Joséphine Baker, music hall star and civil rights activist, enters the Pantheon

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Joséphine Baker, music hall star and civil rights activist, enters the Pantheon


Joséphine Baker, Franco-American civil rights activist, music hall superstar and WWII resistance heroine, is set to become the first black woman to enter the French mausoleum of the Pantheon of revered historical figures – winning the highest national honor at a time when tensions over national identity and immigration dominate next year’s presidential race.

Tuesday’s elaborate ceremony – chaired by French President Emmanuel Macron – will focus on Baker’s legacy as a resistance fighter, activist and anti-fascist who fled 1920s racial segregation in the United States for the Parisian cabaret scene , and who fought for inclusion and against hate.

Members of the French Air Force will carry a coffin containing handfuls of soil from four places Baker lived: the US town of St Louis where she was born; Paris, where her music hall performances overturned racial and gender stereotypes and made her the highest paid performer of her time; the Château des Milandes, where she lived, in southwestern France; and Monaco, his last home. The coffin will be placed in a tomb reserved for it in the crypt of the Pantheon. Her family requested that her body remain buried in Monaco, where she died at the age of 68 in 1975.

The Pantheon mausoleum for revered historical figures in Paris. Photography: Siegfried Modola / Getty Images

A large projection outside the sacred Parisian monument will recall scenes from the life of Baker, which the Élysée Palace described as “incredible”, describing her as an exceptional figure who embodied the French spirit. Macron’s office said it was a recognition that “Baker’s entire life was devoted to the twin pursuit of freedom and justice.”

Baker was born in Missouri in 1906, dropped out of school at age 13, and as a child witnessed horrific riots and violence against blacks that resulted in the displacement of thousands of people. She later said that her hometown “had a terrible effect on me”. Like other black American artists who arrived in Paris at the time, she left the United States to escape racial segregation. “I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first Americans of color to settle in Paris,” she told The Guardian in 1974.

Baker in military uniform. Photograph: Hi-Story / Alamy

“The mere fact that a black woman enters the Pantheon is historic,” French black academic Pap Ndiaye, an expert on American minority rights movements, told The Associated Press. “When she arrived, she was first surprised like so many African Americans who moved to Paris at the same time… at the absence of institutional racism. There was no segregation… no lynching. [There was] the possibility of sitting in a cafe and being served by a white waiter, the possibility of talking to white people, of [have a] romance with whites, ”Ndiaye said.

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

Baker was 19 when she arrived in Paris and rose to fame for her music hall appearances, including dancing the Charleston at the Folies-Bergère cabaret while wearing a faux banana skirt. France was a colonial power and Baker’s routines are now hailed for how she overturned colonial fantasies about black women and the stereotypes they faced.

With the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of World War II, Baker was quick to join the anti-fascist struggle. In 1938, she had already joined the group known today as Licra, a major anti-racist league. From 1939, she worked for the French counter-intelligence services against the Nazis, joined the resistance and in particular gathered information from German officials whom she met at parties. As a spy for the exiled French warlord, General Charles de Gaulle, she obtained information about the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and sent reports to London written in her scores in invisible ink. She obtained a pilot’s license at a time when it was exceptional for women and became a lieutenant in the female auxiliary corps of the French Air Force, obtaining military decorations.

“France made me who I am,” she said later. “The Parisians have given me everything… I am ready to give them my life. “

Later, as a civil rights activist, she was the only woman to speak in the 1963 March on Washington before Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. She was wearing her French military uniform. In France, she also led a fight against discrimination by adopting 12 children of ethnic origins and from different countries around the world to form what she called a “rainbow” family, which she has created. raised in her castle in the Dordogne. She said she hoped their lives would show that “racial hatred is unnatural. It is an invention of man.

Joséphine Baker in the south of France in 1970.
Joséphine Baker in the south of France in 1970. Photographie : Jv Tc/AP

Baker will only be the sixth woman to be honored in the secular temple of “great men” of the French Republic. She is the fourth person of color to be commemorated at the Pantheon, after three men: Félix Éboué, Governor General of French Equatorial Africa, who joined in 1949; the author Alexandre Dumas, who joined in 2002; and the poet and politician Aimé Césaire, who joined in 2011.

The ceremony takes place on November 30 because it is the date on which Baker chose to take French nationality by marriage, on his wedding day. The process of obtaining French nationality has since become more difficult.

The ceremony – led by Macron, who chose to bestow the highest honors on Baker France after his supporters and families filed a petition for years – is seen as a movement of political symbolism regarding France’s role as that inclusive society. The debate ahead of next spring’s presidential election has been dominated by far-right rhetoric about national identity and immigration. Far-right television scholar Eric Zemmour, convicted of inciting racial hatred, said he would run for president to “save” France from being destroyed by immigration.

Macron’s office said it was a sign of universal affection for Baker in France that there was full political consensus around his honors.

Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage days after a last successful cabaret show in Paris celebrating her half-century on stage. She had confided to a journalist from French television: “I don’t like the word hate… We weren’t put on Earth for that, rather to understand and love each other. “

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