Missouri-born cabaret dancer, French World War II spy, and civil rights activist, Josephine Baker, will be honored with a distinction never before done in French history.
Last Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron called for Baker’s entry into the Pantheon, a “final resting place” featuring France’s most revered luminaries, making her the first Black woman honored there. A coffin carrying soils from the U.S., France, and Monaco — places where Baker made her mark — will be deposited inside the domed Pantheon monument overlooking the Left Bank of Paris.
Her body will stay in Monaco, at the request of her family.
Macron, responding to a petition, said that the move is meant to send a message against racism and celebrate U.S.-French connections. “She embodies, before anything, women’s freedom,” Laurent Kupferman, the author of the petition for the move, told the Associated Press.
Baker’s performing career took her from the small juke joints in St. Louis, Missouri, where she was born, to France following a job opportunity that made her an emancipated woman.
She became an immediate success on the Theatre des Champs-Elysees stage, where she appeared topless and wearing a famed banana belt. Her show, embodying the colonial time’s racist stereotypes about African women, caused both condemnation and celebration.
“She was that kind of fantasy: not the Black body of an American woman but of an African woman,” Theatre des Champs-Elysées spokesperson Ophélie Lachaux told the AP. “And that’s why they asked Josephine to dance something ‘tribal,’ ‘savage,’ ‘African-like.”
Baker would learn to speak five languages, tour internationally, become a French citizen and eventually enlisted with French counterintelligence services during World War II. Working as an informant, Baker traveled across enemy-marked lines, getting close to officials and sharing information hidden on her music sheets, according to French military archives.
Her “double life” became the stuff of legend, and after France’s defeat in June 1940, she refused to play in Nazi-occupied Paris and moved to southwestern France. She continued to work for the French Resistance, using her artistic performances as a cover for her spying activities.
“She risks the death penalty or, at least, the harsh repression of the Vichy regime or of the Nazi occupant [if caught],” researcher and historian Géraud Létang said.
Toward the end of her life, she ran into hard financial times, becoming evicted from her home and losing most of her possessions. Monaco’s Princess Grace offered support to Baker, offering her a place for her and her children to live.
In 1975, her career was on the verge of a major comeback, but four days after a triumphant opening, Baker fell into a coma and passed away from a brain hemorrhage.
She was buried in Monaco.
Despite Baker’s stature in French culture, critics of Macron questioned aloud why an American-born figure was chosen as the first Black woman in the Pantheon, instead of someone who rose up against racism and colonialism in France itself.
Within the Pantheon itself, 72 men and five women, which now includes Baker, are housed as part of the 18th-century landmark. Baker joins Gaullist resistor Felix Eboué and famed writer Alexandre Dumas in the famed mausoleum.
“These are people who have committed themselves, especially to others,” Pantheon administrator David Medec told the AP. “It’s not only excellence in a field of competence, it is really the question of commitment [and] commitment to others.”