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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Josephine Baker made history as the first black woman to be honored in the French Pantheon

PARIS – France brings into its Pantheon Josephine Baker, a Missouri cabaret dancer and French spy and civil rights activist during World War II.

On Tuesday, a coffin filled with soil from the US, France and Monaco – places where Baker left her mark – will be housed in a domed monument to the Pantheon overlooking the Left Bank of Paris. Her body will remain in Monaco at the request of her family.

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French President Emmanuel Macron decided to join the Pantheon, responding to a petition. The move is intended to not only pay tribute to a prominent figure in French history, but also send a message against racism and celebrate American-French ties.

“Above all, she represents the freedom of women,” Laurent Kupferman, author of the relocation petition, told The Associated Press.

Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. At 19, she had already divorced twice, had relationships with men and women, and began an acting career, then moved to France after getting a job.

“She came to France in 1925, she is an emancipated woman who took over life in a country in which she does not even speak,” said Kupferman.

She immediately achieved success on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs Elysees, where she appeared topless and donned the famous banana belt. Her show, which embodied the racist stereotypes of colonial times about African women, drew both condemnation and celebration.

“She was such a fantasy: not the black body of an American woman, but an African woman,” Ophel Lacho, a spokeswoman for the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, told AP. “And so they asked Josephine to dance something tribal, wild, African.”

After that, Baker’s career took a more serious turn as she learned to speak five languages ​​and toured around the world. She became a French citizen after marrying industrialist Jean Lyon in 1937, a Jew who later suffered from the anti-Semitic laws of the Vichy collaborationist regime.

In September 1939, when France and Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Baker contacted the head of French counterintelligence. According to the French military archives, she began working as an informant, traveling, getting close to officials and sharing information hidden in her music scores.

Researcher and historian Jero Letan said that Baker lived “a double life between, on the one hand, a music hall artist, and on the other, a secret life that later became completely illegal, an intelligence agent.”

After the defeat of France in June 1940, she refused to play for the Nazis who occupied Paris and moved to southwestern France. She continued to work for the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for her espionage activities.

In the same year, she recruited several spies working for the Allies to her troupe, which allowed them to travel to Spain and Portugal. “She runs the risk of being sentenced to death or at least harsh repression by the Vichy regime or the Nazi occupiers,” Letang said.

The following year, seriously ill, Baker left France for North Africa, where she collected intelligence for General Charles de Gaulle, including spying on the British and Americans, who did not fully trust him and did not share all the information.

She was also involved in fundraising, including from personal money. It is estimated to have brought in the equivalent of € 10 million ($ 11.2 million) to support the French Resistance.

In 1944, Baker joined the women’s group of the French Liberation Army Air Force as a second lieutenant. The group’s logbook specifically mentions an incident off the coast of Corsica in 1944, when Senegalese colonial soldiers fighting in the French Liberation Army helped Baker out of the sea. After her plane made an emergency landing, they brought “the shipwrecked on their big shoulders, with Josephine Baker in front,” says the logbook.

Baker also organized concerts for soldiers and civilians near the war zones. After the defeat of the Nazis, she went to Germany to sing for former prisoners and deportees released from the camps.

“Baker’s involvement in politics was individual and atypical,” said Benetta Jules-Rosette, a leading researcher on Baker’s life and professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego.

After the war, Baker took up anti-racist policies. She fought against American segregation on a tour of the United States in 1951, which resulted in her being targeted by the FBI, branded her as a communist, and banned her from entering her homeland for ten years. The ban was lifted by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and she returned and became the only woman to speak at the Washington March before Martin Luther King King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Back in France, she adopted 12 children from all over the world, creating a “rainbow tribe” to fulfill her ideal of “universal brotherhood.” She acquired a castle and land in the southwestern French city of Castelnau-la-Chapelle, where she tried to build a city that would embody her values.

“My mother saw the success of the Rainbow Tribe because when we were creating problems as children, she never knew who did it because we never yelled at each other, risking collective punishment,” said one of Baker’s sons, Brian Bouillon Baker. AP. “I heard her say to some friends, ‘I’m crazy because I’ll never know who is causing the problem, but I’m happy and proud that my children are one.”

Towards the end of her life, she faced financial problems, was evicted and lost her property. She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, who offered Baker accommodation for her and her children.

She regained her career, but in 1975, four days after the triumphant opening of a comeback tour, she fell into a coma and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Buried in Monaco.

While Baker is widely regarded in France, some critics of Macron wonder why he chose an American-born figure as the first black woman in the Pantheon, rather than someone who rebelled against racism and colonialism in France itself.

The Pantheon, built in the late 18th century, honors 72 men and five women, including Baker. She joins two other black figures in the mausoleum: the reluctant Gaullist Felix Eboue and the famous writer Alexandre Dumas.

“These are people who have made a commitment, especially to others,” Pantheon administrator David Medek told AP. “It’s not just excellence in competence, it’s really a matter of commitment, commitment to others.”

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Jamie Kiten contributed from Castelnau-la-Chapelle, France.

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World Nation News Desk
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