American dancer, singer, actress and civil rights activist Josephine Baker will become the first black woman to enter the Pantheon mausoleum of esteemed historical figures in France on Tuesday, nearly half a century after her death.
Becker would be only the sixth woman to be honored at the secular temple of “great men” – and later great women – in the French Republic, which is located on a hill on the left bank of Paris.
She will also be the first artist to be immortalized alongside the likes of Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and Marie Curie.
“Dependency” culminates in the world’s first black star for years of campaigning by the Baker family and their fans to give her the rare posthumous honor.
President Emmanuel Macron agreed to the request in August to acknowledge the fact that Baker “has been his whole life devoted to the dual pursuit of freedom and justice,” his office said last week.
Baker is buried in Monaco, where her body will remain.
During Tuesday’s ceremony, a casket containing handfuls of dirt from four places she had lived – the US city of St. Louis where she was born; Paris, her “second love”; Château de Milland where she lived in southwestern France; and Monaco – in the tomb dedicated to her in the crypt of the Pantheon.
Members of the French Air Force will transport the coffin to the building in memory of her role in the French Resistance during World War II.
Escape from apartheid
Macron will give a speech and some of Baker’s relatives will read short texts written by the pioneering artist.
Baker’s name will also soon be added to the name of the Gaîté metro station next to the Bobino Theater in southern Paris, where she last appeared on stage a few days before her death in 1975.
Frieda Josephine MacDonald was born into extreme poverty in Missouri in 1906, and Baker left school at the age of 13.
After two failed marriages – she took the name Baker from her second husband – she managed to secure a place in one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway in 1921.
Like many black American artists of the time, she moved to France to escape racial segregation back home.
The woman nicknamed “The Black Rose” swept Paris with her exuberant dance performances, which captured the energy of the Jazz Age.
The first black star in the world to enter the French Pantheon
One of the defining moments of her career came when Charleston danced at the Foleys Berger cabaret dressed only in a string of pearls and a skirt made of stretchy banana, in a provocative display of colonial fantasies of black women.
France made me
The show marks the beginning of a long love affair between France and the icon of the free style, who was granted French citizenship in 1937.
At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the resistance against Nazi Germany, becoming a second lieutenant in the Auxiliary Women’s Corps of the French Air Force.
She also became a spy for General Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime leader in exile, obtained information on Italian leader Benito Mussolini and sent reports to London hidden in her music sheets in invisible ink.
She later said, “France made me who I am.” “The Parisians have given me everything… I am ready to give them my life.”
She also fought a battle against discrimination, adopting 12 children from different ethnic backgrounds to form the “Rainbow Tribe” at her mansion in the Dordogne region.
She died on April 12, 1975, at the age of 68, of a cerebral hemorrhage, days after a last cabaret show in Paris celebrating half a century on the stage.
She is the second woman Macron has entered into the Pantheon, after former minister Simone Veil, who survived the Holocaust to fight for abortion rights and European unity.
In a sign of the universal affection with which Becker is still held in France, there has been no public criticism of the decision to honor her, including from far-right commentators who are generally critical of anti-racist gestures.
(France 24 with AFP)