By SYLVIE CORBET and JEFFREY SCHAEFFER, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) – Joséphine Baker’s voice, speaking and singing, will resonate in front of the Pantheon monument in Paris on Tuesday, where she is to be symbolically enthroned – becoming the first black woman to receive France’s highest honor.
French President Emmanuel Macron made the decision in August to honor the “exceptional figure” who “embodies the French spirit”, making Baker also the first citizen born in the United States and the first artist to be immortalized in the Pantheon. She will join the scientist Marie Curie, the philosopher Voltaire, the writer Victor Hugo and other French luminaries.
The move aims to pay tribute to “a woman whose whole life is turned towards the quest for both freedom and justice,” Macron’s office said.
Baker is not only hailed for her world-renowned artistic career but also for her active role in the French Resistance during World War II, her actions as a civil rights activist and her humanist values, which she displayed at through the adoption of her 12 children from around the world.
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Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker became a megastar in the 1930s, most notably in France, where she moved in 1925 as she sought to flee racism and segregation in the United States.
“The mere fact that a black woman enters the pantheon is historic,” French black researcher 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 lack of institutional racism. There was no segregation. . no lynching. (There was) the ability to sit in a cafe and be served by a white waiter, the ability to talk to white people, to have a romantic relationship with white people, ”said Ndiaye.
“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 one of several prominent black Americans, especially artists and writers, who found refuge in France after the two world wars, including the famous writer and intellectual James Baldwin.
They were “aware of the French Empire and the brutalities of French colonization, that’s for sure. But they also had an overall better life than the one they had left in the United States,” Ndiaye, who also heads the French immigration. museum, told The Associated Press.
Baker quickly became famous for his banana skirt dance routines and wowed audiences in Parisian theaters.
Her shows were controversial, Ndiaye stressed, as many anti-colonial activists believed she was “colonization propaganda, singing the song the French wanted her to sing.”
Baker was well aware of “the stereotypes black women face,” he said. “She also moved away from those stereotypes with her facial expressions… a way for her to laugh a certain way at people looking at her.”
“But let’s not forget that when she arrived in France, she was only 19, she was almost illiterate … She had to build her political and racial awareness,” he said.
Baker became a French citizen after her marriage to the industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. The same year, she moved to the south-west of France, at the castle of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.
“Josephine Baker can be considered the first black superstar. She’s like the Rihanna of the 1920s, ”said Rosemary Phillips, a Barbados-born artist and co-owner of Baker’s Park in southwest France.
Phillips said one of the ladies who grew up in the castle and met Baker said: “Can you imagine a black woman in the 1930s in a chauffeured car – a white chauffeur – showing up and saying: “I would like to buy the 1,000 acres here? “
In 1938 Baker joined what is now called LICRA, a prominent anti-racist league and long-time advocate of his entry into the Pantheon.
The following year, she began working for the French counterintelligence services against the Nazis, including collecting information from German officials she met at parties. She then joined the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as cover for espionage activities during World War II.
In 1944, Baker became a second lieutenant in a women’s group in the Air Force of the French Liberation Army under General Charles De Gaulle.
After the war, she became involved in anti-racist politics. A civil rights activist, she was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington before Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Towards the end of her life, she encountered financial problems, was evicted and lost her possessions. She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, the US-born actress who provided Baker with a place to live for herself and her children.
Tuesday’s ceremony was prepared closely with his family, and several relatives will be present, said the Elysee. A coffin carrying land from the United States, France and Monaco will be placed inside the Pantheon. His body will remain in Monaco at the request of his family.
Albert II, Prince of Monaco and son of Grace, honored Baker as a “great lady” in a ceremony Monday at the cemetery where she is buried. Paraphrasing the French poet Louis Aragon, he said that Baker was French “not by birth, but by preference”.
PA journalists Jamey Keaten and Arno Pedram in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, France, and Bishr Eltouni in Monaco contributed.
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