PARIS (AP) – Josephine Baker – the US-born artist, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist – was inducted into the French Pantheon on Tuesday, becoming the first black woman to receive the country’s highest honor.
Baker’s voice echoed through the streets of Paris’s famous Left Bank as recordings of his extraordinary career kicked off an elaborate ceremony at the domed monument of the Pantheon. Baker joined other French luminaries honored on the site, including the philosopher Voltaire, the scientist Marie Curie and the writer Victor Hugo.
Air Force military officers carried his cenotaph along a red carpet that spanned four cobblestone blocks from the Luxembourg Gardens to the Pantheon. Baker’s military medals sat atop the cenotaph, which was draped in the French tricolor and contained soil from his birthplace in Missouri, France, and his last home in Monaco. His body remained in Monaco at the request of his family.
French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to “a war hero, fighter, dancer, singer; a black woman who defends blacks but above all a woman who defends humanity. American and French. Joséphine Baker fought so many fights with lightness, freedom, joy.
“Josephine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because, (despite) American by birth, there is no greater French (woman) than you,” he said.
Baker was also the first citizen of American descent and the first artist to be immortalized in the Pantheon.
She 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 through the adoption of her 12 children from around the world. Nine of them attended Tuesday’s ceremony among 2,000 guests.
“Mum would have been very happy,” said Akio Bouillon, Baker’s son, after the ceremony. “Mum would not have accepted to enter the Pantheon if it were not for the symbol of all the forgotten in history, the minorities.”
Bouillon added that what moved him the most were the people who gathered along the street in front of the Pantheon to watch.
“They were his audience, people who really loved him,” he said.
The tribute ceremony began with Baker’s song “Me revoilà Paris” (“Paris, I’m back”). The French army choir sang the song of the French Resistance, eliciting loud applause from the audience. His signature song “J’ai deux amours” (“Deux amours”) was then performed by an orchestra accompanying the voice of Baker on the Place du Pantheon.
During a light show displayed on the monument, Baker could be heard saying “I think I am a person who has been adopted by France. It especially developed my humanistic values, and it is the most important thing in my life.
The tribute included the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King. Baker was the only woman to speak before him on the 1963 March on Washington.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker became a megastar in the 1930s, particularly to 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 a better life overall than the one they left in the United States, ”Ndiaye, who also heads the state-run French Immigration Museum, told The Associated Press.
Baker quickly became famous for his banana-skirted dance routines and wowed audiences in Parisian theaters. Her shows were controversial, Ndiaye stressed, as many 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.”
“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 Barbadian-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: buy the 1,000 acres here? “
In 1938 Baker joined what is now called LICRA, a leading anti-racist league. 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 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 policy and the struggle for civil rights, both in France and in the United States.
Towards the end of her life, she encountered financial problems, was evicted and lost her possessions. She received support from Princess Grace of Monaco, who provided Baker with accommodation for her and her children. Baker died in Paris in 1975 at the age of 68.