Joséphine Baker to enter French Panthéon of national heroes

·6-min read

American-born French dancer Joséphine Baker will be inducted into the Panthéon, an honour reserved for France’s national heroes, on November 30. The move recognises her courage in actively resisting Nazi Germany during World War II.

Franco-American dancer and singer Joséphine Baker, a prominent figure in the French Resistance during World War II, will be inducted into the Panthéon on November 30, the newspaper Le Parisien reported Sunday, citing French President Emmanuel Macron.

“It's a yes!”, Macron said on July 21 at the Élysée Palace, according to the daily, after meeting with a group of advocates for Baker, including the essayist Laurent Kuperman and one of Baker's sons, Brian Bouillon Baker.

The dancer and activist, who was born in Missouri in 1906 and buried in Monaco in 1975, will become the first Black woman to be memorialised in France’s national necropolis in the centre of Paris. Only five women have so far been inducted into the Panthéon out of the 80 people honoured there. Baker would join the ranks of Simon Veil, inducted in 2018, and Marie Curie.

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A petition to honour Baker at the Panthéon – Osez Joséphine (Dare with Joséphine) – was started by Kupferman on May 8, which is celebrated as Victory in Europe Day, and gathered almost 38,000 signatures.

Baker "should not be inducted only because she was a woman or because she was Black”, Kupferman said. “She should be inducted because of the acts of courage she performed for the country."

War messages hidden in her dress

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Joséphine Baker rose to international stardom in the 1930s – especially in France, where she settled in 1925 and soon dominated the country’s cabarets with her big smile, sense of humour and wispy clothing. In 1937 she married Jean Lion (born Levy), a captain of industry of Jewish heritage.

Baker also became a French citizen and a patriot who was dedicated to the country’s resistance against the Nazi occupation during World War II. She was able to capitalise on her celebrity for the war effort: She would hide secret messages in her clothes from the officials who were too busy asking for autographs.

Baker would also crash embassy parties to collect intelligence on the positions of German troops and donated the proceeds from her concerts to the French Army. The Chateau des Milandes, where she lived, became a resistance hotspot.

The idea of Baker taking her place among France’s greats is not new. On December 16, 2013, writer Régis Debray pushed for it in a Le Monde op-ed piece.

"The proposition had been sent to [then president] François Hollande, but he did nothing," says Brian Bouillon Baker, one of the artist’s adopted sons, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Dubbed "the Frenchest of all Americans", Baker’s descendants say public interest and support for her induction had only been growing.

"Many officials have been increasingly asking us (Baker’s children) to take part in inaugurating schools, streets, squares and dancehalls, all in her honour. International media is asking for interviews. There are even three movies currently being shot, including a biopic and a documentary, both with big budgets. We didn’t have all that admiration for her 30 years ago," Bouillon Baker said.

According to Kupferman, this growing public interest is due, in part, to the fact that Baker’s activism is still relevant today. "She was a free woman and an activist, a feminist, a resistance fighter, and an activist against racism and antisemitism. In a world turned in on itself, where tribalism and racism are exacerbated, her ideals resonate in people’s hearts," the author explained.

The singer became an outspoken antiracism activist after having coped with the American segregation system. In 1963 she took part in the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King. Dressed in her French wartime uniform, medals included, she was the only Black woman to give a speech during what became the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

While in France she became an advocate at LICA, which would later become the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism in 1979.

‘The Rainbow Tribe’

Well known in France for her song "J’ai deux amours" (“I have two loves"), the singer actually had many more: during her lifetime she adopted 12 children from different origins and religions, applying her humanitarian ideals to her own family, which she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe”.

“Our family was not simply a utopia. Our mother wanted us to be different and united. And on that she absolutely succeeded, because to this day, we are just as tied to each other,” said Bouillon Baker, who is now 64.

Although all of her children support her being granted Panthéon honours, they also agree on something else: they refuse to allow her mortal remains to leave the family’s burial site in the small Mediterranean principality of Monaco.

“Our mother is resting next to our father and one of their sons, also close to [Princess] Grace of Monaco, whom she loved dearly and who helped her when she was ruined at the end of her life. So it is out of the question to move her," her son said firmly.

The transfer of one’s remains is not mandatory to enter the Panthéon. Instead, the Baker family has suggested a simple cenotaph in her memory.

But what would Joséphine Baker herself have thought of such an honour? According to Bouillon Baker, she would have been torn.

"She would have been really proud of such an honour from France, just like she was really proud of wearing her military awards (including a Knight of the Legion of Honour medal, a Croix de Guerre from World War II, a Resistance Medal and a Commemorative Medal for voluntary services during the war). But she would also be somewhat embarrassed by such an honour: She was not an intellectual nor a political leader, but simply a woman with common sense," he said.

But Baker also faced her share of criticism in her day. She performed one dance number with a banana belt around her waist, prompting some to denounce her for taking part in a caricature of racist tropes.

But others dismissed her critics.

"To say she fuels racism is absurd; we must not look at this scene from the past with present-day glasses. It is nothing but a wild Charleston, not a tribal dance,” said Kupferman.

“These accusations are marginal; wherever we talk about her, it is with kindness," said Bouillon Baker, adding that the public response has been made up of “expressions of sympathy, tributes and recognition for our mother”.

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