PARIS – Missouri-born Josephine Baker, a French lover whose life spanned the glorification of the French music hall and American human rights movements, became the first black woman to be buried in the Pantheon, the sacred tomb of the country’s heroes.
On a gray afternoon, 46 years after her death in Paris, Republican Guard soldiers carried a coffin with a draped flag up the red-carpeted stairs of the Pantheon, where Ms Baker joined 75 men and five women, including the writer Emile Zola. , scientist Marie Curie and resistance hero Jean Moulin.
The colonnaded façade of the Pantheon, engraved with a dedication to the “greats” of France, was illuminated by a remarkable collage of images from Madame Baker’s wild nights performing at the Folies Bergeres in 1926 to her appearance in front of Lincoln. Memorial next to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, when he uttered the words, “I have a dream.”
Ms. Baker’s re-burial under the dome overlooking Paris was the culmination of an extraordinary journey that began in the poverty and racial segregation of St. Louis; led her to fame as the provocative dance star “les années folles”, or Crazy Years, in 1920s Paris; and took her to a passionate political participation in the freedom of Europe from the threat of fascism and American racial equality.
At a time of tensions in France over race and gender and divisions with the United States, President Emmanuel Macron chose to honor Ms. Baker as a woman with “all forms of courage and courage” and “an American woman who took refuge in Paris and captured what it means to be French. “
Five months after a divisive presidential election, he portrayed Ms. Baker as a symbol of unity – what he called “the beauty of collective destiny.” He called her an example of the success of an immigrant and the many people that one life can accommodate.
“France is Josephine,” said Macron, standing in front of the coffin. From the right to the left on the political spectrum, at least for the day, everyone seemed to agree.
Passionate cadences of “J’ai Deux Amours” or “I Have Two Loves,” perhaps Mrs Baker’s most famous song, filled the frescoed mausoleum during the ceremony. The admission that Ms. Baker’s heart immediately rushed to “Paris et mon pays” – “Paris and my country” seemed to capture her unusual odyssey.
At the time the song was recorded in 1930, Ms. Baker was still an American citizen. She became French in 1937, 12 years after arriving in France. She is the first person of American descent to be buried in the Pantheon, which was marked by the lighting of the Empire State Building on Monday in the red, white and blue of the French flag.
“She had a double affection for both countries,” said Ms. Baker’s daughter, Marianne Bouillon-Baker, at an American reception on the eve of the burial.
Following the racial violence she witnessed as a black American and repeated humiliations of segregation and discrimination, Ms. Baker, née Freda Josephine MacDonald, said she found freedom and dignity in France, for which she is “infinitely grateful.”
Other black American artists, including James Baldwin and Richard Wright, have had similar experiences, making France particularly susceptible to American criticism for its widely accepted color-blind social model hiding widespread discrimination.
Mr. Macron said that Ms. Baker’s life was “a struggle all over the world.” Her goal was not to “define herself as Black before defining herself as American or French.” Its main idea was not “the irreducibility of the black cause”, but about being “a completely free and dignified citizen,” he added.
His words seemed to reflect his government’s opposition to what it often portrays as divisive American identity politics that threaten to undermine French universalism. Mr. Macron’s characterization of Ms. Baker’s convictions was consistent with his government’s vehement defense of universalism. However, her presence at the mall with Dr. King and her repeated expressions of outrage at the treatment of blacks in the United States make it clear that the particular struggle of blacks for equality was very important to her.
Ms. Baker became the object of wild Parisian admiration when she was just 20 years old when she appeared in 1926 at the Folies Bergères, wearing little more than a skirt of 16 rubber bananas on a show called The Negro Review.
Cabaret acted out white men’s colonial obsessions with black women and their bodies in France, which was then fascinated by black and African arts. Clowning and exaggeration, rolling and waving her arms, Ms. Baker has managed to exploit and subvert stereotypes, ridiculing them with what Mr. Macron called her use of burlesque.
Her fame spread everywhere; writers from Jean Cocteau to Ernest Hemingway fell into her slavery. But when the artistic stupidity of the 1920s gave way to the fascist military stupidity of the 1930s, Ms. Baker demonstrated that she did not take her success or the gifts of her adoptive country for granted. She joined the resistance.
Wearing her Free France uniform, hung with various French military and civilian honors, she appeared with Dr. King on the March to Washington. “I went to the palaces of kings and queens and the homes of presidents,” she said. “But I couldn’t walk into a hotel in America and have a cup of coffee, and that pissed me off.”
She urged the crowd to continue fighting. “You can’t go wrong,” she said. “The world is behind you.”
Gabriel Attal, a government spokesman, told Radio Europe 1 that Ms Baker was “a great symbol of a love for France that can also come from people who were not born here.”
His statement appeared to be aimed at immigration, which remains an explosive topic in France – the main topic of elections, along with purchasing power during times of economic hardship. If Ms Baker accepted France, many immigrants, especially from North Africa, found it much more difficult because of the prejudices they faced.
She was reburied the same day Eric Zemmour, a far-right polemicist and TV personality with violent anti-immigrant views, ran for president. Polls show that he enjoys significant support.
Of Miss Baker, Mr. Macron said: “She did not defend a certain skin color. She had a certain idea of humanity and fought for the freedom of everyone. Its cause was universalism, the unity of mankind, the equality of all before the identity of each individual person. “