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Artist, activist and Resistance hero Josephine Baker enters France's Pantheon

By RFI
Europe © Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
NOV 30, 2021 LISTEN
© Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Josephine Baker, the French-American dancer and singer who fought in the French Resistance and later battled racism, will on Tuesday become the first black woman to enter France's famed Pantheon mausoleum.

The domed monument in the heart of Paris, modelled on the one in Rome, holds the remains of legendary figures in France's history from the worlds of politics, culture and science. 

Seventy men, including the philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, lie next to literary luminaries such as Alexandre Dumas, Emile Zola and Victor Hugo.

Only five women before Baker have been allowed through its grand portals, which are crowned with an inscription proclaiming: "To great men from a grateful nation."

Baker's adopted country is bestowing this honour 46 years after her death. Not only was she a mould-breaking entertainer, she was also a French Resistance hero, civil rights activist and a diversity pioneer who created her own multiracial family.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald into extreme poverty in Missouri in 1906, Baker left school at the age of 13.

After two failed marriages – she took the name Baker from her second husband – she managed to land herself a place in one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway in 1921.

March on Washington

Like many Black American artists at the time, Baker moved to France to escape racist discrimination back home. But she never stopped campaigning for civil rights.

She was the only woman to address the March in Washington in 1963, taking the microphone after Martin Luther King had given his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

In a personal bid to prove there is "only one race", Baker adopted 12 children from across the world to live with her in her French chateau, which she later tried to turn into a "Global Village".

"We all have the same heart, the same blood and the same need for love," she declared.

Banana skirt

Plucked from the chorus line of "La Revue Nègre" musical – an attempt to bring "authentic" Black American culture to Europe – she became its star and caused a sensation.

It was the first time most Parisians had ever heard jazz or seen it performed.

The writer Ernest Hemingway, who was living in the French capital at the time, said Baker was "the most sensational woman anyone had seen".

The artist Pablo Picasso marvelled at her "smile to end all smiles".

When the show moved to the Folies-Bergere, Baker danced the Charleston in 1927 wearing nothing but a string of pearls and a skirt made of 16 rubber bananas.

France, which had many Black African colonies, was dumbstruck by her performance, which some people at the time saw as a parody of white male sexual fantasies.

"With racist fantasies on the one hand and colonialist fantasies on the other, it seems fair to say that Baker's impact on Paris ... had as much to do with her colour as her talent," American literary critic Phyllis Rose wrote.

Ilana Navaro, who made a documentary about Baker in 2018, said she "transformed bananas, the ultimate racist symbols, into phallic trophies".

WWII spy hero

After her marriage to the French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937, she took French nationality – but the relationship did not last.

However, she helped him and his Jewish family escape the Nazis and reach the United States.

It was to be one of many wartime exploits in which Baker showed the same mettle that led her to refuse to perform before segregated audiences in the United States, an unpopular move at the time.

She became a spy for France's wartime leader-in-exile General Charles de Gaulle, and used her people skills and contacts to obtain information on the plans of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

She was an informant, courier and lover of de Gaulle's counter-intelligence chief in Paris.

She also sent reports to London written in invisible ink in her sheet music, work for which she would later be decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d'honneur.

"France made me who I am," she later said. "Parisians gave me everything ... I am prepared to give them my life."

'Rainbow tribe'

After several miscarriages, she and her fourth husband, orchestra director Jo Bouillon, adopted 12 children of different ethnic backgrounds.

She installed what she called her "Rainbow Tribe" in the chateau des Milandes in the Dordogne in southwestern France.

Baker later transformed her multiracial utopia into a theme park dedicated to world peace. But her high ideals and grand ambitions did not pay the bills and she ran into debt.

Ruined, she returned to the stage in a vain bid to save her estate.

Her fellow American, Princess Grace of Monaco, came to her aid and helped her settle on the French Riviera in 1969.

But Baker could not stop performing, and she was to have one last hurrah, with a final smash-hit cabaret show in Paris retracing her remarkable career.

She died on 12 April, 1975, aged 68, from a brain haemorrhage as she read reviews of a star-studded gala – attended by Mick Jagger and Sophia Loren – to celebrate her half-century on the stage.

(with AFP)

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