was the only woman to speak at the 1963 Washington DC march ahead of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Towards the end of her life, she faced financial problems, was evicted and lost her property. She was supported by Princess Grace of Monaco, a US-born actress who offered Baker accommodation for her and her children.
Tuesday’s ceremony was carefully prepared with her family and several relatives will be in attendance, the Elysee Palace said. A coffin filled with soil from the USA, France and Monaco will be placed in the Pantheon. Her body will remain in Monaco at the request of her family.
Albert II, Prince of Monaco and son of Grace, honored Baker as “the great lady” in a ceremony on Monday at the cemetery where she is buried. To paraphrase the French poet Louis Aragon, he said that Baker was French “not by birth but by preference.”
AP journalists Jamie Kiten and Arnaud Pedram in Castelnau-la-Chapelle, France, and Bishre Eltouny in Monaco contributed.