PARIS (AP), France inducts Josephine Baker, a Missouri-born cabaret performer, French World War II spy, and civil rights activist, into its Pantheon. She is the first Black woman to be honored at the final resting place for France’s most venerated luminaries.
A coffin containing soils from France, Monaco, and the U.S. — where Baker left her mark — will be placed inside the monument to Pantheon overlooking Paris’ Left Bank on Tuesday. At the request of her family, her body will remain in Monaco.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided to include her entry in the Pantheon after receiving a petition. The move, which honors an outstanding figure in French history, is also meant to celebrate U.S.-French ties and send a message against racism.
Laurent Kupferman (the author of the petition), stated to The Associated Press that “She embodies, prior anything, women’s freedom.”
Baker was a child of St. Louis, Missouri. After having been divorced twice and starting a performing career, Baker moved to France after a job opening.
Kupferman stated that she arrived in France in 1925 as an emancipated lady, and took her life into her own hands in a country where she didn’t speak the language.
On the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, she was immediately successful. She was seen topless and wore a famous banana belt. She was condemned and celebrated for her performance, which reflected colonial racism about African women.
Ophelie Lachaux, Theatre des Champs Elysees spokesperson, told the AP that she was that type of fantasy. “She wasn’t the Black body of an American woman, but an African woman.” “And that’s how they asked Josephine dance something ‘tribal’,’savage’, ‘African’-like.”
Baker’s life took a serious turn when she was able to learn five languages and tour internationally. After her 1937 marriage to Jean Lion, an industrialist from France, she became French citizen. However, Jean Lion was a Jewish man who suffered from the anti-Semitic laws under the Vichy collaborationist regime.
Baker connected with the French head of counterintelligence services in September 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. As an informant, she traveled, met officials, and shared information on her music sheets , according to French military archives.
Geraud Letang, historian and researcher, said Baker led a double life. On the one hand, he was a music hall performer, while on the other, he had a secret life that would later become illegal as an intelligence agent.
She refused to play for Nazis in Paris after France’s defeat of June 1940 and moved to southwestern France. She worked for the French Resistance and used her artistic performances to cover her spying activities.
She brought in her troupe many spy workers for the Allies that year, which allowed them to travel to Spain, Portugal, and Spain. Letang stated that she was at risk of being executed or the strict repression of either the Vichy regime, or the Nazi occupant.
Baker became seriously ill in the following year and fled France to North Africa. There she collected intelligence for Gen. Charles De Gaulle. She also spied on the British and American citizens.
She also raised funds from personal sources. She raised the equivalent of 10,000,000 euros ($11.2million) to support the French Resistance.
Baker was a second lieutenant in the Air Force of French Liberation Army. One of the most notable incidents in Baker’s logbook is a 1944 incident off Corsica. This was when Senegalese soldiers fighting for the French Liberation Army assisted Baker to safety. The logbook explains that the crew brought Josephine Baker, the shipwrecked, to shores after her plane had to land in an emergency landing.
Baker organized concerts for soldiers, civilians and others living near conflict zones. After the defeat by the Nazis, Baker traveled to Germany to sing in support of former prisoners and deportees who had been released from Nazi camps.
“Baker was an individual and unusual participant in politics,” stated Benetta JulesRosette, a prominent scholar on Baker’s biography and sociology professor at University of California, San Diego.
Baker became involved in anti-racist politics after the war. During a 1951 performance tour of America, Baker fought against American segregation. She was then targeted by the FBI and labeled as a communist. She was banned from her homeland for a decade. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy lifted the ban and she was allowed to speak again at the March on Washington.
Back in France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating a “rainbow tribe” to embody her ideal of “universal fraternity.” She purchased a castle and land in the southwestern French town of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, where she tried to build a city embodying her values.
One of Baker’s sons Brian Bouillon Baker told the AP that his mother was able to see the success of the rainbow tribe. “When we caused trouble as children, she wouldn’t know who it was because we never ratted upon each other, risking collective punishment.” “I heard my mother tell her friends, “It’s mad that I don’t know who causes trouble but it’s a joy to see my children stand together.”
She ran into financial difficulties towards the end of her life and was forced to leave her property. She was supported by Princess Grace of Monaco who offered Baker a home for her and her kids.
She rebuilt her career, but four days after opening a comeback tour, she was in a coma. In 1975, she died from a brain hemorhage. She was buried at Monaco.
Although Baker is well-received in France, Macron’s critics question his choice to name an American-born woman as the first Black woman in Pantheon instead of someone who fought against racism and colonialism within France.
Built at the end 18th century, the Pantheon honors 72 men and five ladies, including Baker. She is joined by two other Black men in the mausoleum, Felix Eboue, a Gaullist rebel, and Alexandre Dumas.
David Medec, Pantheon administrator, said to the AP that these are people who have made a commitment to themselves and others. It is not about excellence in a particular field, but it is also about commitment, dedication to others.
Jamey Keaten contributed from Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, France.