Art

Legendary entertainer and activist Josephine Baker feted at French Pantheon

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France’s President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a ceremony dedicated to Josephine Baker. PHOTO | COURTESY

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Summary

  • Josephine Baker, one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century, was inducted into the Pantheon early this week after an announcement by President Emmanuel Macron in August.
  • Baker makes France look good. Though her heroism is incontestable, she always expressed gratitude to France and never criticised its colonialism.

This week, Western media was full of praise for what they described as “Josephine Baker, the first Black woman to be inducted into France’s Pantheon”.

Josephine Baker, one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century, was inducted into the Pantheon early this week after an announcement by President Emmanuel Macron in August. She is the first woman of colour and the first artiste to be interred at the mausoleum, which houses the remains of the most revered French citizens.

But who exactly was Josephine Baker?

Born on 3 June 1906, Baker grew up in acute poverty, sleeping six in a bed with her family in the slums of St Louis, Missouri, at a time when the so-called “Jim Crow laws” enforced racial segregation in the American south. When she was just eight years old, her mother pulled her out of school to work as a live-in domestic servant to white families in the city, where she was not allowed to look at her employers in the eye.

At age 13, Baker started making a living as a street-corner dancer in St Louis. She was recruited to a local vaudeville troupe at age 15, and in 1919, moved to New York to perform in Broadway revues. Baker was typically the last chorus girl, but she attracted attention and at the height of the “roaring twenties” she was recruited to an all-black dance troupe heading to Paris.

In Paris, Josephine Baker, already twice married and separated by the time she left New York, defied convention by making love to men and women. She was irresistibly charismatic; Ernest Hemingway described her as “the most sensual woman anybody ever saw”.

Finally earning a fortune to match her fame, Baker acquired a gold piano, Marie Antoinette’s actual bed, and even a diamond-collared cheetah that caused havoc whenever it jumped into the orchestra pit at her performances.

From her famous hairstyles slicked down with egg white, to her flamboyant dresses, Baker was celebrated for her style and performed to huge audiences in a city where American culture was seen as novel and exotic. The love affair was mutual. In 1937, Baker renounced her American citizenship when she married Frenchman Jean Lion.

Although her shows were regarded to be on the borderline of moral decency and were often interrupted by protesters, they remained popular on the European circuit.

When the Second World War was declared in 1939, Paris was filled with refugees fleeing Germans. Every night Baker would go to a nearby homeless shelter on Rue du Chevaleret to make beds, bathe old people, and comfort new arrivals. Yet when the Nazis occupied the French capital in the summer of 1940, Baker took on a more dangerous and risky role in the war.

She became a spy for the French Resistance, reportedly saying: “France made me who I am, the Parisians gave me their hearts and I am ready to give them my life”. Baker’s performances gave her the perfect excuse for travelling across Europe, and as a glamorous star was invited to embassy parties wherever she went.

At these parties, Baker would eavesdrop and flirt to gather information about German troop locations and airfields from high-ranking Italian, Japanese, and Nazi officials.

Fellow secret agent Jacques Abtey, masquerading as her assistant, recorded the information in invisible ink on her sheet music, while Baker pinned important pictures to her underwear, counting on her fame to avoid a full-body search. She was the recipient of several French military honours for her heroic work during the war.

As the only woman to speak at the March of Washington in 1963 alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she proudly stood on the podium in the uniform of the Free French Forces. After King’s assassination, his widow, Coretta King, invited her to lead the civil rights movement.

Although Baker declined the invitation, it says a lot about the level of respect she had gained even in America. However, notwithstanding her status as an international star, she was not allowed to stay in luxury hotels reserved for whites only in the United States.

As a result of her history, Baker’s story is often used in France to push the narrative of a republic that is supposedly more welcoming to Black people than the United States is. Indeed, throughout the 20th Century, France has built this myth by welcoming many African American artistes, including Sidney Bechet, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and others who could not stand oppression in the US anymore.

It was convenient to welcome those who did not have an argument to settle with France. Yet, during this time, France was a violent colonial power. As Baker was dancing on Parisian floors, France was still exhibiting colonised populations in human zoos.

Baker makes France look good. Though her heroism is incontestable, she always expressed gratitude to France and never criticised its colonialism. I guess it was a question of the lesser devil. It is instructive to note that Macron did not take up the proposal to pantheonise lawyer Giséle Halimi, who was involved in anti-colonial activism in support of the Algerian people in their war against France.

At a time when immigration is at the heart of many political tensions, and as French people of colour still face discrimination, it will take more than the elevation of Baker to show that the republic and, indeed the Western world, have changed their attitude. As far as I am concerned, this was a paternalistic and condescending attempt to sanitise history.