The voice of Josephine Baker, speaking and singing, will resonate Tuesday in front of the Pantheon monument in Paris where she is to symbolically be inducted — becoming the first Black woman to receive France’s highest honor.
French President Emmanuel Macron made the decision in August to honor the “exceptional figure” who “embodies the French spirit,” making Baker also the first American-born citizen and the first performer to be immortalized into the Pantheon. She will join scientist Marie Curie philosopher Voltaire, writer Victor Hugo, and other French luminaries.
The move aims to pay tribute to “a woman whose whole life is looking towards the quest of both freedom and justice,” Macron’s office said.
Baker is celebrated not just for her internationally acclaimed creative career, but also for her active engagement in the French Resistance during WWII, her work as a civil rights activist, and her humanitarian principles, which she demonstrated by adopting 12 children from all over the world.
Baker, who was born in St. Louis, Missouri, rose to fame in the 1930s, particularly in France, where she emigrated in 1925 to escape bigotry and segregation in the United States.
“The simple fact to have a Black woman entering the pantheon is historic,” Black French scholar Pap Ndiaye, an expert on U.S. minority rights movements, told The Associated Press.
“When she arrived, she was first surprised like so many African Americans who settled in Paris at the same time … at the absence of institutional racism. There was no segregation … no lynching. (There was) the possibility to sit at a cafe and be served by a white waiter, the possibility to talk to white people, to (have a) romance with white people,” Ndiaye said.
“It does not mean that racism did not exist in France, but French racism has often been more subtle, not as brutal as the American forms of racism,” he added.
Following the two World Wars, a number of important Black Americans, particularly artists and authors, sought asylum in France, including renowned writer and philosopher James Baldwin.
They were “conscious of the French empire and the brutalities of French colonization, to be sure,” but they were also “living a better life overall than the one they had left behind in the United States,” according to Ndiaye, who also runs France’s state-run immigration museum.
Baker’s banana-skirt dancing performances immediately became legendary, and she captivated audiences in Paris theatrical venues.
Her performances were divisive, according to Ndiaye, because many anti-colonial campaigners believed she was “performing the song that the French intended her to sing.”
Baker knew well about “the stereotypes that Black women had to face,” he said. “She also distanced herself from these stereotypes with her facial expressions … a way for her to laugh in some ways at the people watching her.”
“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 consciousness,” he said.
Baker married industrialist Jean Lion in 1937 and gained a French citizen.
In the same year, she moved to Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, a castle in southwestern France.
“Josephine Baker can be considered to be the first Black superstar. She’s like the Rihanna of the 1920s,” said Rosemary Phillips, a Barbados-born performer, and co-owner of Baker’s Park in southwestern France.
One of the females who grew up in the castle and met with Baker, according to Phillips: “Can you imagine a Black woman in the 1930s in a chauffeur-driven car — a white chauffeur — who turns up and says, ‘I’d like to buy the 1,000 acres here?’”
Baker joined LICRA, a famous anti-racist organization, in 1938 and was a longtime champion for her induction into the Pantheon.
The following year, she began working for France’s anti-Nazi counter-intelligence services, collecting material from German officials she met at parties.
During World War II, she joined the French Resistance and used her artistic performances as a cover for spying efforts.
Baker joined the Air Force of General Charles De Gaulle’s French Liberation Army in 1944 as a second lieutenant in a female group.
She became interested in anti-racist activism after the war.
She was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington before Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She was a civil rights activist.
She came into financial difficulties near the end of her life, was evicted, and lost her possessions.
Princess Grace of Monaco, a U.S.-born actress who offered Baker and her children a place to live, lent her support.
The Elysee said that the ceremony on Tuesday has been meticulously planned with her family and that several relatives will be present.
A coffin bearing soils from the U.S., France, and Monaco will be interred inside the Pantheon.
Her body will be kept in Monaco at her family’s wish.
Baker was remembered as a “great lady” in a ceremony Monday at the cemetery where she is buried by Albert II, the Prince of Monaco and Grace’s son.
Baker was French “not by birth, but by preference,” he declared, quoting French poet Louis Aragon.
Jamey Keaten and Arno Pedram of the Associated Press in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, France, and Bishr Eltouni of the Associated Press in Monaco contributed to this report.