Monday, January 17, 2022

How Josephine Baker won the rarest French award

Laurent Kupferman had been obsessed with Josephine Baker for almost a decade, reading everything he could about a woman whose life story was so incredible, so American and yet so French.

She was a black artist who escaped American racism in the 1920s by moving to Paris, the only place where she felt empowered to make history, pushing the boundaries of art and propaganda. The singer and dancer even helped France fight the Nazis.

This year, Kupferman began to think that his country – and the rest of the world – needed Baker as badly as he did.

“Racism is very high. Anti-Semitism is very high. The hatred is very high, ”said Kupferman, an essayist and public relations specialist for the Parisian autism advocacy group. “And she fought against it. And she did it with her art. “

Kupferman in April revived efforts to win Baker, who died in 1975, for the rarest French award, the Pantheon in Paris. On Tuesday, Baker will become the 81st person to be buried or placed in an 18th century monument dedicated to the French ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity.

Contrary to some media reports, she will not be reburied in the Pantheon, but immortalized by a cenotaph containing land from various places where she lived. Baker will become the sixth woman, the first woman of color, and the first person of American descent to join the likes of Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Voltaire.

Josephine Baker aboard the French ocean liner Liberte arriving at New York Harbor on October 3, 1950.

(Associated Press)

Kupferman was not the first to offer the award to Baker, but his efforts quickly met with success where others failed. As he argued for Baker’s healing power, he learned that he had an amazing and powerful patron, one who had the power to honor Baker and grew up with his grandmother listening to the records of a trilling jazz singer.

These efforts also came at a time when France, like the United States, was struggling with issues of racial identity and how it recognized the contributions of powerful people of color. The Black Lives Matter movement and the 2016 death of a black man in police custody in the suburbs of Paris have sparked protests here, along with growing questions about whether France’s officially color-blind philosophy of universalism masks the reality of racism and religious discrimination.

“Recognition of blacks by France always seems to be trying to make it clear that this is not the United States,” said Annette Joseph-Gabrielle, author of Rethinking Liberation: How Black Women Changed Citizenship in the French Empire.

“Reality is complex,” she said. “It is both the reality of racial discrimination, the legacy of French colonialism, but also the promise of French universalism.”

“I have two loves”

The idea for the Pantheon began in 2013 when Kupferman stumbled upon a column in the French newspaper Le Monde arguing for Baker’s defense.

The 55-year-old grew up with Baker, like many French people, singing the song “J’ai Deux Amours”, her famous homage to her “two loves” – Paris and Manhattan.

But as he read biographies and watched old video clips, he began to think about her potential to revive the “light” of idealism that had spawned France and the United States, two great republics born in the 18th century.

“I have to say I love her,” he said. “It’s not real, but I admire her.”

He learned that Baker, who was born in 1906, grew up without a father in St. Louis and became a professional dancer as a teenager, eventually moving to New York, where she sang and danced in Harlem theaters and the famous Manhattan Plantation Club.

Baker jumped at the opportunity to travel to Europe to join the Parisian cabaret show, a move she later described as her best chance to escape the dangers of being black in America. She “ran away from home,” Baker told an audience in St. Louis in 1952. “I ran away from home. [here]and then I fled the United States of America because of this horror of discrimination, this terrible beast that paralyzes body and soul. “

When Baker arrived at Paris train station in 1925, a white man helped her off the train and smiled at her. According to Cooperferman, she said, “For the first time, I felt like I was being treated like a person and not like a color.”

She became a French celebrity who danced in trendy cabarets, inspiring Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and other artists who made Paris a symbol of culture and freedom after World War I. Freedom.

Josephine Baker poses in a glamorous dress with a transparent hat box.

Josephine Baker in an undated photograph.

(AFP / Getty Images)

“She was Madonna before Madonna,” said Brian Scott Bagley, an American dancer who moved to Paris 14 years ago to stage a Baker production and has since become a leading collector of Baker-related artifacts. He added, “The Beyonces, Rihanns and everyone else” owes her a debt.

Baker married a white Jew when fascism spread throughout Europe in the late 1930s, and after their separation helped smuggle him and his family out of the country to escape the Holocaust. She became a French citizen, joined the Resistance, charmed the Nazis and stole their secrets on her way to winning medals and the admiration of the French people.

Like many other personalities of her time, Baker left behind a complex and delicate legacy. She performed the “banana dance” and the “wild dance” with feathers on her body and walked the Champs-Elysees with her pet cheetah to promote her shows, which portrayed her as a sexy, primitive and exotic jungle product. – reinforcing many of the ugly stereotypes of the era.

She also violated sexual taboos by engaging in intrigues with women and struck a blow to the political order by speaking in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

She adopted a dozen children from all over the world – the “rainbow tribe” – to live in the utopian village she has built around her castle. Then, when she ran out of money and was forced to auction the castle, she lived in a villa in Monaco at the invitation of Princess Grace, a former movie star who befriended her. Baker spent her final years in Monaco and was buried there.

Although she fled America, she always thought about it, and she often returned to her homeland to fight American segregation laws, and she canceled performances in white-only establishments. She performed alongside the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March in Washington, one of two women who addressed the crowd that day.

“I went to the palaces of kings and queens and the homes of presidents,” she said. “And so much more. But I couldn’t walk into a hotel in America and have a cup of coffee, and it pissed me off.”

‘As in a dream’

A year after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world was full of darkness, Kupferman contacted one of Baker’s sons and said he wanted to renew the online petition he started in 2019 to bring Baker into the Pantheon. By that time, there were several other people on his team, including a famous French academician and later a songwriter named Laurent Woolsey.

They persuaded radio station France Musique to interview them about the proposal. Days after the interview aired, the radio station aired Baker’s Music Day.

Media attention increased and the number of signatures reached almost 40,000.

A month later, there was a surprise: an adviser to President Emmanuel Macron invited the group to a meeting at the Elysee Palace. As they ended, the first lady of France, Brigitte Macron, looked into the room to ask how she was doing.

The men rose to greet her.

She apologized that her husband was in Brussels, explaining that he grew up listening to Baker’s music with his grandmother.

“He knows your mother’s songs better than I do,” she told Brian Bouillon-Baker, 65, Baker’s seventh son and family official.

During a tour of the palace, the first lady admitted that the decision had already been made by Macron, the supreme authority on such matters: Baker would join the Pantheon.

“We were like in a dream,” Bouillon-Baker recalled.

Kupferman was agitated, but afraid to get ahead of himself.

“It was 98%, but not 100%,” he said.

Brigitte Macron, however, added that they should keep it a secret until they have an opportunity to meet with President Macron and he will make a statement himself.

A meeting with the president took place in July, and Kupferman and others detailed their case detailing Baker’s life and how she embodies the ideals of French universalism, a country she described in 1952 as “true freedom, democracy, equality and brotherhood.” … … ”

Towards the end of the hour-long meeting, Macron winked approvingly at Bouillon-Baker and told him, as his son recalled, “Your mother will be in the Pantheon for all the services she has done to France, but not only to France.”

Recognizing Baker’s global influence, her cenotaph in the Pantheon will contain land from Paris, Monaco, Saint Louis and the Dordogne region of southwestern France, where she lived most of her life. Her spell announced by Macron in Augustwill also not be the first time she has been honored by the president. In 1963, when she joined thousands to march to Washington, she told the crowd that she had just been handed an invitation to meet with President Kennedy at the White House.

“I am honored,” she said. “But I must tell you that a woman of color — or, as you say here in America, a black woman — will not go there. This is a woman. This is Josephine Baker.

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